When Jews Divorce: Frequently Asked Questions

Rabbi John L. Rosove

Few events in life are as destabilizing, disappointing, painful, or sad as divorce. When a couple marries, neither expects the marriage to end in divorce. The Talmud reflects the tragedy of a failed marriage when it says, “Even God sheds tears when a couple divorces.” [1] Nonetheless, when a marriage can no longer be sustained, Jewish tradition accepts divorce without moral judgment.

What do we do if we believe it is time to separate?

Not every marriage can survive the stresses and strains of day-to-day life. If you believe that your marriage is neither working nor living up to your hopes and expectations, you might consider meeting with your synagogue's clergy and/or a therapist before you separate. Usually, when couples separate (even on a trial basis), the split is the first step on the path to divorce. If you do not know whether divorce is in your future, it may be wise to defer separating until you have explored every opportunity for reconciliation. A therapist should be able to help you clarify what has occurred in your marriage and to understand whether or not your marriage can be saved.

What do we do if our marriage has failed?

If one partner believes there is no hope for reconciliation, divorce is the likely consequence. Judaism accepts divorce as a sad but necessary option for some couples. Once a couple determines they are no longer compatible, Jewish tradition makes divorce straightforward and simple. At this point, it is best to go forward without delay, seeking legal or mediating counsel, filing the necessary legal papers, discussing with your clergy whether or not you wish to have a religious divorce (a Get – see below), and beginning to plan your new life as a single person.

What are legitimate grounds for divorce?

According to Genesis, humans are created b’tzelem elohim (“in the image of God”), affirming that every individual is endowed with infinite worth and value. In light of this religious truth, there are three justifications for divorce from a religious/moral perspective (as opposed to legal grounds).  They are known as the three “A”s: Abuse, Addiction and Adultery:

  1. Abuse: Physical, verbal and emotional abuse of another human being should never be tolerated. There are many kinds of abuse that diminish God’s image and destroy the trust that is at the very core of marriage, including chronic name-calling, shouting, physical assault, intimidation, threats, terror, deception, and dishonesty of a pervasive nature. Yes, every human being becomes angry from time to time and may even strike out against the other, but there is “fair fighting” and “unfair fighting.” Act that belittle another human being are considered to be “unfair fighting.” Repeated abuse followed by apologies is a trap that keeps both parties in an abusive, unsatisfactory, unhappy, and unsustainable marriage. If you have been physically abused, it is recommended that you demand the abusing spouse move out immediately, or you move out, and if you have children, that you take them with you. Before acting, however, it is important to seek legal advice, get your finances in order and receive emotional counseling.
  2. Addictions: There are many kinds of addictions including drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, and shopping (i.e., spending money). Often addictions make individuals incapable of meeting work, school and family responsibilities. Over time, family members become "complicit" as enablers, and get involved in a self-justifying web of denial that can destroy entire families. Counseling and 12-step programs (and inpatient treatment in extremely difficult instances) are among the most effective ways to address addictive behaviors and their underlying causes. For some individuals, medication also is indicated. If there is no acknowledgement of the addiction and no commitment on the part of the addict to recover, however, his or her partner should leave the home with the children or insist that the addict leave the home. Again, before acting, you should seek legal advice, get your finances in order and receive emotional counseling.
  3. Adultery: Adultery, or sexual infidelity, violates the most sacred bond in marriage. Many couples, sadly, experience this breach of trust. Sometimes, if the violation happens only once, the marriage can survive and be restored with the help of therapy, t’shuvah (sincere repentance) and forgiveness. However, in marriages that suffer chronic infidelity, spouses cannot be expected to tolerate the breach. When reconciliation becomes impossible, the offending spouse should move out of the home. 

Some marriages can survive one or more of these breaches of trust and dignity if there is a serious and sustained effort by the offending partner(s) to change their behavior through counseling or a 12-step program. Absent such an effort, the marriage is likely to fail and should be ended sooner rather than later.

Marriages may dissolve for other reasons as well.  For example, simple incompatibility, the realization by one partner that the marriage was a mistake or that there is little or no sexual attraction, the inability to have one’s own children, which may result in one (or both) spouses having an intense emotional need to marry another each can lead to the dissolution of a marriage.  Differences over money, child rearing and other joint decisions are other reasons marriages dissolve. Regardless of the specific circumstances, some of which may not be clear-cut, it is important to remember that the breakdown of marriage is complex and usually results from a combination of behaviors exhibited by both parties.

