By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The recent headlines about President Trump’s ousted staff secretary Rob Porter amid allegations of spousal abuse by two ex-wives bring up the following question: What does halachah have to say about all of these issues?
Aside from the unanimous view of contemporary poskim that spousal abuse is entirely forbidden (see Maharshal Bava Kamma YSS 3:21, Darchei Moshe EH 154:16), there are associated questions. Do we report a suspected abuser to the authorities? As of now, Rob Porter is denying everything. Should he be fired by President Trump, merely on account of allegations? If so, what about any financial obligations that would be due him? Does an abuser owe monetary support to the spouse?
This author would like to suggest that there are certain jobs or positions in which allowing someone to continue in that position under a cloud of suspicion can be quite detrimental. The financial obligations, however, are an entirely different matter.
Physical abuse can be life-threatening. Rav Elyashiv’s letter of January 4, 2004, regarding reporting suspicions of physical molestation to government authorities, can be most instructive. He writes:
These are the words of the Rashba in a responsum (volume 3:393):
“It seems to me that if the witnesses are believed by the investigators, they are permitted to levy a financial fine or a physical punishment—all in accordance to what appears to them. And this sustains the world. For if you establish things solely on that which was delineated in the Torah, and not punish except for in the manner that is [strictly] delineated in the Torah, it would come out that the world [order] would be destroyed. It would come out that they would be breaking down the protective fences of the world, and the world order would be destroyed. They have already levied such fines concerning one who strikes another physically, etc. In each and every venue, they adjudicate matters in order to protect the generation. And this is how they conduct themselves—in each and every generation and in each and every venue that they see that the hour demands it. Now, they [the sages] have said that Rav Huna, who was in Babylonia, chopped off the hand—and accordingly, the investigators who did this, if they saw a need in the time to make a communal rectification, they did so properly. And the same is true when there is an additional legal argument of Hormana D’Malka as they did with Rabbi Elazar in the beginning of the chapter of “HaPoalim.”
“From the words of the Rashba we observe that regarding a matter that contains within it “tikkun olam,” the sages of Israel in each generation do have the ability to erect fences and to stand in the breach—even in a situation where we do not have the additional legal argument of “the king’s decree.” From the words of the Ritva in his novella to Bava Metziah 84b, it seems that the power of “the king’s decree” is as follows, and this is his wording: “He said to them, ‘grab them.’ And that which he judged without witnesses and warning not during the time of the Sanhedrin, it is different here, for he is the agent of the king. It was the law of the kingdom to kill without witnesses and without warning to punish his kingdom. As it says regarding [King] David who killed a convert from Amalek, as the messenger of the king is like the king.”
“But according to what was explained regarding a matter that has tikkun olam, there is no need for the legal argument of “the king’s decree.”
However, this permission to inform the authorities is when it is clear that that the offender was in the wrong—then [we consider that] it does involve the issue of tikkun olam. However, in a situation where there is not even raglayim la’davar (any indication of guilt); rather, it is some imagination—if we permit it, it is not only that there is no tikkun olam, a rectification of the world—rather there is destruction of the world here. It is possible that on account of some bitterness of the student toward the teacher or on account of some psychological illusion we are placing a man into a fate worse than death—where he has no guilt at all on his hands. I see no heter to permit it under such circumstances.
I remain your friend,
Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
The fact that Mr. Porter has two accusers who seem credible would indicate that there is a level of raglayim la’davar. On the other hand, unless there was a misrepresentation made to the employer in the original contract that Mr. Porter signed, unproven allegations do not exempt an employer from meeting his contractual obligations of employment. Where there is no contract, however, that would be a different matter.
It is not just physical abuse that is forbidden.
The Mishnah in Bava Metziah 58b states: Just as there exists financial abuse in business dealings, there exists verbal abuse in words as well. The Hebrew for this sin of verbal oppression is ona’as devarim. And the verse one violates? It’s in Vayikra 25:17: “Do not afflict one another, but fear Hashem.”
The verse includes any form of undermining self-esteem. Examples abound.
Public humiliation: “Can’t you do anything right?” said publicly can be a severe form of abuse.
Absence of “Eishes Chayil”: Sometimes a husband will purposefully not recite “Eishes Chayil” on Friday night. This, too, is a form of verbal abuse.
Name-calling: “You idiot. Are you deaf?”
Intolerance of error: “I thought you were smart! What is your problem?”
Sarcasm: “Remind me—why do some people treat you respectfully?”
Impatience: “I want it NOW! I cannot wait until you get around to it. Do you know what NOW means?”
The rant: “What? You dare defend yourself by saying it’s normal to make mistakes when learning something new? Once or twice, maybe. But five or six times? This isn’t normal. This is sheer incompetence! My gosh!”
Micromanaging: This also undermines self-esteem in a spouse.
Seriousness Of The Issue
The prohibition of verbal abuse is not a tiny, inconsequential prohibition. It is a very serious one, according to the Steipler Gaon, zt’l, (father of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita). He writes in Kreina D’Igrasa (Volume I #57), “One must know that this is a grave sin and a horrifying transgression—indeed, even causing someone light pain with mere words is a Torah prohibition.”
Forms Of The Prohibition
The pain of ona’as devarim can come in any form. The language employed in the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah #338) indicates this because he writes: “in any form.” [See also the language used by Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah 3:24.] The poskim cite the example of asking for a price when the seller may think that you wish to buy but when you really do not wish to buy as an example of verbal oppression. If that is the case, then the “false hope” even in an office setting is included in the category too. In his Biur Halachah (Orech Chaim 170:19 “Guests”), the Chofetz Chaim writes that dropping in on a party toward the end may be a violation of ona’ah, because the host may be embarrassed at the lack of available food to offer. The Yereim (Mitzvah 51) also gives an example of giving a dirty look as ona’as devarim.
We see from all of these illustrations that the prohibition of ona’ah and abuse takes any form—not just physical.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.