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The Torah's Take on Divorce: Fix It or Get Out!

While some religious traditions forbid divorce, Judaism does not. In the Torah, divorce is viewed as a common and acceptable occurrence (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), and although the Talmud teaches that the "altar in heaven weeps" on the occasion of a divorce, there's no requirement that a husband and wife continue their marriage if they're miserable together.

A Jewish marriage has two levels: One is spiritual, and the other is down-to-earth and quite practical. The practical aspect of marriage is reflected in the fact that Jewish marriages are finalized by a contract. The contract is mostly about the rights of the parties and the terms if a divorce occurs. Yes, when a Jewish couple gets married, they sign a document that has a lot to do with what happens in the case of a divorce. When a divorce occurs, the marriage contract is fulfilled and then destroyed, severing both the spiritual and the physical connections between the two people.

Here are some rules of divorce according to the Torah:

  • A man may not divorce his wife concerning whom he has published an evil report (about her unchastity) before marriage.
    "And they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them to the father of the woman, because he has brought an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not divorce her all his days." (Deuteronomy 22:19)
  • A divorce must be enacted by a formal written document.
    "When a man takes a wife, and marries her, then it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes, because he has found something unseemly in her, then he writes her a bill of divorce, and gives it in her hand, and sends her out of his house." (Deuteronomy 24:1)
    The topic of divorce provides a good example of how the Torah can't simply be read literally. Deuteronomy 24:1 makes it seem as though only a husband can initiate a divorce. The fact is that the Oral Torah explains how both husband and wife have rights and responsibilities in a marriage, including the right to go to a Jewish court to request that the marriage be dissolved.
  • A man who divorced his wife shall not remarry her if she married another man after the divorce.
    "Her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife. After that she is defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not cause sin in the land which the Lord thy God gives you as an inheritance." (Deuteronomy 24:4)
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