T’shuvah and The Possibility of Healing for a Wife-Batterer - Jewish Teachings for the Domestic Abuser

SAFFI - Faith-based responses to male perpetrators of intimate partner abuse: what guidance do we get from Holy Scripture and ancient teachings?   

The Problem

A historical survey of Jewish writing shows a move from seeing women as the possessions of their husband to being an equal person with equivalent rights and protection.  This shift is long overdue and recently there has been a universal push in the broader Jewish community to protect women from domestic abuse and to condemn in the strongest terms the abuser.  But what about turning the attention to the abuser himself and considering his journey out of that abuse?  Can we see hope for him to become a whole and healed person and to participate in a loving relationship with a future partner?

Much of the more recent Jewish writings on domestic abuse focus on protecting the battered wife, more than rehabilitation of the batterer.  There were historically some rabbis who legislated against the abuser, and indeed some went to great lengths to punish him.  These punishments could be as extreme as excommunication or arm amputation, as recommended by Rabbi Meir of Rottenburg (1215-1293), who wrote that “A Jew must honour his wife more than he honours himself. If he strikes his wife, he should be punished more severely than for striking another person. For he is commanded to honour his wife but is not commanded to honour the other person. ... If he persists in striking her, he should be excommunicated, lashed, and suffer the severest punishments, even to the extent of amputating his arm. If his wife is willing to accept a divorce, he must divorce her and pay her the ketubah (divorce settlement) (Even ha-Ezer#297).

While this shows a welcome recognition of the severity of wife abuse, this focuses on punishment and not rehabilitation, and I think that there are better models of response in most cases.  One better model to use would be that of t’shuvah, repentance.

What is T’shuvah?

T’shuvah can be translated as repentance, return or answer.  I want to look at all three of these translations as ways to rehabilitate the wife-beater.  

T’shuvah as Repentance is the recognition that what we have done is wrong and we want to make repair.  I will describe the Jewish teaching of that process below.  The journey of rehabilitation begins with admission of wrongdoing, and a conscious path of active restitution.

T’shuvah as Return is a recognition that we have moved away from whom we would like to be, that we have left the path that is our true path, and that we desire to return.  Someone who has used violence against the person closest to them has done violence against themselves too.  Returning is a constant process of identifying the true self, our true path, and returning to it.  Being who we would like ourselves to be.

T’shuvah as Answer is recognising that every action has a reaction and our actions need response.  That when we go astray from who we should be, that inserts a question mark into our lives.  If unanswered this question mark will remain.

Let us look now at the functional process of t’shuvah for the wife-batterer.

T’shuvah in Four Steps

T’shuvah is not as much a goal as a process.  Over time, different rabbis have described this process in different ways, but we can look at a classical model described by the great legal expert Maimonides (1135-1204, Spain and Middle East).  He saw t’shuvah as happening in four stages (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah Ch 1-2).

  1.  Stop the Abuse

T’shuvah begins with abandonment of the wrong practice.  The first step to begin the process of repentance is to stop.  One cannot imagine working on or fixing oneself while continuing to abuse your wife.  This would be like trying to chance a puncture while driving the car.

A first-time abuser might be blessed with the immediate recognition of the wrongful action, seek help and support to understand why they did it and ensure that it never happens again.  But they, and most certainly a serial abuser, may find this process more complicated.  Studies of addiction and abuse show that stopping is not a once-off process.  The description of someone who has not had a drink for 45 years as a “recovering alcoholic” shows that stopping is not a finite act, but rather a lifelong commitment. 

Fortunately, our society has many facilities to help and support an abuser who wants to stop, and these should be used. 

  1. Shame and regret

Of course, one must recognise that the abuse was indeed wrong, and self-admission is not a simple thing at all.  Many abusers feel that they are doing the “right thing” in disciplining a “bad wife” and punishing her for her terrible behaviour.  Someone who wants to stop abusing firstly needs to recognise and admit that what they have done is wrong, and feel the shame and regret that comes with that.  This is accepting that our worldview was wrong, that what we thought was justice or deserved or required was in fact abuse.  This can be a humiliating experience and needs the help and support of the abuser’s community and a trained professional.

  1. Verbal confession to G-d and victim

We are not alone, nor are we only responsible to ourselves.  We are partners with our Creator in this world and our actions have huge impact beyond ourselves.  When we aim to fix such a great wrong as spousal abuse, we need to call on the greatest resource available to us.  Verbal confession involves an emphatic declaration to G-d of what we have done wrong and asking for G-d’s help in changing ourselves.  If we think that we can “do this on our own” we will often find that when things are great, we win, when things get tough, we return to our old behaviour.  It is no coincidence that most 12-step programmes for abusers or addicts have as the first or second step a recognition that there is a Higher Power than ourselves that can help restore us to wellness.

We must also admit what we have done to our partner.  Though you might assume that she is well aware of what you have done, the confession has as much power for her as for you.  Some victims will not want to be in the presence of their abuser, and in this case this can be done in writing.

  1. Committing to not repeat the wrong practice.

Stopping means stopping.  If one sees this stopping as temporal or conditional or a cease-fire while each party recovers, this will not have a long-lasting impact or achieve true t’shuvah.  The abuser needs to commit to NEVER repeat the abuse.  The punishment model tries to achieve this through fear or even physical restraint (like the amputation of an arm) while the t’shuvah model seeks the abuser to commit themselves to being the person who would NEVER do that again.  It is no less than transformation, renewal and even rebirth. 

The Desired Result

Maimonides did reveal that even if one manages to follow fully these four stages, one will only achieve basic, not complete t’shuvah (see Hilchot T’shuvah 2:1).  To complete the process one needs to be in the same circumstances that you were when you first committed the wrong action, that you have the same ability and opportunity to do what you did before, but that you do not do it.  For the wife abuser who has undergone t’shuvah, that would only come if their spouse was willing to support them and remain in the marriage while the therapy works through, or if they remarry and find themselves in similar circumstances.  Contemporary rabbis neither forbid nor require wives to leave their abusive husbands.  They would certainly advise wives who are experiencing abuse to seek shelter and to not return if there is any fear of their suffering continued harm.  They would also counsel on a case-by-case basis that if both parties are willing and the abuser is prepared to take the necessary steps of t’shuvah with the support of a professional, that there is hope that a marriage can be saved.  If there is no commitment from the abuser to affect t’shuvah, the wife would not be advised to return. 

Tikkun – Repair

There is a related process to t’shuvah that deserves attention here.  Tikkun is the act of repair, trying to fix what we have broken, in whatever way we can.    In the case of abuse, the process of t’shuvah is largely internal and will certainly leave the abuser a changed man.  However, they have caused real harm, emotional, physical and often financial damage and as a rabbi I would counsel the abuser to find tangible ways to fix that damage – all of it.  While some is admittedly irreparable there are always many things that can be fixed. 

Forgiving the Abuser

Assuming that an abusive husband does go through the above process of t’shuvah and earnestly asks for forgiveness, must the victim forgive them?  If the t’shuvah is genuine and complete most rabbinic sources do encourage the victim to forgive.  This certainly does not include the requirement to remain in the marriage, nor to accept that the abuser is now “cured”, but it does require an acknowledgement that they have changed and seek to repair themselves.  If that process was thorough, the abuser is now in recovery and recognisably changed, and should be given the chance to rebuild their lives either with or without the victim, and if the victim feels they can, they would be encouraged to forgive.  This might also help the victim themselves to move forward.

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