Gittin 46

Bad reputation.

As Joan Jett famously sang, “I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation.” Beyond being an absolute bop, the 1980 classic claims that women who do what they want get a “bad reputation,” but insists they have the right to do so anyway. 

A woman getting a bad reputation is not a 20th-century innovation. Both the Mishnah and the Talmud discuss the legal effects of such a reputation on the woman and on her marriage. We learned in the mishnah yesterday:

A man who divorces his wife due to a bad reputation may not remarry her.

If a woman gets a bad reputation (as we’ll see, this likely has something to do with adultery) and her husband divorces her, that’s it for them as a couple. But why? 

The Gemara today offers two explanations. The first frames it as a penalty for the husband.  

Because of harm. If he said this to her, he will be able to cause harm to her. But if not, he will not be able to cause this harm to her.

If a man states that he is divorcing his wife due to her bad reputation, and then finds out her reputation was unearned, he might then try to invalidate the divorce. And given that a divorced woman is probably off living her life (and likely doesn’t want to be married to someone who divorced her based on unfounded rumors), that would cause her harm. So if a man states that his divorce is based on his wife’s bad reputation, then their marriage is ended forever with no possibility of remarriage. And that would likely cause a man to think twice about divorcing his wife to begin with, at least based on rumors. 

Now to the second explanation, which frames this prohibition as a penalty for the wife:

So that Jewish women will not be promiscuous with regard to forbidden relations or vows.

Here, the Talmud assumes that the woman does not want to be divorced at all. If she knows she can be divorced for a bad reputation with no possibility of remarriage (to the divorcing husband), then she will be extra careful about doing things that would give her a bad reputation. 

Of course, the problem with this explanation is that a bad reputation may well be unearned. If false rumors circulate, it’s not clear what the woman could do to prevent it. Joan Jett herself sang, “The world’s in trouble, there’s no communication An’ everyone can say what they wanna say.” Someone can get a bad reputation by just not following the prevailing social norms, having nothing to do with adultery.

The Talmud today insists that whether or not a bad reputation is earned, the social perception of a woman’s behavior has real effects on her and her husband if they divorce. For the rabbis, whether or not it should, what society thinks of us matters — at least legally. That’s the power and the danger of living in community — and it’s an important call to us all to ensure that we use our communal voices wisely, judiciously and honestly. Because rumors and reputation really matter — in ways we might not even realize.  

Read all of Gittin 46 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 1st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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