Seeking control over others is at root of domestic violence, rabbi says

Discarding the dangerous illusion of control over others is the key to happier, healthier relationships, a rabbi, author and expert in the field of chemical dependency told a Washington University audience last Thursday night.

“The underlying factor in any kind of an abusive relationship is that someone wants to be in dominant control,” said Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. “That’s what abuse is.”


Twerski founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pennsylvania, which has been cited by Forbes magazine as one of the 12 best drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the nation. His lecture at the university was the capstone to a series of talks he gave over the course of the day at the Jewish Federation Building. The two earlier sessions were geared toward rabbis and professionals such as social workers, nurses and counselors. The topic for the evening event was entitled “From Self Control to Out of Control: The Spectrum of Control in Relationships.”

“The idea is to help provide education about domestic violence within the Jewish community,” said Carly Cooper, president of the Jewish Council Against Family Violence (JCAFV), which co-sponsored the event with Jewish Women International. “It is all across society and not special to the Jewish community but it is a little less talked about. We wanted to get the word out about what is happening in the community and what is available.”

After quoting King Solomon’s words about futility from Ecclesiastes, Twerski said that control is an illusion and an exercise in uselessness.

“If you want any kind of love in a relationship, remember that control breeds resentment, not love,” said Twerski, who has authored 40 books on subjects from drug abuse to domestic violence. “It is very difficult to love someone who is trying to control you.”

The rabbi noted that the concept of control extends beyond problems between husband and wife. Sometimes such issues extend to friends or family. Twerski even warned against the pitfalls of too much parental authority over children. While youngsters may require a firm hand, he said coercion by force only lasts so long.

“There is an internal resistance to being controlled and that is manifest at a very early age,” he said. “Once the child has reached the age of reason, the way a parent should get what he or she wants is for the child to so respect the parent that they want to do the parent’s will.”

Twerski said that abusive spouses will exert control in a variety of ways. These may include economic coercion, demeaning or intimidating behavior within the household, or limits on visits to family or trips out with friends.

Twerski said the key to eliminating such damaging tendencies in one’s own personality was striving to achieve love of others, rather than remaining trapped in an empty search for one’s own gratification. He warned that a marital union based on the latter often meets an unhappy end.

“If it is fixated and paralyzed by self-love that marriage is not likely to go anywhere,” he said. “Self-love can lead to control and abuse.”

Twerski encouraged his audience to exhibit what he termed the only good kind of control: self-control. In doing so, one can display the characteristics of a mensch, such as forgiveness, self-sacrifice, moral decision-making and striving to be a better person instead of allowing animalistic passions to govern behavior.

The rabbi also noted some of the particular difficulties with domestic violence in the Jewish community. These include a refusal by the husband in some cases to grant a get, or Jewish divorce, often in order to force financial or other concessions from a wife. Twerski called such actions “an abuse of Torah.”

Another problem is getting the community as a whole to admit the problem of violence is real. Twerski said that it’s common to believe that Jewish husbands cannot be abusers. Worse, many wives who try to leave are shunned or treated poorly by mutual friends. Violence will be reduced only when it becomes unacceptable to those around the abuser, he said.

“I think what the community owes most to its sons and daughters is to learn what abuse is really all about,” he said, “not stick its head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Twerski recalled the release of his 1996 book The Shame Borne in Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community, which was met with anger by some. The rabbi said he even received death threats. Is the Jewish community more accepting of such ideas now?

“I don’t need police protection for my speeches anymore,” he said.

Jessica Litwack, director of engagement for St. Louis Hillel, one of several groups providing organizational support for the event, said she spoke to a number of students after Twerski’s talk.

“Afterwards, they came up and said, ‘This is something I feel passionate about,'” she said. “They said, ‘He really moved me. Domestic violence in the Jewish community isn’t something that we hear about. As students what can we do?'”

West County resident Joan Silber also gave a positive review.

“I was impressed with the way Rabbi Twerski took the universal concept of self-control as being so key to all of us no matter what our situation,” she said. “It’s lack of self- control that creates abusive situations.”

Judy Zisk Lincoff, who co-founded the JCAFV in 1997 with Rebbetzin Rivkin, echoed that sentiment.

“I especially liked what he had to say about being human and having self-control because it’s very true,” she said. “As a therapist, I tell people all the time that self-control is the only control we have.”

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger of the University City Shul (Beth HaMedrosh Hagodol Sha’arei Chesed), said that the most important thing Twerski had done was to shine a light on an issue that all too often remains in the shadows.

“The emphasis was all about awareness,” he said. “The more awareness there is, the more the problems can begin to be solved.”

The evening’s events were held in honor of the contributions of Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin. For more information about Jewish Council Against Family Violence, call 314-422-1246.