When I was growing up, my mother often referred to the Jewish concept of shalom bayit--peace in the house--even though our home, inhabited by four noisy children and a short-tempered, stubborn father, was anything but peaceful. She rarely, if ever, used the actual words, but the ideas behind it were clearly an integral part of her Jewish upbringing.
On its face, shalom bayit is a lovely concept of domestic harmony between husband and wife with roots in the Talmud and classical rabbinical literature. As a kid, I tried hard to believe in it, but even then I couldn't help but observe its lopsided application. In practice it requires women to maintain the peace by bending to the will of the males around them. Although my mother was a feminist for her time, she still subconsciously bought into the notion that shalom bayit was the duty of women and girls. She regularly expressed this to me in comments such as "let your father have his way even when he is wrong," "don't fight with your brother even if he is acting like a jerk" and the infamous "if you apologize first, maybe he will too." And just as it was my daughterly and sisterly duty to dance around the behavior of the men and boys in childhood, shalom bayit would also be my wifely duty someday. "Never go to bed angry at your husband," my mother said, which I understood to mean that it would be my responsibility to make up with my husband by giving in to his wishes. In general I learned that it was my role to accommodate males without making a fuss, and that if I didn't, the resulting catastrophe would be my fault.
She meant well, but as I grew older, I came to understand that shalom bayit perpetuates patriarchy through female submission. It can also be a cover for bullying and domestic violence and a powerful tool for keeping the victim silent: The fear of retribution, burning bridges and breaking up the family is more important than speaking the truth and protecting the victim.
This column is not only about the abuse of shalom bayit in the home, which domestic violence organizations and Jewish feminists have done great work identifying and combatting. It is also about the shroud of shalom bayit that hangs over the Jewish communal world and is less examined. Just as it perpetuates the dominance of males in the home, shalom bayit maintains their control in the professional world. It feeds the culture of complicit silence that leads to power abuses of all kinds.
This comes into play in the...