The Jewish Way of Divorce

We've come a long way since Deuteronomy 24:1.
Sanford Seltzer

Judaism has always viewed marriage and the rearing of children as essential for personal gratification, the fulfillment of one's communal obligations, and as a religious obligation. Still, Jewish tradition entertained no illusions about the possibility of strife within marriage. Therefore, divorce, while not encouraged, is not deemed sinful or forbidden, but rather a sad, occasionally necessary solution to an unhappy marital relationship.

In Judaism's earliest reference to divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1, husbands were granted unconditional authority over their wives, including the right to divorce them virtually at will. "If a man takes a wife and possesses her and she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, he writes her a Bill of Divorcement, hands it to her and sends her away from his house." However cruel and arbitrary, the requirement that, prior to casting out his wife, a man prepare a formal document of release and declare that something was wrong with her served as a modest restraint upon a husband's absolute and capricious authority.

It is unclear what exactly was meant by allowing a man to divorce his wife if "he finds something obnoxious about her." In a famous talmudic debate, some rabbis argued that the statement's intent was to limit a husband's right to divorce his wife solely in the case of infidelity; others maintained that a man could divorce his wife for virtually any reason--including finding a more attractive woman or even being served a bad meal. The shunned wife had no legal recourse. The only restriction upon the husband's freedom in this matter was his obligation, should he divorce her, to pay her monetary compensation, a condition that might in certain cases act as a deterrent to divorce.

This rabbinic decision, along with many others, derived from the Deuteronomy passage, generated an entire Tractate of the Talmud called Gittin, or Bills of Divorcement, which reduced the degree of the husband's control over divorce. Far more attentive to women's rights, these criteria governing divorce set forth the privileges and the grounds under which either party could seek divorce, the role of the beit din (rabbinical court), and the specifics pertaining to the writing and delivery of a get (a Jewish bill of divorce).

Consisting of twelve written lines, the get dissolves a Jewish marriage symbolically, ritually, and halachically. Handwritten by a sofer (scribe) in Torah script with a special quill pen on unattached paper, the get specifies that the husband divorces his wife, and that "she is now free for any man." After the get is presented to the wife, either by the husband or his representative, each party receives a document from the beit din certifying that the marriage has been legally ended.

As long as marriage and divorce were governed by Jewish law, the requirement of a get was strictly enforced. A woman who remarried without it was considered to be still married to her first husband, and no rabbi would agree to officiate at a subsequent Jewish ceremony. A second marriage without a get was deemed halachically as an act of adultery. Any children born of the relationship were classified as illegitimate, or mamzerim in Hebrew.

The latter were subject to severe disabilities. Deuteronomy 23:3 forbade a mamzer "to enter the congregation of the Lord even unto the tenth generation." In effect, the ban was a form of permanent social isolation. A mamzer could marry only another mamzer. The only escape was to move to another locale where one's personal background was unknown and hope that the secret would never be revealed.

Historically, Jewish religious courts could and did pressure husbands who refused to give their wives a get by subjecting them to social ostracism, public humiliation, even physical beatings. To coerce a stubborn husband into giving his wife a get, one 18th-century rabbinical court in Minsk, Russia decreed that "he shall not be called to the reading of the Torah nor shall he be honored with the privileege of performing any ceremony or ritual. He shall not be invited to ceremonial feasts or public celebrations and none shall participate in a feast given by the defiant. No one shall rent an apartment or store from him nor lease any to him. If he be an artisan, it shall be strictly forbidden on penalty of the ban to order work."

Despite the many reforms instituted over the centuries, Jewish law never accorded Jewish women full parity in suing for divorce. Men retained the unilateral right to initiate a divorce proceeding. The requirement that a woman's first husband issue her a get before she may remarry is still binding in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Placed at the mercy of her husband, a woman can only appeal to her spouse's "generosity" or ask the beit din to pressure him to act. In Israel, the attorney general is empowered by civil law to imprison a husband who refuses to grant a get as a means of inducing him to abide by the decree of the beit din. Yet these measures are of limited effect, particularly in countries where the rabbinic courts enjoy no such power of coercion. Women who cannot secure a get are known as argunot, or "chained," and can never remarry in an Orthodox religious ceremony.

In the past, obtaining a get was generally the concern of only traditional Jews. Today, however, the matter is of relevance to all Jews, as the divorce rate among Jews has risen and second marriages between persons from diverse Jewish backgrounds have become more common. The Conservative and Reconstructionist movements therefore have instituted procedures for securing a get that are sensitive to women's rights. Conservative Judaism has added what is known as the "Lieberman Clause" to its ketubah, or marital licence. Named after its originator, the late Jewish scholar Saul Lieberman, this clause, signed by both husband and wife and read during the wedding ceremony, empowers the Conservative beit din to act on behalf of the woman and award her a get, even if the husband refuses. The Reconstructionist Movement, which includes women as members of the beit din, allows women the right to initiate a divorce proceeding.

Having determined that divorce is a civil matter, Reform is the only Jewish movement in the United States that does not issue a get. In 1983, the Central Conference of American Rabbis created an optional ceremony for divorcing couples--Seder P'reidah--Ritual of Release--intended to foster a spiritual setting for the termination of a marriage and provide a religious context for the expression of grief and loss. But this document is not meant to be a Reform version of a get and should not be construed as such.

Since then, many innovative rituals designed for divorcing couples or individuals have become available, among them meditations to be recited upon leaving one's home after a divorce and moving into a new residence, special recitations upon starting another relationship, and the utilization of the Havdalah symbols to mark this transition to a new phase of life. None of these rituals is meant to have halachic validity; all have been prepared for the purpose of providing comfort and consolation, and may also help reduce the anger and the bitterness that often accompany a divorce. Another healing opportunity following civil divorce is an evening worship service, similar to the minyan conducted for mourners following a death, in which family and friends gather in the home and read liturgical passages and supplemental selections. Many Reform congregations also have "caring community committees," whose members reach out to the divorced in much the same way that they comfort families of the sick and the bereaved.

Hope, optimism, and faith in a better tomorrow are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Even when there is no other alternative than saying goodbye to one another, broken hearts can be mended, shattered hopes restored, and new beginnings realized.