Monday, September 12, 2011

Taharas HaMishpacha - A Profile in Courage

How beautiful are thy tents Jacob! If there were ever an instance where a lemon can be turned into lemonade this is it.

Yesterday I had posted a guest essay about an abusive marriage that ended in divorce. It was forwarded to me by a trusted friend. Because she mentioned observance of family purity laws - Taharas HaMishpacha - we both assumed it was written by an Orthodox woman. I used it as a springboard to discuss abuse and divorce in the Orthodox community.

Unbeknownst to either my friend or me, the woman who wrote that letter was a Conservative Jew. After a misguided attempt to justify leaving the post up I was persuaded to take it down because - in fact - there is no justification to use what happens outside of Orthodoxy to illustrate a problem within it – even though I fully agree that these problems exist therein.

So I took down the post with an explanation and apology.

What happened next is truly amazing. The woman who authored the post was gracious enough to tell her story in the comments section of my apology. What that shows is how an Ehrilche Jew - one who is sincerely dedicated to serving God to the best of her abilities - operates. And how caring Orthodox Jews helped her realize she was in an abusive relationship and helped her get out of it.

Her story is as follows. Having virtually no knowledge of Hilchos Niddah upon which Taharas Mishpacha is based - when informed prior to marriage she immediately accepted it upon herself. As did her then fiancé who later became her husband. She had always leaned Orthodox but her husband basically forbade it. Nonetheless she did the best she could.

Ultimately her husband could not live by those laws and demanded to violate them eventually becoming abusive –first psychologically and then physically. Instead of giving in to his demands she went to both her Conservative rabbi and an Orthodox Rebbitzin for advice.

Here is the heart of her story unedited - in her own words:

One of the nights my ex woke me to tell me how hard it was for him to sleep because he was so horny was the night I emailed my rabbi and asked to sit and talk about the subject of when I should choose observance and when I should choose Shalom Bayit. I still thought that if I could please my husband by changing my observance in some way, that I could save my marriage.

A month or two later, my husband threatened to cancel our upcoming vacation during which my parents would be baby-sitting and we could get away by ourselves for four days. It seems that I had mis-timed things, was in the wrong end of the cycle, and he couldn't imagine going on vacation without having sex. So I had to choose. By that time, I had become friendly with an Orthodox family three states removed from where we attended college.

One Shabbat evening while the kids were playing, my husband was out of town, and we were waiting for her husband and two of his friends to return from shul, I told her what was happening, my worries for my marriage, my worries about safety, and my feeling that if I needed to abandon Taharat ha Mishpachah in order to maintain Shalom Bayit, that something was vastly wrong with me or with the system.

After dinner, we left the kids with her husband and the other male dinner guests, and she and I walked half a mile to the Orthodox rebbetzin's house. She asked me to tell the rebbetzin what was going on. Everyone involved by this point knew I was not Orthodox but this was never the issue.

The Rebbetzin told me I should continue my plans to go on the trip, mikvah or not, but simply say no each evening.

I can't even imagine the look she saw on my face, but such a thing was not possible in my life. I was not ALLOWED to say no, and certainly not to say no two nights in a row. (By my ex's reasoning, the fact that I said no half the month meant that I could not keep him away during the other half.) As I revealed this, it became clear to the rebbetzin and to myself that THIS was the bigger problem in the marriage.

It had never occurred to me that I really was allowed to say no to my husband two nights in a row. It had not occurred to me that my ongoing fears about saying no - were in fact a sign that this was an abusive marriage.

That night was the beginning of the journey toward leaving my marriage and finding safety. My friend did not care whether I identify as Orthodox or which shul I attended. I was a fellow Jew and she was concerned enough about our conversation to bring me to her rebbetzin at 10pm on Shabbat to start getting perspective, if not practical help.

The rebbetzin did not care that I went to a Conservative shul, that we had never met and that our children attended different schools. I was a Jewish woman needing help on a Jewish problem, and she was there for me, unconditionally. This was not the last of our talks. Both women knew I was in more danger than I perceived. Both offered their homes as a place for us to stay if we needed to get out. Both offered to do anything they could to keep me and my small family safe.

By the end of that "vacation" I knew intimately the difference between compromise and control, the difference between pressure and rape, and the difference between perceived safety and obvious danger. And I started the long process toward either getting him to change (impossible since he thought he had nothing to change) or leaving.

I would add that since family purity laws are very private it is impossible for any of us to know what goes on in the bedroom of our neighbors. How many Orthodox Jews - even those of us who are born into it - violate those laws? I’ll bet there are more than a few who ‘cheat’on Hilchos Niddah. But not this woman. She never cheated. She only wanted to save her marriage and ultimately sacrificed it in pursuit of her Jewish ideals – the ideals of observant Judaism.

What a story of sacrifice and commitment. A real profile in courage. I don’t know if her marriage could have survived had she given in to him and abandoned family purity laws. Abusive husbands will find a way to be abusive one way than another. The point is that she did not abandon her Judaism.

Mi K’Amcha Yisroel! It doesn’t matter that she was not Orthodox. In this month of Ellul - her story of commitment is one that should inspire us all! It has certainly inspired me.