Jewish Thoughts for the NFL on Dealing With Players Who Beat Their Wives

The NFL's new policy on domestic violence - shaped in the wake of the Ray Rice affair - marks a fair improvement, but is still mistaken, because beyond harsh punishments the response to domestic violence must include advocating for victims to speak out.

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As a father and a husband, I can’t stop watching in shock at the video. It’s as if I’m travelling on the highway, there’s an accident, and I am slowing down to stare at the wreckage.

The video is of National Football League player Ray Rice carrying his beaten fiancé out of an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City. The incident took place in February, in March the courts indicted him, and one day later the two got married.

After failing to address the issue earlier, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded to pressure in July by penalizing Rice with a meagre two-game suspension. As commissioner in a league that has in the past awarded year-long suspensions for failing a drug test, Goodell soon fell under harsh criticism by NFL fans, many of them rightfully angered at his leniency. It was this sharp backlash and criticism that prompted Goodell to finally change his tone a few days ago. He admitted that in Rice’s case he “didn’t get it right,” but announced a new policy: a six-game suspension for first-time violators, and a lifetime ban for second-time violators.

Goodell was right: he didn’t get it right. But as Jews, we ought to note that he's not only failing to handle this situation well because his punishment was too lenient; he's failing also because beyond harsh punishments, the response to domestic violence must include advocating for victims to speak out.

Domestic violence remains grossly underreported. Perhaps this is because, unlike other kinds of abuse, couples find it hard to talk to outsiders about their problems. Perhaps it is because 85 percent of domestic violence victims in the United States are women. They might refrain from coming forward because their partner is the family breadwinner and they are afraid of what might happen to the family if the violence is reported. Other reasons for not reporting domestic violence could include a sense of self-blame, or a fear of “airing dirty laundry in public.”

For years, there has been the perception in the Jewish community that because we focus so much of our energy on building strong Jewish homes and in teaching family values, there is little domestic violence. Unfortunately, the fact that domestic violence is mentioned in Jewish tradition going all the way back to Talmudic times proves that our communities have never been immune to it. Naomi Graetz points out that Talmud (Pesachim 49b) that equates the act of wife beating with being an “am-haaretz,” an ignoramus who has no shame. Often following an attack it is sadly the victim who feels a sense of shame or self-blame. However, in this source, Judaism affirms for us that the opposite is true: the one who beats his wife is the sole one deserving of shame.

There are a variety of Jewish texts addressing domestic violence throughout Jewish history, with some of them even sadly condoning it under certain circumstances. However, the text that Graetz presents that is the most telling for me comes from the well-regarded Maharam of Rothenburg and Rabbi Simha ben Samuel of Speyer, who wrote on the subject of wife battering as grounds for divorce. Like Eve, they wrote, "who is the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20), a wife is given to man for living, not for suffering. It is therefore the responsibility of the community, teaches this source, not to turn its eye away from domestic violence and to compel the divorce.

Fortunately, in the American Jewish community we do have vital organizations doing this sacred work. The Rachel Coalition and Jewish Family Services are just two of many important organizations educating the Jewish public about the dangers of domestic violence and providing means for victims to get help.

My mind drifts back to the Ray Rice video, and I think now about the thousands of videos that were never taken and the cases that remain unreported.

While the real test for Roger Goodell’s new policy will be in how the NFL deals with Ray McDonald, who was arrested on Sunday on domestic violence charges, the real test for our own community is in how we continue to pursue justice for abuse victims. As Jews, may we never forget that pursuing justice – as the Torah teaches us to do (Deuteronomy 16:20) - means advocating for those in our society who need it most, whether they are caught on video tape or not.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.