by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
Below is the spoken version of the article.
The story of Chanukah underwent a fascinating change in the course of time. Originally it celebrated a military victory of the Jews over the Greeks. But that military victory was short-lived. Two centuries later, Israel was conquered by Rome. Chanukah might have ceased to be.
But it survived, and its symbolism was transformed. The sages said about Chanukah, Ner ish uveito, the light was to be kindled by each man and his household. The sages also said, beto zu ishto, “the word beito means ‘his wife’”. Chanukah became not a military festival but a domestic one. Its light became the light of the Jewish home, of husband and wife and family and of that highest of Jewish values, shalom bayit, “peace in the home.”
With deep historical insight the sages realised that the real battle between the Jews and the Greeks was not physical but spiritual. The Greeks valued power; Jews valued peace. That is why domestic violence, when it takes place within the Jewish community, is so shocking. It’s why we have to take a stand against it, and why we have to provide help for those who suffer from it.
In the Ketubah, the marriage contract, a husband undertakes to “work for and cherish” his wife. The sages said that “A man should love his wife as himself, and honour her more than himself.” He should not be angry or vituperative or create a mood of fear within the home (Rambam, Ishut 15: 19). According to a midrash, when Jacob momentarily displayed anger toward Rachel, G-d said “Is that the way to answer a woman in distress”? (Bereishith Rabbah 71: 7).
Yet domestic violence still exists. 25 November is an International Day Against Violence Against Women, and it is appropriate that we think about it within the Jewish community as well. Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional and psychological, and we in the Jewish community are not immune to it.
We would like to think otherwise, knowing how much Judaism sanctifies the home and idealises the relationship between husband and wife. But we cannot wish a problem away. It exists. That is why I – and our rabbinate – support the work of Jewish Women’s Aid and other agencies working in the field.
Jewish Women's Aid provides refuge and resettlement for wives and children who face domestic violence. It runs a confidential helpline staffed by trained volunteers. It offers therapeutic counselling. And it runs programmes in Jewish schools, educating teenagers about healthy relationships and the dangers when they break down.
The home is protected space. That is its beauty. But it brings with it the risk that behaviour that would not be countenanced anywhere else can happen there precisely because of its privacy. Insult, intimidation, the use of force, emotional blackmail and physical violence can happen behind closed doors without anyone else knowing. When it comes to abuse, the home provides the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.
That is why Judaism places such emphasis on shalom bayit, peace in the home, because it’s in the home that we are tested, there that we learn the love that is respect, consideration, gentleness, the capacity to listen as well as speak, sensitivity, graciousness and the willingness to make sacrifices for one another. It’s there that we learn chessed, the love that is also kindness; and it’s this that brings the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, into the home.
As a community we may not turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the problem of domestic violence. We must oppose those who practise it and offer practical help to those who suffer from it. Chanukah is a festival of hope; and we must bring hope to those who need it. We may not leave the afflicted to suffer alone.