Annulment of Marriages

Rarely do we see as clearly the tension between traditional Jewish practices and secular values as in the issue of annulment.

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With a growing rate of secular divorce, and many remarriages resulting in the birth of mamzerim, our community finds itself rapidly dividing into two groups of Jews who will not be able to marry each other. An interesting counterpoint to this contemporary scene are the diametrically opposed schools of talmudic rabbis Shammai and Hillel. The philosophical divisions between them were sharp and at times irreconcilable. However, the Talmud reports that no matter how deep the rift that separated the two schools of thought, their adherents were always allowed to marry each other. Perhaps a definition of “Who is a Jew?” boils down to “Whom can you marry?”

How Does Annulment Fit In?

While the Torah does not mention the concept of annulment, the rabbis in the Talmud interpreted the laws of marriage as allowing a beit din to intervene and annul a marriage if the husband has acted in a way that causes harm (physical or mental) to his wife. This could be done without the husband's participation or approval and over his protestations. In the Talmud the cases cited are specific: where a woman is coerced into the marriage upon threat of violence to her person or where a woman is kidnapped and forced to marry a man against her will.

In the early Middle Ages we find rabbinic rulings that an annulment can be decreed by a beit din if “defects” in the husband were found after the marriage took place. If the husband suffered from a condition (mental illness, abusive behavior, impotence, or a physical defect) at the time of the marriage and the wife was unaware of the condition when they were married, she can seek an annulment from the beit din.

The way annulment is handled today by the Conservative and Orthodox movements--both of whom claim to accept Jewish law as binding--reflects the doctrinal differences between them. While there is no one prevailing Orthodox view on this issue, the rabbinic courts that grant annulments focus on the “letter of the law.” Annulments can be granted if the laws of marriage were not followed correctly. Therefore, if there were not two kosher witnesses at the ceremony, the ceremony is invalid. (A “kosher” witness is a male, Sabbath-observant Jew of matrilineal descent who is not related to either bride or groom or the other witness.) If there was no valid exchange of property--the groom giving the bride, without reciprocation, a ring, other gift, or even money--or if the ketubah [marriage contract] was not valid, the marriage can be annulled. If it can be proven that the groom was mentally disturbed or had a preexisting condition at the time of the wedding, of which the bride was unaware, the marriage can be annulled.

The Conservative movement’s focus is on the concept that the rabbis, as arbiters of Jewish law, have the authority to grant an annulment. Thus, they are not as concerned with the points of law under which annulments are granted. The rabbis are more concerned with the precedent that annulments can be granted. The Conservative movement grants annulments if the husband refuses to give a get out of spite, disappears and cannot be located, is abusive, or attempts to blackmail the wife into giving him a more favorable property settlement.

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Rabbi Steven Bayar

Steven Bayar received his bachelor's degree and a masters in religious studies from the University of Virginia and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He serves as rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in Millburn, N.J., and is the author of Teens & Trust (Torah Aura), Ziv/Giraffe Curriculum (Righteous Persons), and Tikkun Olam (KTAV), & is co-founder of Ikkar Publishing.