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Divorce

Many of us have read a story this week in the New York Post, a sad divorce story written by an Orthodox Jewish young woman named Gital, whose predicament of not yet having received her get, or writ of divorce according to Jewish law, is that of an agunah, a chained woman.

Even with a civil divorce, without a get, an official document from the husband releasing his wife from the marriage, a woman is still married under Jewish law. This state of limbo freezes her life into a creepy twilight zone of sorts where she is not really married, yet technically she still is, hence the hostage situation coined a “chained woman.”

Obviously I am not drawing any conclusions about this particular relationship based on an article. I don’t know the parties involved, let alone their stories. And certainly I believe a woman should be given her get with as little delay as possible.

That said, we all know there are two sides to every story. Some even say there are three sides to every story, his, hers and the truth. And we all know that sadly the parting of a couple or the breaking apart of a family is an all too human, messy, complicated and painful affair.

Regardless of what went on in a marriage, often each party feels he or she is the victim. Certainly the party being left behind feels that he or she is the aggrieved party; and the party who is choosing to do the leaving feels like the victim in this sense: This party was unsatisfied or unhappy, and instead of the “happily ever after” that he or she thought was coming, there is the rude awakening or, worse, feeling duped and disappointed.

And when children are involved, there is the profoundly difficult issue of child custody. Usually and hopefully, both parents want to continue parenting their child or children regardless of the state of the marriage breakdown.

Since, according to Jewish law, a husband has the power to grant the get to his wife, often times it becomes a negotiating tool in settling the divorce agreement, instead of the separate, neutral document that it can and should be, simply and officially declaring the marriage to be over.

As long as the get issue is in the man’s court and not subject to alteration, unlike other halachic Jewish legal changes in Jewish history, such as pruzbol (for the Sabbatical year) or the sale of leaven before Passover (mechirat chametz), something has got to change in the rabbinic system to shepherd and guide a couple undergoing divorce proceedings in a more gentle and wise manner. The story of divorce wars and get controversies are unfortunately all too frequent, sometimes even in cases where prenuptial agreements have been signed.

I think the sledgehammer approach to trying to get a man to give a get has proven ineffective. The complicated emotional circumstance of a woman being the proactive party in choosing to leave her husband, yet halachically remaining the vulnerable party since she is at the mercy of her husband to give the get is complicated. It puts a husband, who never wanted to leave the marriage in the first place, with leverage. He has the power to grant or not to grant the divorce.

So, on the one hand, it’s true he can unfairly use this as “punishment” or revenge, or he can use it as a bargaining chip for negotiating a settlement to his liking (otherwise known as extortion). It is a strange emotional place to be in — not wanting to end the marriage, yet feeling one’s hand forced into giving a document that terminates the marriage. His wife becomes the party choosing to end the marriage but is not the party to end it, to give the get. It’s complicated. And like I said, both parties can end up feeling like the victim.

Many rabbis are seasoned facilitators. They know the art of mediating the painful breakup of a couple or family. But all too many rabbis don’t have this skill set. Rabbis who deal with the get should be trained in psychology or, especially, mediation, in order to help a couple through the choppy, painful waters of separation. Among the difficulties, besides the granting of a get, agreements need to be drawn up that often govern the lives of the parties for years to come.

Divorce can bring out the worst demons. Otherwise nice and normal people often come undone from the pain of this process.

Social sanctions demonizing a man for not granting a get may be well intentioned in terms of showing solidarity with the woman, but such sanctions are simply ineffective. There are two sides to every story, and each person wants and needs to be validated for his or her pain in the story. Declaring one party evil and putting him in a kind of niddui or excommunication only further hardens a person’s position of refusing to grant a get.

Short of abuse — obviously — divorce is not about which party is right or wrong. It is about keeping both parties engaged, not declaring one good and the other bad. I feel strongly about a woman receiving her get. In an ideal world, as soon as the marriage seems to be forever over, the husband and wife part. Yet the reality of human emotional turmoil is real and messier than that.

Sometimes one party has been thinking of leaving the marriage for a long time, yet for the other party it is a shock. I think a time period of emotional adjustment should be built into such Jewish separations; the granting of a get should a priori not even on the table for the first few months. Let other issues of agreement be ironed out without the pressure of the get, so that by the time the issue of the official get is raised, some transition time has passed.

Signing on the dotted line that a marriage is over is an extremely difficult emotional step. I know that when I mediated, even when a mediation was going relatively smoothly and both parties were pretty agreeable about most decisions, once it came time to sign the very last document, one of the parties would suddenly feel the need to revisit a previously negotiated agreement, to re-raise it for yet another fine tuning that might take who knows how many more months. Anything to delay the reality of finality.

There is a wisdom to keeping the especially injured party in the dialogue, in helping him or her to cope with the loss of the life they had planned and in having them cooperate in the get. I don’t see social sanctions making an ex-husband into a pariah an effective strategy.

Everyone wants to be heard out in a divorce. Everyone feels like the victim (though, of course ultimately it is the innocent children who suffer).

More psychological attention needs to be paid by rabbis facilitating this painful process of separation to help each party go their separate way and, hopefully, find their happiness.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park


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