What questions should I ask a divorce (i.e., family law) attorney?

When seeking an attorney to assist you in a divorce, it is important to ask these questions:

  1. Do you specialize in divorces, or are divorces just a part of your practice? Are you a certified family law specialist?
  2. What are the different ways the case can be handled? What actions must be taken and what actions may or may not have to be taken? What actions would you recommend, and why? How do these actions affect my costs?
  3. How long does it take for you to return phone calls? How do I get a hold of you if there is an emergency? What do you consider to be an emergency?
  4. Will anyone else in your office be working on my case? What experience do they have? Can I meet them?
  5. How will you charge me? What is your hourly rate? Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate? What is your retainer up front?
  6. What costs other than your own do you expect will be involved (for example, for private investigators, forensic accountants, physicians, and/or psychologists), and how will you charge me for them?
  7. What’s your estimate of the total cost to me of this divorce? (Do not be alarmed that most divorce attorneys will resist answering this question as the cost of the divorce depends greatly upon the level of conflict in your case. However, the way in which the attorney answers this question may help you size up the attorney. An honest attorney will often answer that it is difficult to estimate the costs in advance. An attorney that gives you an unrealistically low amount may just be trying to get your business).
  8. Do you allow me to negotiate directly with my spouse? How can I keep the cost of my divorce down? Are there tasks that I can do myself to cut down on the amount you will charge me?
  9. Based on what you know about my case, how would you predict a judge would rule on it?
  10. Can you help me understand the tax ramifications of the decisions I will have to make?

What is divorce mediation and what are its advantages?

Divorce mediation is an alternative to litigation, which often results in contentious fighting and emotional and financial drain. Parties who choose mediation work with a neutral third party mediator to negotiate issues concerning child custody and support, spousal support, and division of assets and debts. The mediator will help identify the needs of each party and the children, gather financial information necessary to make decisions about the division of assets and support issues.  Mediators also explore what each party wants, and help determine alternative solutions to resolve concerns over custody, property division, support and other divorce issues.  They help divorcing couples reach an agreement that is satisfactory to each party.  Spouses who mediate typically are better able to communicate, cooperate, preserve a good relationship with the other party, and keep tensions down for the sake of the children. The experience builds a base for future cooperation between the parties and models behavior through which divorced couples can resolve future issues cooperatively. Typically the parties are more satisfied in devising their own “solutions” as compared to cases in which a judge makes the decisions and  imposes his or her solution on a couple.

Children typically benefit from mediation as well. Mediation is significantly less expensive than a litigated divorce. If your case goes to court, the costs will be substantially higher than if you mediated and came to a binding settlement. In addition, if the court decides your outcome, the court always retains jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to the children until they are adults, and sometimes even after. This is true regardless of whether the parties reached an agreement about the child-related issues (most significantly custody, visitation, and child support). By way of an agreement, the parties can permanently determine property division and sometimes also finalize spousal support (i.e., alimony). Most cases end with an agreement, rather than a trial, even if people do not use mediation. An agreement is more likely to be honored by the parties, but that is not always so, and cases may return to court regarding children or other matters, whether or not an agreement was made at the time of the divorce.

Are there any other options besides trial or mediation?

In recent years, “collaborative law” has become an option for couples who wish to work things out in a cooperative fashion. This method requires each party to have a lawyer and a therapist, and possibly an accountant. For more information, consult collaborativedivorce.net.

What should be my priorities now?

Following a divorce, restoring your emotional, psychological and spiritual equilibrium should be your first priority, followed closely thereafter by protecting your children from unnecessary pain and suffering. At all times, the divorcing spouses should maintain their dignity. It is important, too, to avoid blame, striking out or punishing your spouse for the failure of the marriage. Ruminating over the past is wasting energy. If you find yourself thinking constantly about how badly you were treated, psychological counseling during this period of transition may prove helpful. Spiritual practices such as meditation and attendance at religious services, both of which afford solace, transcendence and community also may be beneficial. In addition, regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, nurturing your sense of humor, and contact with trusted family, friends and colleagues are invaluable.

What is a get, and do I need one?  

