Written by Adrienne Query-Fiss
Shalom Bayit, a “peaceful home,” is one of the key philosophies of an observant Jewish household. For a married couple, it’s a dance of give-and-take, an ideal relationship not just to one’s spouse, but to the acts themselves of compromise and reconciliation. True shalom bayit is about reconciling two selves, two individuals, two halves of something greater than the whole.
A Jewish marriage is largely influenced by ritualized religious acts—the observance of certain mitzvoth can be a matter of performance (Ever hear someone make a really beautiful Kiddush over a cup of wine? How often do Shabbat guests crowd around a delicious, beautifully presented meal?) These rituals, even on the most intimate levels, are often gendered. In most Orthodox communities men make Kiddush, women braid and bake challah. Men lead the communal prayer service, women raise and educate the children.*
This isn’t to say that we haven’t come a long way in terms of challenging traditional stereotypes and increasing a woman’s role in the observance of mitzvoth. However, there is little evidence in observant Jewish life that these roles have shifted, and the interest in maintaining them relies much on a peaceful home. Marriage is a de-centering experience; in my experience, getting married called my identity into question; the world needed to be navigated now, not as a single entity, but as a partnered one. Creating a Jewish home meant negotiating a space occupied not just by another human being (e.g. a roommate), but by someone whose selfhood was much a part of my own. Clearly defined, gendered obligations gave me, and us, not just a sense of responsibility to our own marriage, but to the Jewish values we sought to build our home around. Our definition of shalom bayit ensures these values are not compromised by minor issues and annoyances.
My husband and I do recognize that, for some, shalom bayit is dangerous. Many women (and some men) in Jewish communities worldwide live in marriages in which they are physically and psychologically abused, yet feel they need to stay in these situations because leaving means abandoning their responsibility to shalom bayit. Some chose to stay on their own, others are advised to do so by rabbe’im and community members. Some fear not their abusers, but the loss of social standing or fear that a stigma is placed not just on victimhood, but on having “failed” (their language, not mine) in a marriage.
It’s imperative that, if we are to stop domestic violence, we need to create safe spaces for victims to escape their abusers and speak out about their experiences; it’s an essential part of the healing process for victims, their families, and their communities. Most Jewish social service agencies have a domestic abuse intervention and prevention subdivision (thank G-d) and we should not be afraid to have their literature posted in synagogues, community centers, schools, and offices, for it’s not the organizations we should fear, but the abusers who make them necessary. Having visible literature in public spaces sends two messages: they tell victims that they can be safe and abusers that their violent acts will not be tolerated.
So, in the coming holiday week, my husband, our guests, and I will sit in our sukkah—one designed to be a safe space for the people we love and value. We will make one special blessing for those who do not have a safe space to share good food and good company, another for those who make it safe to speak out about having been the victim of violence, and a third for those who make it a priority to stop abuse.
G’mar Chatima Tova v’Sukkot Sameach!
*I know many Orthodox families who have challenged these stereotypes; same-sex couples, interracial couples, families with adopted children, stay-at-home fathers, even hetero-normative families who adopt different roles in their ritual lives. I cherish their friendship and their membership in my community. However, they are still in the minority among Orthodox families.
Adrienne Query-Fiss is a poet, freelance writer, and teacher. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, and her poetry chapbook, “After Eden,” was published by Zabadou Books in 2006. She was a Poet-in-Residence at The Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and has guest lectured at The 92nd Street Y, Florida Gulf Coast University, Kehillat Hadar, and The City University of New York. She and her husband currently live in Seattle, Washington. Her blog can be found here.