“Far Be it from a Jew to do such a thing.” — Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, 13th century.
Jewish law (halacha) provides for a contractual relationship between husband and wife, wherein each partner owes and receives certain benefits. This system was relatively progressive in its provisions for and protections of women.
The traditional marriage contract (ketuba) lists basic obligations, and is sometimes supplemented with additional terms or conditions. (Ketubot found in the Cairo Geniza stipulated as one such condition that the husband was to refrain from hitting or cursing his wife.) The marriage contract dictated the terms of a divorce settlement should the marriage be dissolved. If a marriage ended because of an offense committed by the husband, the woman was granted the full settlement of her “ketuba money.” On the other hand, the woman forfeited her ketuba money if she was at fault or if she wished a divorce without what the rabbis considered to be justifiable cause.
The contractual nature of the arrangement between husband and wife pertains in the area of battery, no less than in other aspects of marriage. Men were obligated to honor their wives and, with rare exception, to refrain from hitting them. Strong social pressure reinforced the contractual/legal sanctions against physical abuse. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), “It is not the way of Jews to hit their wives, but rather an act of heathens.”
The man who beat his wife repeatedly or without provocation was universally condemned by the rabbis. If he continued to beat her after having been warned to desist, he faced, depending on the particular authority he encountered, flogging, excommunication, fines, and/or (at least theoretically) the amputation of an arm. Ideally the rabbis preferred to intervene as little as possible and to end the marital violence without ending the marriage. Where this was not possible, the rabbinic court would force the abusive husband to give his wife a divorce and return to her the full ketuba settlement.
Some authorities completely disallowed the use of force within marriage, even against a recalcitrant or verbally abusive wife. While no one encouraged the use of force, most rabbis agreed that a husband could beat his wife “with cause.” Departure from her expected behavior freed him from his obligation of restraint.
Rabbinic opinion was divided as to what nature of “departure” on the wife’s part justified physical punishment. One popular view was that a husband could strike his wife if she transgressed Jewish law. Some scholars ruled that a husband could hit his wife in order to prevent her from committing a transgression. This obviously gave husbands a great deal of latitude, since the use of force as a deterrent can be ongoing.
Maimonides allowed a man to beat his wife even when there was no threat of a serious transgression: when a woman refused to perform household chores. Other authorities also held that a married woman who refuses to engage in domestic work is guilty of breaking her end of the marital bargain. However, Maimonides’ acceptance of corporal punishment as a valid response in this instance is a radical departure from the rabbinic consensus.
As a practical matter, rabbis have downplayed and even ignored allowances for spousal battery. They have relied on the general halachic prohibition against assault and stressed the values of shlom bayit (maintaining a peaceful household) and honoring one’s wife. The contemporary American Jewish community has chosen not to treat wife-beating as a halachic problem. The limited solutions that have been offered have been programmatic and communally based, rather than legal, with their source in the rabbinate.
Debra Orenstein is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.