A conscientious and spiritually complete divorce process is preferable to one that takes place almost exclusively in lawyers’ offices, and many Reconstructionist Jews have employed the get, a Jewish bill of divorce, to help achieve this sense of completion.
A get is an official religious document terminating a marriage. It is written and delivered under the supervision of a rabbi and in the presence of a beit din, a rabbinic court of three rabbis. Two additional witnesses are present to sign the document. Traditionally, the get can only be initiated by the husband and received by the wife. This has given rise to the painful situation of agunot, chained women. An agunah is a woman whose husband withholds a get in order to prevent her remarriage, extort money, coercively gain custody of children, or otherwise manipulate his former spouse’s life.
The Reconstructionist movement has responded to this injustice by instituting three types of get ceremonies for those seeking a Reconstructionist divorce. The first type is parallel to the traditional get, which the husband initiates and delivers to the wife. The second Reconstructionist get allows the wife to initiate and deliver it to her husband. The third option is a get that is mutually initiated by both partners and delivered to each other with complete equality. These options are also available for gay and lesbian couples.
Guidelines of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association suggest that the officiating rabbi make it clear that a Reconstructionist get is not equivalent to an Orthodox get in the eyes of the Orthodox movement (and some members of the Conservative movement), both here and in Israel, and to make clear to the divorcing couple their range of Jewish options and the Jewish implications of their choice, specifically, if a woman who receives a Reconstructionist get then remarries and has children, she is considered an adaulterer in the eyes of Jewish law and children from her new union are considered mamzerim or ‘bastards’ by Jewish law. These mamzerim would only be able to marry others in this category or converts for ten generations. Some rabbis encourage couples to undergo both procedures–the Orthodox get to fulfill any halakhic (legal) requirements that may arise in the future, and the Reconstructionist get to satisfy any number of personal needs. These needs might include the achievement of a sense of spiritual completion and separation from the former spouse; exercise of control over one’s personal status; and ritualization of the divorce in a contemporary religious context to achieve community recognition of the couple’s changing status.
Reconstructionist get options enable one or both partners to attain spiritual closure, whether or not they have the cooperation of their former partner. It also allows couples who are able to cooperate with one another to create a meaningful ceremony, perhaps in the company of a few friends and witnesses, in order to begin the healing process.
Reprinted with permission from Reconstructionism Today, Summer 2001.