On Chanukah, Domestic Violence, and Combat in the Streets

By Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum

When we finally crawl out from under COVID-19, what will happen with its shadow, the pandemic of domestic abuse? Will its levels also drop or will a lingering recession exacerbate the current surge in intimate partner violence? While this question will surely loom over planners of post-pandemic policies and budgets as well as social scientists studying large-scale trends, Jewish leaders even now can educate themselves about how best to respond to increased levels of domestic violence (DV) in their midst. 

This education can begin by participating in Jewish Women International’s Jewish Domestic Violence Needs Assessment. Jewish clergy can sign up for JWI’s Clergy Task Force training sessions and resolve to include its new misheberachrewritten specifically for this time, in their religious services and newsletters and on social media. They can download the recently updated Clergy Guide on Domestic Abuse with its wealth of information on how best to support victims and create better-informed communities. 

But there is another question for all to consider, perhaps best suited to this particular season: is there a relationship between an increase in DV and a rise in violent social conflict? Two Chanukahs ago – in B.C. time – American Jews were grappling with how best to secure, and if necessary, physically defend our communities in the aftermath of the Tree of Life murders. As we prepare to celebrate another Chanukah with its own share of anxiety, we are reminded that Jews have long wrestled with how to balance the desire for peace with the seeming inevitability of the use of defensive force.

Chanukah customs, even in dark times, have upheld an ancient love of peace despite our tradition’s pragmatic outlook that armed conflict is, at times, a necessity and fighting in it, an obligation. “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it,” says Moses [D’varim 20:10]. But while peace is always preferable, there is an acknowledgement that resorting to force sometimes prevents greater harm from occurring or evil from triumphing. Rabbi Michael Broyde teaches: “Judaism accepted that it is best not to use violence, and [that] violence was the last resort, but when no other action would suffice, violence was morally acceptable and typically mandatory.”

Beyond this uneasy compromise with the use of force in specific circumstances, we must remember another idea embedded in our texts. Jewish tradition cautions us to be wary of how force, once unleashed, can take on a life of its own. As our ancient rabbis taught about the night of the 10th plague in Egypt, once The Destroyer is let loose, it does not discriminate between good and evil, between those who are guilty and those who are innocent. Expressed in the language of our time: when violence gains a foothold in society, there is always a risk that it will spread – even to the point of being normalized.

Our dedication as Jews to the value of strong and safe families means we must be alert not only to this possibility but to a correspondence between normalization of national conflict or civil violence and increasing rates of domestic violence. A growing body of research, following implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 by many countries including the US – which passed its own version, the 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Act – points toward such a connection between violent social or national conflict and its expression in domestic life. 

Findings from high-conflict zones worldwide, including a 2016 working paper by I.A. Gutierrez and J.V. Gallegos published by the Rand Corporation, take this idea one step further. These authors, for instance, found that women who were most exposed to conflict and to the broad use of force to solve problems in Peruvian society were more likely to justify violence by men against women and were more likely to stay in violent relationships.

Not surprisingly, the normalization of violence at the national or civil society level and its effects at the family level don’t come up (yet, at least) when we tell the Chanukah story, which continued with a century of internecine fighting during the Hasmonean rule of Judea. We generally keep it simple, especially when we sing about the evil Antiochus and the Maccabees’ revolt: some of our ancestors resorted to force, fought fiercely, and won. Significantly, our tradition acknowledges the violent choices that they made but embraces light, rather than the sword, as the quintessential symbol of Chanukah. As Jews, we must not surrender our notion of a redeemed world in which there is no place for violence – national, civil, or domestic – even while we go about the arduous business of living in this one.

Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum chairs the Response – a Committee of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic and Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community. She serves as seasonal rabbi of Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation in New Hampshire, currently from her home in Israel.