Jewish Divorce 101

An overview of how marriages are traditionally dissolved.

Although the rabbis accepted that some marriages had to end, they did so with great regret and insisted that attempts at reconciliation precede a divorce. The rabbis’ emotional qualms about divorce are well expressed in a saying of Rabbi Eleazar: “One who divorces his wife, even the very altar sheds tears because of him” (Tractate Gittin 90b in the Babylonian Talmud).

History & Development of Divorce

The history of Jewish divorce is an ongoing attempt to rectify the biblically mandated imbalance of power in Jewish marriage–where the husband has the exclusive right to end a marriage. However, even the Torah, which allowed the husband to send his wife away for a severe breach of loyalty, qualified the husband’s absolute prerogative to grant a divorce: He had to write her a formal bill of divorce and pay a form of alimony; and in certain specified situations, he could never divorce his wife.

The rabbis placed additional limitations on the husband that somewhat improved the wife’s situation. They enlarged the number of cases where divorce was prohibited, increased the complexity of the divorce process, required the wife’s consent to a divorce; and expanded the husband’s financial responsibilities toward a divorced wife by placing a lien on his property to be paid in case of divorce.

Although the Talmud required that the get (bill of divorce) be granted with the husband’s “full consent,” the rabbis specified circumstances under which a wife could request that the beit din, or rabbinic court, attempt to “compel” the husband to grant a divorce, for example, if he did not fulfill his marital obligations. If a wife does not receive a get, she becomes an agunah, or chained wife, who cannot remarry.

Liturgy, Ritual and Custom

The divorce ritual itself is straightforward. The couple appears before a beit din, and the husband authorizes a sofer (scribe) to write a get in the presence of two witnesses. The husband then drops the get into the wife’s hands, declaring that she is free to remarry. The rabbi tears the four corners of the get so it cannot be reused, files it, and grants both husband and wife documents of release. This procedure is always adhered to by the Conservative and Orthodox movements and a form of it is used by the Reconstructionist, and sometimes the Reform, movements.

If a husband expects to face a situation of mortal danger, he may grant his wife a conditional get that will take effect only if he does not return in a specified period of time, thereby preventing his wife from becoming an agunah.

Contemporary Issues in Jewish Divorce

Contemporary Jews from all the movements have responded to the inequities in Jewish divorce law that have created the tragedy of the agunah. Some have created civil remedies through the secular legal system, but these can be problematic. Religious attempts to save the agunah include urging couples to sign halakhic prenuptial agreements that encourage the husband to grant a get or having a rabbinic court annul a marriage. Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, troubled greatly by the situation of the agunah, accept civil divorce as fully dissolving a marriage. In Israel, the matter of divorce is handled exclusively by the Rabbinical courts and a woman seeking divorce is subject to their decision-making.

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