Mourning a Marriage
"When a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar of God sheds tears." (Gittin 90b)
In most divorces, God is not the only one to shed tears. Divorce is not only the end of a marriage, but also a kind of death that must be mourned before one can go on to create new dreams.
As a Reform rabbi, I had worked over the years with many individuals who were going through divorces. I thought I understood their pain, their shame, their anger, and their grief. I had often seen that civil divorce wasn't sufficient to help people separate emotionally as well as financially and physically. I thought I understood the need for Jewish ritual to help them move through their loss to a place where they could begin again. I thought I understood that divinity needed to be present as a marriage ended just as it is present under the huppah, the marriage canopy, when a marriage begins. I thought I understood it all, but it wasn't until my marriage ended after twelve years, two children, and a thousand shattered dreams that I really began to understand.
I know full well that a traditional get (divorce document) is a patriarchal ritual in which a man releases his wife, and his wife is released. Therefore, I was surprised to discover that I wanted a get. It was not for political reasons--i.e., so that no one would even question the status of any children that might come from a subsequent marriage--for I was already forty; there was little chance of other children. My reason was personal, not political. I felt I needed to be released, to be set free from the commitments and the promises I had made to this marriage and to the man I had loved since I was twenty years old. I needed to face him one last time, and to hear him acknowledge through ancient words that our dreams had been shattered and that the sacred bonds that had connected us had been destroyed. I didn't want the ritual that ended our marriage to be easy or pleasant; I wanted it to reflect the pain and dislocation that I felt. I somehow believed that only by facing the pain could I begin to reconnect with the holiness in my life.
Because I knew the ritual would be difficult, I asked my friend Ruth to come with me for support. The ceremony was to take place at the home of the head of the Orthodox beit din (religious court). She and I arrived at the rabbi's home in the middle of the afternoon. I was invited to sit at a long table at the front of the living room; Ruth sat on the sofa in the back. When my ex-husband arrived, he joined me at the table, across from the rabbi, the two witnesses, and the scribe--all Orthodox men. After asking to see the front page of our civil divorce, our ketubah (Jewish marriage document), and our driver's licenses, the rabbi asked both of us to give our Hebrew names, our nicknames, and any other names we have ever used. All this was to ensure that the information on the get would identify us properly.
Then the rabbi turned to my ex-husband and asked: "Do you, Michael, the son of Abraham, give this get of your own free will without duress and compulsion?" Even after the affirmative answer, question after question followed to determine that Michael was freely choosing to give this get. Satisfied, the rabbi asked Michael to recite: "Hear ye witnesses: in your presence I declare null and void any previous declaration that I may have made which may invalidate this get."
I sat silently as the scribe presented to Michael the pen, the paper, and the ink he would use to write the get. Michael lifted them up to show he had acquired them, and returned them to the scribe as he read a statement ordering the scribe to write a get for him to divorce me--for him exclusively, for me exclusively, and for the purpose of a get exclusively--to write even a hundred gittin until one valid get was written.
We sat in silence as the scribe wrote out the get. We were only required to remain in the room while the first line was being written, but neither of us moved. The only sound was the scratching of the quill pen, a sound that evoked the unraveling of dreams.
We were lucky. The scribe completed a perfect get on the first attempt. We had only waited about twenty minutes. The scribe held it up for the witnesses to see. They both agreed it was very beautiful. Before the witnesses signed it, they asked each other to confirm that this was the get Michael had asked them to witness in order to divorce me.
Then the rabbi held up the get and turned to the scribe. "Is this the get you have written?" In the questions that followed, he determined that this was indeed the get that the scribe had written for Michael for the express purpose of divorcing me. He asked again whether Michael was giving this get freely and instructed him to disavow any statement he might have made to invalidate the get.
As the rabbi turned to me, I asked if I could see the get. The rabbi seemed surprised that a woman would ask to see her get. It was beautiful; perfectly formed Hebrew letters on twelve lines. Asking to see the get gave me a sense of power.
Then the rabbi asked me a series of questions similar to those he had asked Michael, questions about my willingness to accept the get. I too declared null and void any statements that might have nullified the get.
The rabbi folded the get in half and then in thirds; the folded get looked like a collar. He asked each of us to stand and face the other. I took off all jewelry from my hands as the rabbi handed the get to Michael. Michael dropped it into my cupped hands and said: "This is your get and with it be you divorced from this time forth so that you may become the wife of any man." I took my get, lifted it over my head to indicate that I had acquired it, put it in my pocket, and walked out of the room. At that moment, I felt that i could finally begin again.
Those few moments facing the man I had once loved and walking away from him transformed me. Although we had been separated for two years and divorced by civil law for six months, it was not until that moment that I began to feel released. The knot was finally untying.
I returned to the table with my get. The rabbi opened it to determine again that it was in fact the very get written for this specific occasion Then he refolded it and cut it with scissors like I had cut out paper snowflakes as a child.
There was something ancient and powerful about the ritual. All this attention to create a beautiful and perfect document--only to have it cut apart. It seemed like a good way to mark the end of a marriage that began with hope but ended in pieces.
The rabbi kept the get and gave each of us a document (petur) certifying that we had ended our marriage with a get. He and the witnesses wished us both well. Then Ruth took me out for High Tea at a wonderful restaurant to celebrate the beginning of the rest of my life.
The get ceremony, though powerful, was insufficient. I needed a ritual in which I was the actor, not the one acted upon--a ritual through which I could release myself. At first, I thought about saying kaddish for my marriage, but I was beyond that stage. I was ready to end the mourning. The image that came to mind was returning from an unveiling, lifting the veil from a period of intense mourning, and signaling to the mourner and the community that the mourner was ready to "go forth in peace to life." After a funeral, the friends bring food and take care of the mourner. After an unveiling, the mourner's status changes; now she can feed those who took care of her. I wanted to thank my friends for taking care of me during the darkest time of my life.
On the evening after my traditional get, eleven women friends joined me at my home to help me create a new ceremony. It was the fifth night of Chanukah.
We began in darkness, sitting in a circle around the hanukkiyah (candelabra). I had asked each woman to come prepared to share a story about a journey from darkness to light. After each had shared her story, I thanked them all for helping me move from darkness to light. Then we lit the hanukkiyah and sang "Shehechiyanu"--"Thank you God, for having kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this time."
Ruth described the get ritual she had witnessed, and I read a new version of the get, one that I had written. It, too, had twelve lines, but this time I was the one releasing myself. After I read it aloud, all of my friends signed it as witnesses.
Then we went in to the backyard and stood near the trees I had planted at the brit (covenant ceremony) of my son and daughter. Just as I had planted my son's foreskin and my daughter's umbilical cord, so we planted my version of the get under a new tree that my friends had given me as a present. As we buried it, I asked each of my friends to voice everything they hoped I would bury from my marriage and divorce.
We returned to the house and I served the best dinner I could cook. After all the months of their feeding and caring for me, I was finally ready to give something back. I placed a present at each table setting to thank my friends for all their gifts of love.
We ended the evening with singing, laughing, and some tears.
When people divorce, it is not only God who sheds tears. My divorce rituals taught me that while it is good to cry, there will come a time when the crying will end. These rituals helped me understand that I could begin again, grateful for the blessings that had come from my marriage and ready to learn from its mistakes.