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Divorce Before Marriage

Marriage is a serious topic, divorce is a serious topic. Each is important enough to merit an entire Talmudic Tractate being named for it: Tractate Kiddushin (betrothals) for marriage, and Tractate Gittin (divorces) for marital disintegration. In life, marriage comes before divorce, but in Talmudic chronology, the Tractate for divorce comes before the Tractate on marriage. Why? Jesters would explain away the difficulty with the retort that we place the cure before the illness. But marriage and divorce are no jesting matter, and such flippant answers betray an insensitivity to the wrenching pain of divorce, and its impact on so many.

We may conjecture that the treatise on divorce was placed first, thus suggesting that the laws of divorce must be studied before mastering the laws of marriage. This is in order to transmit a clear, precise, and sobering view of how the Torah perceives marriage.

By studying the process and implications of exit from marriage, we gain a truer appreciation of the sacred, binding nature of the marital union. The detailed attention that is given to the dissolution of the marriage impresses those contemplating marriage to do all they can to avoid having to face the complexity and trauma of divorce.

If it is true, in Talmudic chronology, that divorce comes before marriage, in the contemporary arena divorce follows marriage all too often. The increase in divorce, which threatened to reach epidemic proportions, has leveled off somewhat in the last number of years, but the sobering effects of the increase in divorce are still with us.

Perhaps the most telling impact of the increase in divorce has been its impact on marriage itself. The fear that marriage may end in divorce — and especially in light of the relatively recent predictions that one out of every two marriages contracted in the 1980's would end in divorce — undoubtedly has had an impact on those who married. They must have thought, or had anxieties in the back of their mind, about whether they were destined to be one of the statistics.

This type of an anxiety can feed on itself. The very fear that the marriage may not last can sometimes compromise the couple's capacity to be really intimate with each other, to share highly personal feelings and to reveal their innermost thoughts and ideas. This is because they do not know whether the partnership will last, and they feel reluctant to reveal themselves to people who may eventually become estranged from them.

Unfortunately, this very process of distancing from those whom we should embrace corn promises the viability of the marriage, and may in fact lead to the very reality of which one is fearful, namely divorce.

Fear that the marriage may wind up in divorce is definitely a legitimate fear. It is legitimate because a marriage ending in divorce is a tragedy. The question of how to best counter this fear is another matter. Living in anxiety is certainly not the way to overcome this fear. Putting one's best foot forward and giving one's all to the marriage is the best way to counter this fear.

But all too often, as has been pointed out, the marriage does not work out, for whatever reason. Divorce is a tragedy somewhat akin to death, the death of a human relationship. However, unlike death, divorce is often an avoidable tragedy. It is a sad fact of contemporary life that many have chosen not to avoid the trauma of divorce. They have instead opted to extricate themselves from unpleasant or unfulfilling unions, not to say cruel or painful unions.

The Jewish community has certainly not escaped from the spate of divorces, although most studies tend to suggest that whilst divorce is a plague within the Jewish community, it is not yet as widespread. That is a small comfort on the statistical level, and no comfort at all to the couple who is divorcing, and to the wide circle of family and friends affected by the divorce.

Very few are able to exit from marriage without adverse effects and negative feelings. Even the initiator of a divorce often wrestles with a lonely, exposed feeling that is caused by divorce. Divorce is testimony to a failed marriage. Some may consider it as nothing more than a failed experiment, but others may interpret it as a personal failure, or indicative of personal failings.

Because of the fact that there are so many post-divorce singles within the Jewish matrix, communal leaders are hesitant to talk publicly about the virtues of marriage and the negative impact of divorce, for fear that they may hurt the feelings of the divorced individuals in the congregation. This silence creates an implicit cycle of acceptability, changing divorce from a personal and communal tragedy to a mere fact of life.

To be precise, divorce is a fact of life; unfortunately so, but a fact of life nevertheless. Jewish law long ago accepted the possibility of divorce in theory, as is evident from the biblical source and the development of the list of claims for the right to a divorce by either the husband or the wife who is short-changed in marriage.

The modern institution of no fault divorce was long ago incorporated as a legally justified contingency in Jewish law. Yet divorce as a general rule was rare, although there have been Jewish societies in various places, even generations ago, wherein the divorce rate was quite heavy. As a general rule, the Rabbis went out of their way to preserve marriages, even to an extent that would arouse the ire of many modern marriage counselors, who would probably not waste their time on many marriages that were saved by the Rabbis of yesteryear.

We or Me

A radical shift in attitude has unfolded over the past few decades, away from saving marriages and towards saving the individuals within the marriage. For example, the well known consultant for the public, Abigail Van Buren, under her "Dear Abby" column, was asked relatively recently why it is that previously she would counsel couples to do all they can to save their marriages, but now she gives the impression that divorce could be the answer. She responded that it was more important to save people than to save marriages. She went on to explain that sometimes, in an effort to save a marriage not worth saving, people have destroyed themselves and each other.

