Thursday, December 1, 2011

A spiritual perspective on domestic violence

While I was coordinating the Speak Out campaign, I approached (and was approached by) a number of individuals who I thought had something relevant to contribute to the discussion of domestic violence.

One such person is a rabbi in my community.One day I heard him talking about the story of Jacob and thought it was a powerful metaphor for any kind of struggle one faces, including DV.

He referred to it as a Jewish 'wounded healer' story. To me, it also parallels so many of the 'dark night of the soul' stories I've read over the years.

I'm not Jewish and, in fact, don't belong to any religious tradition, but I am deeply moved by many of the stories found in various scripture, as I feel their symbolism is powerful and universal.

I studied the great mythologist Joseph Campbell at university, who described the 'hero's journey', a story which appears in some form in almost every religious or tribal tradition. A man or woman leaves their community and sets off alone, into the dark forest (or across a barren desert or ocean deep). Tremendous challenge is encountered and eventually overcome, and only then does he or she emerge a 'hero'.

I would venture to guess that all of us, and most certainly those of us who have experienced violence or abuse, have felt alone and severely tested at some point in our lives. But from these challenges we emerge stronger, wiser and more centered in our own truth.

I'm sharing this guest post today because I believe these words speak to all of us, regardless of our backgrounds. Thank you, Rabbi Rudnick, for sharing with us your grace and wisdom.

* * *

Domestic Violence:
The Un-doing of Shalom

Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick
Jewish Family Services

People often ask what the Jewish belief is regarding hell. Although there is not a theology of hell in Judaism as there is in many Christian denominations, there is a word for hell in Hebrew. The word is gehenom – which means The Valley of Hinom, a valley in Jerusalem where human (children to be exact) sacrifices were offered to the Caananite god Molokh.   Now that is hell!

When people make sacrifices for each other, it is beautiful, even holy – a sanctification.  When human beings sacrifice each other, however, it is ugly, whole-ly unholy – a desecration.

We all know people who are going through hell, and most of the time we don’t even know it.  Domestic violence is one such hell.  Even though I have had the privilege of hearing personal stories, sacred stories, of domestic violence, I cannot imagine living this hell.  For those living this, it must be so hard to imagine anything but living hell.

As a Jew, I have long heard about and felt the centrality of Israel in very particular ways – The Children of Israel, The People Israel, The Land of Israel.  As a chaplain I have come to a deep universal understanding of “Israel” as a central human experience.  I return to the roots of this word “Israel” in The Torah (The Bible) in the story of Jacob wrestling with _________ (you fill in the blank:  the other person, the angel, himself, G-d, …).  

Through the course of what must have been a very long and painful night (preceding an anxiety-laden reunion with brother Esau after 20 years of seething hostility with Esau wanting to kill his brother for “stealing” his birthright), Jacob wrestles/struggles with his interlocutor.   Finally at dawn the fellow struggler seeks to end this physical entanglement and break free.  

Jacob’s response was to condition his letting go of the other on the other giving Jacob a blessing.  The other struggler agreed and blessed Jacob with the new name “Israel”, explained by the text of the Torah:  because you have struggled/wrestled with G-d and with other people (beings Divine and human) and you have been enabled – ENABLED.

And yet Jacob, even with the blessing, limps away from the interaction, injured for life.   I see this as a Jewish “wounded healer” story.

The words of Scripture (from Book of Deuteronomy), “Shema Yisrael”, (Hear O’ Israel) have become central in Jewish prayer and known to many people of different faith traditions. 

From a pastoral and spiritual perspective, I interpret the Biblical context here.  After Moses recounts the giving of the Ten Commandments and implores Israel to obey G-d’s laws and commandments, the first thing he tells the Israelites is to listen to struggle:  Shema Yisrael.  The very next thing he tells them is to love:  v’ahavta.  

In both cases, Moshe speaks to Israel in the singular, in a powerful way addressing each and every one of us, then and for all times.  Only then does Moses continue to talk about their imminent entrance into the Land.  This then may be seen by us as a spiritual prescription for entering our personal promised lands – listening to struggle leads to loving (ourselves and others without illusions of “should have been” and with honest acceptance of “what is” as well as hope for what can yet be) and only then can you be led into your promised land.

We all deserve that shalom (peace and wholeness), especially survivors of domestic violence.


  1. Powerful, Kristin!

    I usually think about the saying by Neale Donald Walsch of Conversations with God" "I have given you nothing but angels!" - the idea that there are no "devils" in our stories, even in domestic violence, and that each one of us are there for a reason!

  2. Such a wonderful post. So much to think about. I love your words about becoming stronger and more centred in your own truth. Amen!!

  3. Much food for thought. Such a powerful story.

  4. Incredibly important and deeply meaningful post. Thank you to the rabbi for sharing it. Actually, thank you for asking the rabbi the question in the first place!

  5. Thank you for posting a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. This is such a difficult topic, but you elevate it from just struggle to a sacred wrestling.

  6. I like that post by the rabbi. This should be taught in seminars before couples get married. It is just sad that some people still suffer from these domestic violence.

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