A get is a Jewish document of divorce. In the Talmud, it is referred to as a Sefer K’ruitut (Lit. “Scroll of cutting off”). The traditional hand-written Aramaic text (Aramaic was the vernacular language during the first millennium C.E.) does not emphasize the breakdown of the marriage, nor does it specify the reason for the divorce and it does not assign blame. It states simply that the couple is now free to marry other people. Both parties have to agree to the writing of a get, which is done by a religious scribe, but both do not have to be present together when the get is written or to receive the get from each other. The get is signed by two Jewish witnesses. The cost of the get is between $350 and $400 if both parties are present together. If the parties wish not to appear together and the session extends to an additional meeting, there can be an additional $100 charged. Today, egalitarian and non–gendered gitin (plural of get) are available.  Examples of these, from the Reconstructionist movement, can be found at www.Ritualwell.org.

Should we arrange for a religious divorce (get)?

The Reform Movement does not require a get following a civil divorce [3]. Though some Reform Jews wish to conclude their marriage as they began it both legally and religiously (with a written religious document) many Reform rabbis and cantors will perform a second marriage without a get. You should consult with your clergy as to their individual practice.

What if I want a get and my spouse refuses?

If there is agreement on the divorce and one party wants a get, the other should accommodate him or her. To refuse to do so is unmerited, and worse, may be vengeful. That being said, no one can force a person to provide or receive a get.

What do I tell my friends and community?

Many individuals who divorce suffer shame, humiliation and deep embarrassment. Consequently, some people wish to keep their separation and divorce quiet, telling only those closest to them. This decision may be fine for a while, but after a period of time it is best to tell people honestly that your marriage ended. You have the right to choose what you wish to say and to whom you wish to say it, and no one is entitled to know the details. In most cases, the base communication is simply, “My marriage has come to an end. Our differences just couldn’t be reconciled.” Nothing more is necessary!

What should I say when someone tells me they are getting divorced?

There is no stock phrase to use when you learn of another’s separation or divorce. Your response will depend on your relationship with the divorcing individual. However, these (and similar) responses presume that the person is insensitive, short-sighted or lacking in emotional depth, and should be avoided:

  • “Have you tried everything possible to save your marriage?”
  • “Now that you are single, I have a woman/man for you.”
  • “You can’t do this!”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “I always thought your spouse was a jerk!”
  • “God is weeping!” [4]

Sometimes people who separate or even file a dissolution document will reconcile and your comments could make your future relations with the couple difficult. Expressions of support are what the newly separated person needs to hear from family, friends and associates.  Even if they are relieved by their decision, they also welcome expressions of sadness (but not pity), compassion and love. Many divorcing individuals appreciate loving hugs, quick emails to check in and let them know they are in your thoughts, and invitations to go out to dinner or take in a movie. Although the aggrieved party may not be ready for any of these things, he or she likely will appreciate the offer. Often, a friend’s new “single” status can be uncomfortable for couples who have not experienced divorce themselves and who may wish to step away. However, excluding divorced individuals from social gatherings in which both would have been included previously is neither fair nor kind. In such instances, it is best to invite both, letting each know of the other’s invitation so that they can make an individual and informed decision about whether or not to attend.

What comes next?

After appropriate grieving after the loss of your marriage, rebirth will follow. When children are involved, establishing or maintaining stable, cooperative and even friendly association with a former spouse will help children navigate future life challenges.  Often, however, the pain of divorce may recur for both adults and their children when a child goes through puberty, becomes bar/bat mitzvah, leaves home for college, and beyond. Time can heal the wounds of divorce as you work through your grief and seek to to reestablish a life of meaning.


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a
[2] Genesis 1:26-27
[3] “Reform Judaism and Divorce,” American Reform Responsa #162, Vol. XC, publ. by CCAR, 1980, pp- 84-86)
[4] Divorce is a Mitzvah, by Rabbi Perry Netter, pages 136-138

Recommended Reading

  • Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage  Dies, by Rabbi Perry Netter, Jewish Lights, 2002

  • Living through Your divorce, by Rabbi Earl A. Grollman and Marjorie

  • L. Sams, Beacon Press, 1978

  • When Your Jewish  Child Asks Why: Answers for Tough Questions,

  • Ktav Publishing, 1993, pps 161-165 www.Ritualwell.org – on Separation and Divorce

Watch the Bimbam video below to learn more: 

Further Reading:

This article was excerpted from the booklet When Jews Divorce and is part of the series Transitions & Celebrations: Jewish Life Cycle Guides, by Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, CA. Download this booklet and the full series on the Temple Israel of Hollywood website (see Writings by Rabbi Rosove).