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How to Get a Jewish Divorce

The Bible states that a Jewish divorce is accomplished when a husband gives a document called a get to his wife. The get is a complex legal document written by a rabbi, and it acts as a religious divorce, apart from any civil divorce the couple might pursue.

Of course, when the get was established, religious and civil law were both the province of the Jewish community.

To a traditional Jew, a religious divorce is as important — if not more important — than a divorce granted by the state, because a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi will not remarry someone who has not given or received a get.

Compared to many modern-day laws on divorce, Jewish law makes it relatively easy to begin divorce proceedings. You don’t have to prove how bad the marriage is. In fact, you need no more compelling reason than “she or he spoiled my dinner.” While this may seem frivolous, it helps a couple focus not on what is wrong, but hopefully on what is right, and perhaps save the marriage.

Preparing the divorce document and bringing together a rabbinic committee to oversee the ritual is complicated and time-consuming, perhaps providing time for the couple to reconsider their decision.

If the couple can’t be reconciled, and both parties agree, the divorce ritual is relatively simple: The get is prepared in the presence of a bet din, a three-person rabbinic court, and then given to the man. He hands his wife the get, she places it under her arm (a symbol of receiving it), and then the document is cut or ripped so it can never be used again.

Each person keeps a hand-written copy of the get, and the woman must wait 90 days until she can marry again (just in case she doesn’t realize she’s pregnant at the time of the divorce). The bet din also ensures that the man fulfills his financial obligations under the terms of their ketubah.

Of course, Orthodox rabbis only recognize a get from an Orthodox bet din. On the other hand, Reform rabbis take the position that all you need is a civil divorce.

In recent years, non-Orthodox rabbis, often with help from the couple, have created ceremonies of separation that attempt to address the spiritual issues in a divorce and to encourage a deeper understanding that can enhance the chances for better relationships for each partner in the future. For example, this ceremony can include the release of the wedding symbols, including the ring, the wine goblet, the ketubah, and so on.

If both parties agree on the divorce, the procedure is pretty smooth. However, if a woman wants a divorce and her husband either won’t grant it or can’t grant it (because he’s not present); the woman becomes what’s known as an agunah (“an anchored woman”), and can’t remarry.

You can find terrible stories about unethical or spiteful men who extorted thousands of dollars from their wives in exchange for a get, or, perhaps worse, men who simply won’t agree to a get on any terms, even after years of bitter separation.

The bet din has the authority to compel the husband to divorce his wife, especially in cases of abuse or neglect, but there are few ways to enforce this, and so unfortunately too many traditional Jewish women still suffer.

If the husband can’t be found the traditional divorce can’t take place, and the wife becomes an agunah. Conservative Jews typically include a provision in their ketubot saying that the bet din can be called by either the man or the woman, and a divorce can be granted if either partner is absent and presumed dead.

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