It is striking that amidst the recent burst of ritual creativity, little has changed in the Jewish divorce process. While traditional Jewish law recognizes that divorce is sometimes necessary, divorce remains a signal of failure and a mark of shame in a community organized around the nuclear family. At present, the get ceremony is often conducted as if it were an exclusively legal procedure, with little attention given to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of the experience. Among other reasons is the assumption that an impersonal process will be less painful for the couple. But meaningful rituals cannot be reserved only for celebrations and inevitable sad occasions such as death; ritual must also be used to help people make meaning when finalizing difficult choices. Ignoring the personal power of the get ceremony denies people the opportunity to sanctify this complicated experience and misses an occasion for rabbis and others to offer support to people experiencing a painful and often lonely time.
Divorce has not been entirely ignored by those engaged in creative ritual-making. But most new rituals focus on “extra-legal” ceremonies meant to complement, not enhance or change, the existing get process. (See, for example, www.ritualwell.org, which lists eleven divorce rituals, only two of which are intended as get ceremonies.) Looking anew at the get ceremony allows us to maintain continuity with the tradition while also recasting the divorce proceeding as a meaningful ritual, rather than a formality, inconvenience, or at worst, a degrading experience.
What follows are a series of initial recommendations based on our own disappointing experiences with get and the reports of friends about similarly negative Jewish divorce processes. (Some of these suggestions are only applicable in cases in which both of the divorcing parties are present for the get.) Revisioning get begins with the application of existing insights about the nature of ritual to the divorce process. Using the example of the Jewish wedding ceremony as a counterpoint is instructive, particularly since the get is a parallel ritual to kiddushin (marriage).
- Most rabbis will not perform a wedding without meeting with the couple in advance. Similarly, if at all possible, the mesader gittin, divorce officiant, should meet with the divorcing couple (separately or together) before the get. This would provide an opportunity to explain the stages, symbolism, and meaning of the ceremony, to ask if the couple wants or needs pastoral guidance, and to give them a sense of ownership over the process.
- Witnesses, edim, for a wedding are chosen with care by the rabbi or couple. In the case of get, however, the sole criterion is often halakhic fitness (i.e., maleness and religious observance). Edim for a get should be chosen for their sensitivity and interpersonal strengths in addition to exclusively legal considerations. Further, rabbis should encourage the couple to invite supportive friends to the get ceremony.
- Just as the mesader kiddushin (wedding officiant) begins the wedding ceremony by calling attention to God’s presence at this special moment, so too should the mesader gittin create a sacred context for the get. This could include a textual reading (such as Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), a niggun (wordless melody), or simply a verbal recognition of the power of the occasion.
- In today’s get ceremony, the couple is not usually required to witness the scribe hand writing the divorce document. Some mesadrei gittin treat this as “dead time,” suggesting that the couple read the newspaper, take a walk, or check their voicemail. Just as the bride and groom are included in the ketubah signing, so too should the divorcing couple be encouraged to watch the scribe write the get (or a portion of it, as the witnesses are required to do). In the Jewish tradition, which emphasizes the power of language and of the written word, this aspect of the get process should not be ignored.
- The verbal formulation of the traditional get — spoken by the man only — releases the woman from the exclusivity pronounced under the huppah, allowing her to enter a new relationship. (Her nonverbal acceptance of the get document, discussed below, releases the man from their bond.) However, the traditional get ceremony does not address other forms of release. A fuller ritual might include the couple’s own words or words from the mesader gittin about the need for the release of promises, dreams, anger, guilt, and frustration. This gesture would also give the woman a voice in the ceremony.
- The divorce is formalized when the woman takes hold of the get document, dropped into her hands by her husband, and steps away from him to acknowledge her acceptance. This ritual moment could be enhanced (and made more mutual) by an additional gesture in which the partners return an object to each other, as a more personal sign of release. For couples that exchanged rings under the huppah, they may wish to return them before the formalization of the get.
The above suggestions could all be easily incorporated into a traditional get ceremony. However, more radical revisions will also be necessary to address the challenge of egalitarianism, which is the single greatest issue in the renewal of get. According to halakhah, only a man can initiate a divorce; this power imbalance is unfair and dangerous and must be remedied, as the unsolved problem of the agunah (literally, chained wife) demonstrates. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, only men can serve as witnesses. This injustice requires swift redress. Additionally, women are vastly underrepresented as mesadrot gittin and sofrot (scribes) and should be encouraged to train for these roles. Finally, the get ritual is fundamentally not egalitarian because the release enacted is not mutual: the husband frees the wife without reciprocation. This is due to the structure of kiddushin, in which a man acquires a woman. Revisioning get, then, requires us to reexamine the basic framework of marriage (as Rachel Adler has taught us) so that men and women, gay and straight, have the opportunity to enter into and dissolve their partnerships with mutuality.
At its best, Judaism is a tradition that offers opportunities for sanctifying all of life’s experiences. While divorce is an uncomfortable subject for many of us, we have a responsibility to ensure that couples are provided with a meaningful religious context — reflecting our community’s highest ideals — in which to dissolve their marriage.
Or N. Rose teaches at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the author of God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters (Jewish Lights, 2004), and Abraham Joshua Heschel: Man of Spirit, Man of Action (JPS). Judith Rosenbaum is Director of Education at the Jewish Women’s Archive. She is the editor of the new curriculum, “Making Our Wilderness Bloom: 350 Years of Extraordinary Jewish Women in America,” available at www.jwa.org.