Judaism: Religious Divorce Must Not Be an Emotional Weapon
Ed. Note: This article deals with observant men who refuse their wives a religious divorce (called a Get) despite the fact that the marriage is over and the rabbinic courts have allowed the divorce. In Jewish law, the husband is the only one who can grant the divorce decree allowing the woman to remarry. There are women who refuse to accept the get from their former partners, causing an untenable situation as well, but that is less common in the Orthodox community, the subject of this article.
Getting married is easy – the joy, the grace, the dignity of the wedding day! The beauty of the bride. The nervous anticipation of the groom. The proud and delightful parents.
Ending a marriage is hard, hurtful, painful. There is sadness and shame. Where there had once been joy and respect, there is now recrimination. And questions. Hard questions. What had gone wrong? Where should you go from here?
Marriage and divorce are not two sides of the same coin but polar opposites on the same spectrum. Still, they have one thing in common. In both, there must be respect and dignity. We must embrace the same dignity and care at the end of a marriage just as we do at the beginning. We must. And yet, too often in the Orthodox community we do not. Too often, we are seeing men withholding a Get as an emotional – and practical – cudgel which, in effect, enslaves a woman, damning her to a life that is neither here nor there, neither married nor able to move on with her life.
When our sages speak of God spending His days after creation arranging marriages, they are suggesting that each marriage, each good marriage, is ordained; is bashert.
Our sages were wise, but they were not blind. They knew that not every marriage that is entered into is “meant to be”. Marriages do not always work.
As much as a wedding is filled with joy hopefulness, a divorce often brings feelings of shame and failure. Couples cannot help but feel that they “fell short”. In our small communities and villages of long ago, and even in our modern religious communities, there is often a sense of shame in obtaining a Get. And if there are children involved? Well, there were practical matters.
In the past, rather than end an unhappy marriage, a couple – two strangers occupying the same house – often lived a lifetime of misery, imposing that misery on their children even as they tried, with uncertain results, to hide their feelings and behavior from their neighbors and friends.
Such an unhappy life is simply unacceptable in most, if not all, of the Orthodox world today.
Notice, at no point have I suggested a reason for the unhappiness of the unsuccessful marriage. Whether because the husband was an insufficient provider or because of the stress of a difficult child or any other reason is immaterial. It really does not matter what the reason is for the failure of a marriage. What matters is only that, despite an honest attempt by at least one of the partners to make a successful marriage and life, the marriage is untenable.
It was not bashert.
That realization is a hard blow. Sometimes the truth that a marriage is unsuccessful takes years to become clear. Other times, it takes nearly no time for either the husband or wife to discover that the marriage will not work. “Only three days into the marriage, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.” He is “controlling and belittling.”
We can all weep for the sadness of a marriage that simply does not work. But our sadness necessarily turns to astonishment and then anger when we learn that the husband, far from acknowledging and accepting this reality, lashes out in anger and vindictiveness by withholding the Get.
Let us, as Chazal, our Talmudic sages, did, acknowledge that our belief in marriages as bashert is more ideal than truth. In candor, let us confront the truth that many, many marriages are entered into with little preparation or understanding about even the most basic truths about living in intimacy with another person.
It is a rare young scholar who is schooled – in even the most cursory manner – in his bride’s emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical needs and priorities. And it is only a rare young woman who is taught to look beyond her groom’s learning or his ability to make a good living. It is a wonder that any marriage survives and succeeds!
Yet, most do.
Some do not.
There needn’t be any shame in that.
Chazal were well aware that a number of marriages would not be successful. It is for that reason that Tractate Gittin [the laws of divorce] precedes tractate Kiddushin [the laws of marriage]. Just the order of the tractates alone tells us that we are best prepared for marriage when we prepare for a marriage not being successful. Chazal teach that when that is the case there is a decent and considered way to dissolve the marriage without dissolving one another!
If the marriage does not work… let it come to an end in a way that allows both bride and groom, husband and wife, to grieve for what “could have been” but wasn’t and then allows them to go forward with a productive and meaningful life. That is the process that Torah envisions by providing both the roadmap for marriage – the ketuba – and the mechanism for ending a marriage – the Get.
The Get is like God’s blessed fingers, untying the ribbon tied at marriage. To use it to bludgeon the person for whom you once declared love and devotion is wrong. Is that the route a ben Torah should take? Assuredly not!
And yet, in recent months and years, we hear more and more of the men – learned, yeshiva-taught men – who withhold Gitten from their wives; wives who have a God-given right to be released from their failed marriages. It matters not one iota the names of the bride or groom, husband or wife or which prominent or prestigious family is involved. What does matter is the harm being done to both man and woman by the withholding of a Get – and make no mistake, grievous harm is visited upon the one who withholds the Get as well as the poor woman who is not given one.
Worse, God’s name is desecrated.
How have we allowed this situation come to pass?
