Divorce is not mentioned in the earlier books of the Torah. Here it is. What happens when a marriage breaks down irretrievably? The Torah in this week’s reading and the Talmud both say that if there is a genuine grievance and it is not just frivolous, then one may divorce. One appears before a Rabbinic Court of Law, a Beth Din. Terms have to be agreed for financial affairs and settlements and care of any children. Then the scribe writes out the wording of the divorce bill, called a Get. It is handed to the woman. She must agree to accept it. And then after waiting a short while, both parties may marry again. Problems may arise where a husband abandons the religion and refuses to grant a divorce but that is an issue for some other time.
Here I am concerned with the very idea of divorce. In many Christian communities, divorce is never acceptable. You know the famous phrase that is still used occasionally in their ceremonies that couple promise top love each other “‘till death do us part.” Judaism does not take that view. There are few guarantees in life. And the reason given for allowing divorce is the famous phrase “Love Your Neighbor.” Which is followed by “Do not hate your brother (or sister) in your heart.” We must do whatever we can to avoid hatred and tension. They are debilitating. And where two people end up hating each other we must strive to give then both an opportunity to live without debilitating negativity that can take the joy out of life.
Divorce is not something Judaism welcomes. A happy marriage is the greatest of gifts. But marriage is not easy. We believe that relationships need to be worked on. One has to persevere. And children need a loving stable environment. But people change. People make mistakes. Life is rarely perfect and most of us have to overcome one sort of disadvantage or another. But if one has genuinely tried, the Torah allows for a couple to split. As the book of Proverbs says, “Better to live on the edge of a roof in peace than in a magnificent house where there is argument and strife.”
The rabbis went out of their way to ensure a woman is protected by instituting the marriage contract, the Ketubah. And protecting the rights of children was a responsibility Jewish courts took and take seriously. But there remains a serious issue with divorce. Although theoretically both parties must agree, the man can withhold a bill of divorce, a Get, and blackmail his wife. Because without one, she cannot re-marry. It is difficult for us brought up in an egalitarian world to accept this unfairness. Even more so, since Jewish Law contains both the laws and precedents to remedy the situation.
The fact that the rabbis have still not rectified this, and that they rely on secular and non-Jewish courts to do it for them is a blot on our religious leadership rather than our laws.