The image of the lion plays a prominent part in the blessing Bil’am is compelled to offer the people Israel (Numbers 23:24). The figurative description of the lion as a strong, invincible force is shared by many cultures. Yet there is another side to the image. The lion is strong but also wild. And the majestic stature of the lion can be undermined by its devouring passion. It is this negative image of the lion that operates within Rabbi Meir’s condemnation of the conduct of a husband who forces his way with his wife (Pesahim 49b). In what could very well be the first criticism of marital rape in human history, Rabbi Meir compares the offending husband to a lion, shamelessly ravaging his wife.
Somehwhat less descriptively but equally authoritatively, Rav Assi and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi both rule that a wife may not be forced by her husband into sexual intimacy when it is against her will (Eruvin 100b). These views are codified in the Shulhan Arukh (Even HaEzer 25:2).
Yet despite the insistence on respect for one’s wife’s feelings, there were occasional abuses. As a result, rabbis in various communities enjoined their members against domestic violence and imposed sanctions on the violators. For example, Rabbi Peretz of Corbeil ordained that the Jews of thirteenth century France to be more sensitive and careful in how they treated their wives. He writes: “The voice of pleading of the daughters of our people are heard from afar, concerning Jewish men who raise their hands against their wives…Let them be forewarned against striking any Jewish soul. And to address those women who have complained that nothing is being done, we therefore have decreed…that every Jewish male be subject to excommunication upon the petition of his wife or one of her relatives, if he strikes her out of anger or malevolence…for such will not be tolerated in Israel.”
Every Jewish husband, however, has not heard the message. If Bil’am were correct, then the kind of lions we need to become are those who behave with the courage to accept “No” as an answer, not those who merely see women as their pray. The majestic traits of the lion are the ones to emulate, not the wild ones.