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Righteous Shunning – or a Curse on those who Shun?


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Have you joined with other women in your community to punish someone who has behaved badly? I have seen several instances of shunning, where women banded together to cut someone out of the social life of their synagogue and neighborhood in order to punish her for wrongdoing. Women shunning another woman, often feel they are participating in a positive act, but it is one they do not discuss with their rabbi. This is a modern, informal version of cherem.

When a woman is shunned, other women self-righteously ignore her. They walk right past her, but do not acknowledge her existence. They do not invite her to s’machos and they do not make room for her at their tables at communal functions. Their children are not allowed to go to her home and may not be permitted to play with her children. She is not invited to participate in communal chesed projects such as providing food for a house of mourning. She may not be notified of births, circumcisions, and deaths, so that by her absence she offends people who are not involved in, and may be totally unaware of, the shunning.

How effective is shunning?

As punishment, it is superlative. It destroys life. According to the Vaad Harabonim of Queens (http://www.queensvaad.org/bais/), The Talmud (Moed Katan 17A) expounds upon the frightening nature of cherem. Says Rav, “Shamta (The proclamation of cherem) is a death curse”. Shmuel says, “It bespeaks utter destruction”. Reish Lakish says, “The curse of cherem affects all 248 limbs of the individual as is illustrated by the fact that the letters ches, raish, mem in numerology (gematria) equals 248.

At first, the woman who is shunned does not understand what is happening. Friends and acquaintances appear to be very busy or in a “bad mood.” Only slowly does she realize that she has become a pariah. Synagogue becomes a hostile environment. If her children are involved, they may begin to do poorly in school or to act out at home. When she meets former friends at the market and they ignore her, a knife is turned in her chest. Little by little, loneliness and then despair fill her days.

What happens next?

Her marital relationship suffers because she is unhappy. Her complaint is vague and seems foolish-friends do have busy times, people do overlook old friends for perfectly innocent reasons and why would everyone stop talking to her at once?

Even mikvah may become a trial. An older bride was harassed by the head of her mikvah, who made her wait up to an hour for appointments (telling the bride that she, the bride had made a mistake of the time), made her submerge as many as eight times (normally dipping three) because of perceived problems with five of the submersions, made her use nail polish remover to remove imaginary polish on her toes, and more.

In short, the life of the shunned woman becomes a living hell.

Is this deserved?

Let me explain two cases with which I am familiar.

One: the older bride. When this woman married and moved into her husband’s community, another older, single woman became jealous and started a campaign against the new wife. Even though this second woman had never had a relationship with the new husband, she spread a lot of malicious gossip and lies. Since this single woman had a long-standing relationship with the other women in the community, they believed her and joined in punishing the new bride for her imaginary sins. The new bride was so unhappy in her new home, and so upset every time she came home from the mikvah, that the marriage was seriously damaged. Torah observance didn’t stop the other women from behaving badly; the men let their wives continue with their inappropriate behavior, and the rabbis believed that the new wife was causing all the problems. Eventually the husband lost respect for rabbis and for observance in general.

Two: a woman who married a divorced yeshiva teacher. This gifted yeshiva teacher had been married to another woman with whom he had many children. However, the marriage floundered and after his divorce, a shidduch was made with a ba’alas teshuva near to him in age. The women in his community completely shunned her because they felt that what the husband had done was wrong: he should not have left a wife with many children. Whether or not he should have left his first wife, the fact was that the second wife was not a party to the divorce. In the end the shunning resulted in the teacher leaving Jewish education for a job in the business world and the couple moving an hour away, where they could start a new life. The ultimate result? Instead of having an easily accessible father living a few blocks away and teaching in their school, the children from the first marriage had a father who lived far away, whom they could see only occasionally.

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This story was told by Mrs. T., a woman in her 60s who I’ve known for three years. Mrs. T. attends my synagogue and sisterhood functions.

Over the years, Mrs. T. always appeared to be shy and tense. She rarely spoke and usually had worry lines between her eyes and around her mouth. When she and her family first moved to our neighborhood, her husband also attended synagogue. However, he suffered from a chronic illness that kept him home on many a Shabbat.

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Have you joined with other women in your community to punish someone who has behaved badly? I have seen several instances of shunning, where women banded together to cut someone out of the social life of their synagogue and neighborhood in order to punish her for wrongdoing. Women shunning another woman, often feel they are participating in a positive act, but it is one they do not discuss with their rabbi. This is a modern, informal version of cherem.

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