Reprinted by permission of the author from A Ceremonies Sampler (Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education), edited by Elizabeth Resnick Levine.
This past year, while engaged in a spiritual exercise, I discovered that my body, psyche, and soul still held within them an old pain: the pain of my divorce, which had taken place over 10 years ago in Israel. In the exercise, I found myself standing alone, unaccustomedly quiet, my feet firm on the ground. Then my arms rose and the palms of my hands opened flat, toward the ceiling. An inner voice told me that even my thumbs had to lie flat. As I stood like that, memory washed over me and I realized I was reliving the experience of the get [Jewish bill of divorce]. My belly was burning with a sense of humiliation that 10 years ago I never knew I felt.
The experience shocked me: The divorce, after all, was a thing of the past, and in 1987 I had remarried. I hadn’t known I still bore the bruises of the get ceremony–nor did I realize how profoundly humiliating an experience that get ceremony had been. To undergo the ceremony and thus to be legally divorced in the eyes of Israel, where in 1970 we had married, I had returned to the Negev city of Beersheba, our former home. By the time we were ready to go through with the divorce, the pain of our severance had lessened, if not healed. At least neither of us questioned that the time had come for the divorce.
Remembering the Divorce Ceremony
In Israel it is the Orthodox Rabbinate to which one must go, and it is their ritual of divorce that one must undergo. The Beersheba Rabbinate is housed in a dusty old stone building, built by the Turks. We showed the rabbinical officials our identity cards, marriage certificate, and ketubah [marriage contract], and while the scribe wrote out the bill of divorcement–the get–according to ancient prescription, we drank espressos with tearful eyes in a local cafe. Hours later they were ready for us; we were ushered into the inner chambers where, cloaked in black, high on the bench above us like judges, the rabbis sat. How many rabbis were there I couldn’t say–what memory does conjure up for me, though, is that one of them seemed to be nodding off, bored to near sleep.
And my costume, yes my costume, comes back to me, too: feeling strange in the heat, the headscarf hiding my hair, as they insisted; the skirt to my ankles; the long sleeves. Who was this woman dressed as if from another time, in this stony place, standing before these men who addressed only my husband and looked quickly away from me?
"And are you agreeing to this from your own free will? free of any pressure?" they asked him in their Yiddish-inflected Hebrew. For an instant I feared he would say, "No, I never wanted this, she wanted this, it’s all her fault, I tried my best, make us stay married, make her come back…. " But he didn’t, he said, "Yes." They nodded and handed him the get. The divorcing ritual could begin.
"Stand face to face," they said. "You, g’veret [madame], put up your hands, no, not like that, your thumbs are up, you see they show eagerness that way, they mustn’t show eagerness, yes, like that, absolutely flat, they have to be flat. Now, Adoni [sir], say the words, ‘Ha-ray aht megurehshet lee–Behold you are divorced from me.’" And my husband and I stared straight into one another’s eyes, and he said, "Ha-ray aht megurehshet lee," and echoing in my ears were the words of marriage, "Ha-ray aht mekudehshet lee–Behold you are sanctified to me," and the rabbi said, "Now, Adoni, drop the get into her hands, keep your thumbs down, g’veret, absolutely flat, g’veret," and he dropped the get into my hands.
Still I was silent, still I said nothing, and the rabbi said, "Now you, g’veret, hold the get up high, you are showing it to the world, g’veret, good, now walk to the four corners of the room holding up the get, to that corner, and to that corner," and I held up the get high for the world to see, and I marched like a shtetl woman [a woman from a small East European town] to the four corners of the room, arms outstretched. The rabbi was pleased and he said, "Come here." I went to the bench and stood before the rabbis, and one ripped a corner of the get and said, "You are free to remarry."
Passivity Brings Pain
I didn’t know then–I didn’t know until years later in the room in Los Angeles–that being forced into silence, being forbidden to speak, being rendered unutterably passive, even my thumbs forced down, being made to receive the words, "Ha-ray aht megurehshet lee," made me feel I was being divorced from the good, from the holy, from the sacred, from life itself, humiliated–oh, humiliated so–made me feel I was being punished for seeking an end to the marriage, made me feel thrust into hell.
And that is what, for women, the Orthodox divorce ritual probably was intended to do.
Not until I relived the get ceremony in my spiritual exercise did I awaken to my buried pain, did I come face to face with the humiliation for women written into the ceremony, did I realize the price I had paid. I knew if I were to free myself from its impact on me, I had to create a ritual of exorcism. I needed to exorcise the get.
The Ritual of Exorcism
And so, on Memorial Day weekend 1990, I gathered together with a group of women for the exorcism. An inner voice I have learned to trust told me the way to do it was to replay what had been… dismembering its parts. Every step in the original ceremony needed to be undone: the questioning by the rabbi; the writing of the get; the words of divorce; the march around the room; the ripping of the document; the declaration of freedom.
Women in Orthodox Judaism are not permitted to serve as witnesses: women in my divorce exorcism were my witnesses. A close friend stood in as "rabbi"; this time around, she asked me why I wanted the divorce. Standing face to face with her, in words that had been pent up in me for too many years, I spoke the truth of my former marriage as I had experienced it. Then I "read out" my own get. When I had said all I needed to say, I pronounced the words I had needed so long ago to be free to pronounce:
Ha-ray ahtah megurash lee
Behold, you are divorced from me.
And then I strode to the "corners" of the open field, surrounded by sunlit hills, where we had gathered. I declared my right to divorce that which had sapped the strivings of my own soul, psyche, and heart, and had lessened my own capacity for loving and being loved. Returning to the semicircle in which my women witnesses stood, I took the get, my get, and I ripped it to shreds. I stomped on the shreds and invited all the witnesses who also bore old rage to name the source of their rage and stomp on the shreds as well.
The ritual was dramatic, powerful, leaving many of us–and certainly me–shaken. But one more time it brought home to me that the awakening of Jewish women in this culture is creating a matrix in which we are free to reclaim the power of, and the right to, our own spiritual lives. In this sense, as in others, the ritual of exorcising the get became a needed ritual of healing.