Is Civil Divorce Enough?

The liberal movements who have held that a civil divorce constitutes a get, or Jewish divorce, are finding that on an emotional, religious level, it's just not enough.

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In 1869 the Reform movement voted to accept civil divorce alone as dissolving a marriage. The decision grew out of a concern over the power imbalance in a Jewish divorce (which must be granted by the husband) and the devastating consequences for traditional women who could not obtain a get, or Jewish bill of divorce. Paradoxically, contemporary Reform Jews have begun to recognize that a religious divorce can provide spiritual and psychological closure, and some rabbis are offering modified Jewish divorce ceremonies. The Reconstructionist movement also accepts a civil divorce if the husband is unwilling to provide a get. The Conservative and Orthodox movements require a religious divorce to end a Jewish marriage. The following series of passages examine the new acceptance of religious divorce in the most liberal movements.

Reform and Reconstructionist Movements Encouraging a Religious Ceremony

Samuel Atlas, the talmudist professor of philosophy at Hebrew Union College, determined that the meaning of "dina d'malkhuta dina" ("the law of the land is law in civil matters")--a great principle of Jewish law--is that a civil divorce is a get. So the Reform movement's posture is that the moment a man and woman divorce in a civil court in the U.S., it is considered dissolved in the eyes of Jewish law.

jewish civil divorceHowever, as Rabbi [Reeve] Brenner [rabbi of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland]… explains, the application of dina d'malkhuta dina in the case of marriage is not universally accepted in the Reform movement. For the sake of unity among all Jews, the Reform movement now urges separating spouses to get a religious divorce in addition to the civil one. They say that when a couple marries as religious people, then the dissolution of such a marriage should also be religious.

The Reform movement understands divorce not just as a legal matter, but as a spiritual one, as well. A religious get is sometimes needed psychologically to help the separating couple begin new lives after the divorce. A divorce is transformative just as a marriage is, and, therefore, akin to all lifecycle events, rabbis should be part of it.

The Reconstructionist movement will also accept a civil divorce as a get. However, as Rabbi Steve Segar of the Reconstructionist Havurah of Cleveland explains, he would strongly encourage a religious separation ceremony symbolizing the relinquishing of the relationship. Segar would encourage the husband or wife to undergo such a ceremony individually, even if the former spouse were to refuse to participate.

­-- Nurete Brenner. Reprinted with permission from "Prenuptial accord good to 'get' prior to wedding" in the Cleveland Jewish News. 

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