Divorce: A Last Resort

Judaism exalts the beauty and sanctity of marriage and family life. No single traditional Jewish value is emphasized more than that of two people joined together in matrimony and parenthood. Yet, thousands of years ago, the Jewish people recognized and accepted the possibility that a relationship could fail, that two individuals could, for a variety of reasons, be unable to remain together. Accordingly, they made provision for the painful, yet sometimes necessary, act of divorce.

Divorce should be seen as a last resort. Shalom bayit, domestic tranquility, is what couples strive toward. While couples work to ensure that their relationships are loving, nurturing and harmonious, this is not always achieved. It is not unusual for couples to encounter times of difficulty. Even such wonderful things as children or new jobs can add stress to a relationship. Unemployment, financial hardship or illness can certainly put a strain on a marriage. A couple experiencing difficulty in their marriage might first seek counseling. Many couples have found counseling to be an effective way to mediate differences, address hurt and rebuild trust. Even when reconciliation is not possible, working with a therapist can enable a couple to navigate the difficulty of a divorce as well as possible. This is especially valuable when children are involved.

Divorce in the Bible and Talmud

Deuteronomy makes clear reference to the existence of well-established divorce procedures among the Israelites: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, then it comes to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some unseemly thing in her, that he writes her a bill of divorce, and gives it in her hand and sends her out of his house” (24:1). Though no specific divorcing couple is named in the Torah, it is clear that the practice existed and that the Israelites had developed a legal means of handling this difficult situation.

It is only with the writing of the Mishnah (about 200C.E.) that Jewish divorce procedures are specified and cast in a carefully constructed legal context. With the completion of the Talmud, the process of Jewish divorce was deemed important enough to require an entire tractate, called Gittin, dealing primarily with the dissolution of marriage. Marriage was now far more than a ritual. It was viewed as a legal contract. Accordingly, the termination of that contract through divorce demanded legal procedures.

The Torah refers to a sefer k’ritut (literally, “book of cutting off”) as the document required for divorce. By rabbinic times, however, the terminology had changed. Jewish law, beginning in this period, called instead for a legal instrument known as a get. Get is a Hebrew word meaning “certificate,” with the added connotation of a document that terminates a relationship.

Technically speaking, Jewish law provides only for a divorce action initiated by a husband, for it is always the husband who “gives” the get. In practice, however, the beit din (Jewish court) on occasion forced a husband to give his wife a divorce under certain circumstances.

The ritual of the giving of a get is generally conducted by a beit din (“court”) of three rabbis. Also in attendance are two witnesses selected by the beit din, a sofer or scribe who writes the get, and the husband and wife. Both husband and wife must be known to the witnesses, either personally or through carefully substantiated identification.

There are five basic components to a get:

  1. A statement that the husband divorces his wife without duress or compulsion.
  2. A provision that after the get the husband and wife may have no further relationship.
  3. The time and place of the writing of the get.
  4. All of the husband’s and wife’s Hebrew and English names, plus their fathers’ Hebrew and English names, plus their fathers’ religious status (if a Kohein or a Leivi).
  5. Composition on unattached, self-contained parchment.

Reform Judaism and Jewish Divorce

According to traditional Jewish law, a get (bill of divorce) is required for every Jewish marriage that is dissolving, whether or not there was a religious wedding ceremony. From its beginnings, the Reform Movement objected strongly to the inequities of traditional Jewish divorce and to the cumbersome divorce procedures of the rabbinic courts. As a movement, Reform Judaism in the United States does not require a get, holding that civil divorce is sufficient. Most Reform communities outside of the United States ask that a Jewish religious divorce take place prior to remarriage. Still, many Reform rabbis strongly suggest a get, and some have developed their own ceremonies of Jewish divorce. Whatever one’s personal feelings regarding the get, it may be that a future marriage will involve a Conservative, Orthodox, or Israeli partner. Then, too, life often takes us far away from a former spouse. Accordingly, many couples choose to complete the divorce ritual promptly in anticipation of future circumstances and as a matter of convenience.

The current edition of the [Reform] Rabbi’s Manual includes a new liturgy for a “ritual of release” (seder p’ridah). The ritual, declares the Manual, is not a get. It does, however, serve as “a form of religious divorce” that, because of its egalitarian nature, is free of a major objection that Reform Jews raise against the traditional divorce procedure. The ceremony, which is optional, permits the couple a measure of religious closure to a union that they likewise formed as part of a religious service. It reassures them that they remain in every way members of the Jewish community.

There is another reason, however, which seems to motivate those participating in the divorce ritual. Judaism marks every significant occasion in the life cycle. At the time of a divorce, with all its trauma and pain, Jewish ritual acknowledges of the reality of divorce while at the same time pointing to the future.