According to the Torah, a sefer k’ritut (“scroll of cutting off”) — referred to as a get — is required for a Jewish couple to be considered divorced.
The couple had been married over a decade when they began to drift apart.
By then they had begun raising a daughter, who was too young to understand why Mommy and Daddy were splitting up. They both told her none of it was her fault, hoping she’d eventually believe them.
After a trial separation, they decided to make it permanent, hammering out the painful details of the divorce through their lawyers. Sharing custody, they remained in close contact to give their daughter as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. Then they both went on with their lives.
A decade passed and eventually he found someone new. They decided to marry, although having a family had long since passed being an option. He contacted a rabbi he knew to see if he’d be willing to perform the ceremony — and was astounded by the response he received.
“Did your ex-wife get a get?” the rabbi asked.
“I have no idea,” he replied. “Why, does it matter?”
“I’ll have to find out and get back to you,” the rabbi answered.
Only then did the man begin to learn about a custom steeped in Jewish tradition that not only seems to have little relevance today, but has become a gender double standard of remarkable proportions.
According to the Torah, a sefer k’ritut (“scroll of cutting off”) — referred to as a get — is required for a Jewish couple to be considered divorced. However, only the man can request the get.
Should he refuse to do so, the woman is essentially “chained,” meaning she’s legally bound to him and therefore unable to marry.
On the other hand, he was free to do as he pleased, since it wasn’t until 1000 C.E. that men were forbidden from having more than one wife, when a Takanah was issued by the European Ashkenazic rabbinic movement. Even then, the Sephardic movement chose to ignore this and continue with its polygamic practices for centuries.
The term agunot was applied to the women who became victims of this policy. Since they were still considered married, the man in such cases remained legally obligated to care for her — and, presumably, any children they had conceived — financially. If he failed to do so, he could be shunned within the Jewish community and potentially excommunicated. This was especially true among the Orthodox.
For a religion that generally considers women essential to the home and as individuals to be respected, this would appear to be a gross inequity. Yet it’s really not all that difficult to understand
“We believe this inequality existed because there were no female rabbis for so long,” said Rabbi Adam Wohlberg of Conservative Temple Sinai in Dresher. “You have law that has been transmitted for centuries by men.
“I think there are biases that come about because only one gender was involved with the transmission of Jewish law. “That’s not to say he disagrees with their interpretation. “As far as I know, all Conservative rabbis would hold to the same view,” said Wohlberg. “A woman who’d been previously married Jewishly would not be permitted to be remarried unless she had a get. Nor would a rabbi perform a ceremony to a man who had not given a get. It’s Jewish law.”
“I graduated from the RRC” (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), said Rabbi Barry Blum of Conservative Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall. “I generally would not do a wedding if there was not a marriage that dissolved without a get, because I’m traditional in that vein.”
“Conservatives always want to have one step in the Orthodox tradition and that’s probably why. In general, rabbis don’t like to take the road where someone may question them and say you did the wrong thing.”
Would deciding to perform a wedding without a get be the “wrong thing?” Not according to the Reform movement, which considers a civil divorce perfectly acceptable. As for the Reconstructionists, their response is a bit different.
“Since we don’t base all decisions on Jewish law, we have more freedom,” said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, the new executive director of the RRA. “We’ve developed an egalitarian get process which can be initiated by either partner of the marriage, homosexual as well as heterosexual.
“I know I have worked out a get process because I’ve found it easy and important to provide closure and healing, But I think most Reconstructionist rabbis would do a wedding and include that as part of premarital counseling.”
By the same token, she says, the world has changed — and Judaism should change with it. “I think you have to read it in the context of time in which it was written,” added Wechterman. “In ancient times, it protected women from being thrown out on the street penniless. Clearly, that’s no longer needed. I don’t think a get is necessary for the same reasons. But the fact it can only be initiated by a man is highly problematic.”
Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, either, even though there is a procedure for change. “Within Conservative Judaism, our legal rulings come not from a single individual but from a body of rabbis called the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards,” explained Wohlberg. “It does not require majority rule.“A rabbi or several rabbis will offer a teshuvah — the best
English word is ‘responsum.’ Once that has been offered, the committee reviews it and, if it’s accepted by a certain number of them, it’s considered an authoritative opinion, so that any rabbi could hold to that view. But they’re not required to.”
He cited an example where the committee determined it was now acceptable for Jews to drive on Shabbat — but only to the nearest synagogue so they could attend services. “That made it possible for people who couldn’t otherwise be at communal worship to come,” Wohlberg said. “It was meant to be very limited but people took that on their own and expanded.
“By the time it was passed, a majority of Conservative Jews were already driving on Shabbat. It wasn’t like they needed permission; they had decided on their own.”
However, there’s been no such relaxation in Jewish law when it comes to the get, although it remains uncertain why the rabbi who was approached about performing the man’s second wedding needed clarification before refusing to do it. According to Rabbi Pamela Barmash of the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement, the woman’s role in the get process has become more modernized. She now can be an active participant, rather than a silent observer as in the past.
Rabbi Barmash also indicates the agunah issue has been resolved in a manner similar to the way Catholics annul a marriage, rather than go on with a divorce. “Since I was appointed to the Joint Beit Din in 2008, I estimate that we have dealt with about 40 cases per year,” said Rabbi Barmash, who works at Washington University in St. Louis. “If a man refuses to grant a get, the Joint Beit Din dissolves the marriage.
“This is a straightforward process. Just as we require a Jewish marriage, so, too, we require a Jewish divorce.”
Most rabbis still see a need for the get, even though they’re costly and somewhat sexist. Considering couples usually have to spend thousands of dollars for a legal divorce, they’re not eager to pay several hundred more just to get a piece of paper saying they’re also essentially divorced in the eyes of God.
“The way the law was written is male-dominated and certainly isn’t always respectful of women,” said one Conservative rabbi who wished to remain anonymous. “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult the way we view the woman. We see her role in Judaism as being very important. She’s the one who raises the children and focuses on education. But in this instance” — the get — “it’s not the way it should be.
“I won’t be surprised in the future if an opinion is deemed acceptable that rabbis need not require a get in order for a divorce to be recognized. But I’d need to see what the logic behind it is before deciding what I’d do.”
At least that would be a step. At least then the man wouldn’t have to go “shopping” for a rabbi to perform his wedding. He could simply choose the one he liked best.
There’s nothing wrong with tradition. But even Tevye came to the realization that it wasn’t the end of the world for some traditions to change.
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