This response reflects the reality of contemporary times. Individual well-being, the right to self-realization, personal happiness, and contentedness, have become primary values, to the exclusion of perhaps a little bit of pain that may be endured to save a less than exciting marital union.

The self-realization, me first, narcissistic ethic that has spread over the free world has also spilled over into the Jewish community. Rabbis today would be hard pressed in arguing such notions as "the importance of family harmony" or "maintaining the peace," to couples who are not getting along and bent on divorce.

Different Perceptions

Relatively recent surveys of the population have revealed some telling information, concerning the focus on the self within the husband-wife dialectic.

Within the 21-34 age bracket, 50 % of the males and 67 % of the females stated they would not marry their spouse again. The survey showed that the older the bracket, the more likely are the spouses to be happy with their choice of mate. It is unclear whether marriage actually improves with time and people change their views, or whether the later age groupings have a better appreciation of life and thus are better marital partners. What is clear is that in the 21-34 age group, marriage is not faring too well.

Maturity is possibly an issue, with the younger married still mired in the narcissistic mode, and thus too interested in the self. The obsession with self may be so severe that no partner can satisfy the need to reinforce the self. A self-centered person is not happy with the less than adequate partner, and in turn is likewise an inadequate partner.

Within the 21-34 age bracket, 69 % of the males and 67 % of the females claimed they were the first to apologize in their household. The statistics do not add up, since it would mean that 136 % of the marital team apologizes first!

But the statistics do tell a powerful message about what is wrong in the marriage, and what is wrong in the personalities of the marital partners. Each one of the spouses thinks he or she is the right one, the better one, the one more likely to make peace overtures, and the other one is not as good. That type of thinking in the marriage, and within life, courts disaster.

Perhaps less importantly, but also revealing, within the 21-34 age group, 90 % of the males and 80 % of the females felt that the other partner had more closet space. That adds up to a lot of closet. But it also adds up to a lot of trouble, since each one feels that the other has the better deal.

Different perceptions among the couple, based on a self-centered, more powerful desire to please the self, and a nonchalant attitude toward pleasing one's mate, do not bode well for the marriage. Self-realization, if it is not the main reason for marital rupture, is invariably a contributing factor. Too many people, consumed by an obsession with their own selves, are willing to trample even on previously significant others.

Remorse and Appreciation

There is an eloquent Talmudic statement projecting the traditional attitude to divorce. The statement is that when one divorces one's first mate, even the altar in the holy temple sheds tears (Gittin, 90b). Why the altar, why the tears? The altar was that place in the temple where the Israelites expressed their closeness to G‑d. One who deviated brought an offering, which was to effect atonement and bridge the distance separating the individual from G‑d; distance caused by, or manifested in the deviation. An appreciative person brought an offering expressing gratitude and appreciation to G‑d for G‑d's kindness.

The penitent has the courage to admit being in error, and to take definite steps to correct the error. The appreciative one has the kindness of character to acknowledge a benefit bestowed, and make a tangible gesture showing that appreciation.

These two fundamental emotions, penitence and appreciation, are evoked at the altar. They are at the same time critical ingredients in marriage. Being penitent in marriage speaks of the ability to see that one has erred, either by not having lived up to one's responsibilities, or by having made an explicit mistake of thought, word, or deed, and then having the courage and the desire to correct that situation.

Being appreciative is an essential component of the basic outer-directedness dynamic of marriage. Expressing appreciation to one's spouse, which indicates a sensitivity to the deeds of the significant other in the marriage, binds the relationship with the glue of caring and sensitivity.

Marriages that fail invariably lack the outer-directedness and willingness to adjust

ingredients. The altar, which also thrives on these ingredients, cries when the couple divorces, when the ingredients that the altar itself thrives on are missing in marriage.

Tears, Not Rage

But why tears? Why not rage, why not anger, why not screams? The reason is simply because divorce is unfortunate, a situation to lament, but not a reason to condemn. One cries for others, but one screams at others. The altar commiserates, but it refuses to point an accusing finger. Character flaws may be at the root of the marital disintegration, but who in this world is perfect? Is it not possible that the fact some marriages survive intact is not necessarily an indication of the superiority of the participants in that marriage? The marriage may just be subsisting, or the couple involved may have been blessed with the luck of having made the right choice.

The fact that a marriage survives intact is no proof that the partners in such marriage are of superior character, and the fact that a marriage ends in divorce is not foolproof evidence that the couple involved in that failed marriage is of inferior character. Therefore, rage, anger, and screams, as a general rule, are not a legitimate reaction. Crying, however, is a legitimate reaction, because divorce is tragic, and for a tragedy, one cries. The altar cries.

Using this model, one can at once laud the marriage ideal and lament divorce, at the same time as one refrains from pointing an accusing finger, or condemning anyone who has suffered the pain of divorce.

We shall try to pinpoint the marital sore points without pointing accusing fingers. Hopefully, those reading this book will like-wise avoid accusations, and instead focus clearly on the issues, in a positive mind-frame.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is a noted author, lecturer and Jewish activist. He is the rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and is the co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The Jewish Divorce Ethics is reprinted with the gracious permission of the author
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