Divorce in the Bible

Biblical divorce law provided some protection for women by setting limits on a man's absolute power to divorce.


Excerpted with permission of the author from “Jewish Divorce Law” in Lilith Magazine, summer 1977.

A year ago, while on a sabbatical in Israel with my husband and children, we employed a Yemenite woman of 33 as an ozeret (housekeeper). During the course of the year, she went through a costly divorce. While both Tikvah and Shmuel wanted the divorce, as he got closer to the rabbinic courts he began to sense what he did not know before–that he had great power over her.divorce quiz 

What had started out as a fairly just settlement turned ugly. Little by little, his demands accelerated. Finally, Tikvah’s lawyer told her to sign over to him her half of the apartment’s eventual resale rights and be through with him; otherwise, the case would drag through the rabbinic courts for years. And that is what she did. Despite some flashes of resentment, she considered herself lucky.

Traditional Jewish divorce law points up two things: how much change has taken place during the evolution of this halakhah (Jewish legal system) and how much further development it needs to serve women more equitably and indiscriminately.

According to biblical law, a man is permitted to divorce his wife at will and send her away from his home. The second aspect highlights biblical women’s vulnerability: economic, physical, and psychological uprooting faced the woman who displeased her husband sufficiently to cause him to divorce her. She had no leverage to prevent or refuse the divorce. Neither could she divorce him.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if she finds no favor in his eyes because of ervat davar (some fault or indecency) and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house–and she marries another man, and the latter… writes her a bill of divorce… or dies–then her former husband cannot marry her again because she has been defiled… ” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Yet there were qualifications, important because the rabbis who interpreted biblical law for later generations built the legal structure on them.

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Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.

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