How is it that our talmidim (students) are so wonderfully schooled in Torah and yet kept so ignorant in basic human decency? How is it that the same so-called ben Torah, who was so well-educated in yeshiva – and undoubtedly well-versed in the tractates Kiddushin and Gittin – who sat at the feet of rebbeim, who was surrounded by roshei yeshivas (various rabbinic figures), who had his most distinguished Rosh Yeshiva serve as mesader kiddushin (perform the wedding), who invited other Torah scholars to recite the sheva brachos (seven wedding blessings), who celebrated seven days of sheva brachos with speeches extolling the beautiful Yiddishe home that would be established by this wonderful talmid, this young man “of whom we are all so proud…”, how is it that this same young man can be so quickly transformed into a beast simply because the marriage did not work out?
Saddened? Hurt? Disappointed? Of course. Such feelings are understandable. But to be so vindictive as to punish his bride by withholding the Get? No! And not even just to make a point, not just to vent his hurt. No. No, even to withhold the Get for a month, two is wrong and damaging, but perhaps as some commentators have suggested, necessary to protect himself against false accusations and to ensure access to his children.
But we are seeing men withholding Gettin for three years, seven years, eighteen years! A lifetime!
Such wrong-headed cruelty damns these agunot (women whose husbands do not grant a religious divorce) to a non-life. It is a kind of death imposed with more cruelty and horror than any evil Haman ever visited upon our people.
How does a person allow such evil into his soul? Where does such a person learn such hatred? Not in yeshiva certainly. Not in Kiddushin or Gittin. Not in the Rishonim or Acharonim (early and later luminaries) or any commentary. So where? By what authority does such a person determine such an act, a cold, hard, mean-spirited act that must be repeated almost consciously every hour, every day, every month and year that the Get is withheld?
The lesson was most certainly not learned from the words of our Talmud or our Sages. Quite the opposite. The Talmud (Kiddushin 50a) teaches that if a man refuses to give a woman a divorce, he is forced until he declares, “I am willing.”
The Talmud does not accept the notion that a husband can or should refuse to give a Get; if the marriage fails, it must be terminated. Period. No husband has the right to withhold the divorce contract. If he does, the Talmud teaches, “he must be forced until he is willing.”
Now, let us be quick to protest that one inhumanity does not justify another. By “forced” the Talmud is not condoning the crude and inhumane methods that we have heard about in the media recently. These too are forbidden.
So then, what is meant by “forced”? First and foremost, under no circumstances are the husband’s actions to be approved of – tacitly or overtly. It must be made clear in every personal, professional and religious interaction that his behavior is wrong. The community must speak with one voice to him, condemning his behavior. He must be ostracized. He must be cut off from the community. He should suffer the same consequences as the cherem, excommunication, of old.
He must be forced “…until he is willing.” But isn’t a “willingness” earned by duress considered null and void. In most circumstances, yes. But not in this instance. Rambam teaches us the harsh truth of what we are dealing with in these situations. “Because … he whose evil inclination induces him to … commit a transgression, and who is lashed until he does what he is obligated to do, or refrain from what he is forbidden to do, cannot be regarded as victim of duress; rather he has brought duress upon himself by submitting to his evil inclination.”
The person who withholds a Get is, by the Rambam’s reasoning, evil. “…therefore, this man who refuses to divorce his wife…has only been overwhelmed by his evil inclination.”
He is not a ben Torah. He is not a scholar. He is not a mensch. No matter his pedigree. No matter the wealth or position of his family or the yeshivot he attended. He is simply a rasha, a wicked person.
Such evil harms not just the man’s own soul. Such evil harms not just the wife seeking divorce. Such evil harms not just the families involved. Such evil stains an entire community. It is a cancer that will rot the community from within. It must be excised or the community will go the way of the man.
At its recent conference, the European Conference of Rabbis (CER) together with European Jewish Congress discussed not granting any religious services or membership in any of its European communities to all who are “mesarvei gitin” (refusing to grant a wife a Get). Would that every community not only have this discussion, but decide to move forward with just such a decision.
There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when we naively thought it was enough to teach our young men how to get married, how to give and cherish the ketuba. Now we know that isn’t enough. Now we know that it is even more important to teach and learn how to divorce, how to respect and use the Get when it is needed.
I know it is hard to divorce, because I too have been divorced. But when my then-wife asked me for a Get, I placed it in her hand within a week – and it took me that long only because I could not get an appointment with the Bais Din, rabbinic courts, sooner. I presented the Get as soon as it was clear that the marriage was over. Period.
Of course there were still many issues to resolve and, indeed, many tough arguments yet to be had. Many hurts still to be worked out. But all that was to be dealt with after I had fulfilled my Torah obligation of handing my ex-wife a Get.
All the issues of divorce, the financial decisions, the personal decisions, the practical decisions came after the Get was delivered, as they should. Which is not to say that it was emotionally easy. Of course it wasn’t.
But to be a Jew is not to be dictated to by transitory emotion but by the moral and ethical dictates that God has given us, by living the life God expects you to lead, by proving to God, to your fellows and to yourself that despite all the pain, angst and doubts of divorce, you were, still are and will continue to be a mensch. You are still a human being, created in the image of God.
You must behave as such.
Good Jews have always behaved as such.
Put down the cudgel. Grant the Get.