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The Wife's Grounds for Divorce

The Wife's Grounds for Divorce

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Woman Can Initiate

The right of the wife to demand a divorce is as legally entrenched as is the right of the husband to demand a divorce. This legal entrenchment goes all the way back to biblical times, and is not merely an adjustment to more modern contingencies.

It would be a basic inequity in the relationship if the husband would be allowed to sue for divorce for whatever precipitating factor, whilst the wife would not be allowed to demand exit from the marriage no matter what happened. No one can deny that there are inequities in the system, but these inequities emanate more from abuse of the system rather than from its basic weaknesses.

Equity in the Law

The very same Torah that forewarned against taking advantage of the orphan and the widow could hardly be expected to entrench vulnerability of the wife within the marriage. If anything, the sense of fairness, and concern for all individuals no matter what their position or station in life, is a central feature of the Torah. All individuals are G‑dly creations, and all individuals must be appreciated as such.

It is therefore not surprising and quite natural that the woman has access to exit from the marriage not only in cases of mutual desire, but also in situations when she is obviously disadvantaged by a callous and insensitive husband.

To force a woman to endure the agony of a cruel husband who abuses her is unfathomable. The self-same Torah of G‑d which forbids the afflicting of others could surely not allow, or tolerate, a situation wherein afflicting of others is permitted to continue through the camouflage of an institutionalized union.

Irresponsibility

The primary right of a woman to demand a divorce is linked to situations when basic marital needs have been neglected, or abused by the husband. The husband is then "convinced" by the court to both grant the get to his wife, and to give her the ketubah (marital contract) settlement.

The husband who has been derelict with regard to the sustenance that he is obliged to give to his wife, or the conjugal visitation that he must share with his wife, has thereby violated a primary responsibility of the marital covenant, and the wife has the right to a divorce in these situations. These elements of the marriage are so crucial, that their being used by the husband as a weapon with which to deprive the wife, either emotionally or physically, is considered a breach of the sacred marital trust.

A woman may demand a divorce from her husband, if he has been found to be philandering with other women. There need not be proof of his having committed adultery, just of his having cavorted with other women. Even his causing her a bad name through his lecherous actions is likewise considered legitimate justification for the wife launching a divorce action. If the wife feels repulsed by her husband, it is wrong to force her to remain in the union. If the wife should make a vow that affects the marital union, such as a vow related to abstaining from conjugal union or some other impediment to marital viability, and the husband purposely fails to annul that vow, this is interpreted as a desire on his part to sever the relationship. The wife may then demand a divorce.

Should the husband, via a vow, forbid the wife to engage in any form of work, this is considered sufficient grounds for the wife to demand a get. The reasoning behind this is that imposed idleness has certain adverse personal consequences, leading to frustration and perhaps even worse. No wife can be coerced into such an adversity.

Abuse

The husband who hits his wife, curses her, ridicules her, insults her, or insults his wife's parents in the presence of his wife, or forbids his wife from visiting her parents or family, or whose general mode of communication with his wife is through temperamental outbursts and disrespectful language, creates a situation which is untenable. The wife cannot be expected to live in such an environment, and she is well within her rights to demand a divorce.

In this situation, the wife must be able to show that this is not a rare occurrence, or an isolated outburst, but that it is reflective of the husband's usual demeanor. Should a husband counterclaim with the charge that his behavior is instigated by her, the burden of proof is upon him. We assume the correctness of the wife's position unless and until the husband can prove otherwise.

Unbearable Conditions

The woman whose husband insists that his mother (that is, the wife's mother-in-law) move into the house—and this thereby restricts the wife's freedom—may demand a divorce if this is an unbearable situation for her.

The wife whose husband forces her into conjugal relations during her menstrual period may also demand a divorce. This is the case even if she may not be scrupulous with regard to observing the laws of menstruation, which forbid conjugal union during that period and seven days beyond.

The underlying common denominator in the mother-in-law and menstrual situations is that the husband fails, or refuses, to accord to the wife the freedom, dignity and respect to which she is entitled beyond any question.

The wife has the right to demand a divorce if the husband, for whatever reason, makes life unbearable for her. Aside from some of the reasons heretofore cited, this untenable situation may come as a result of the husband having developed a repulsive blemish, or having adopted a noxious habit, such as cigarette smoking. It may ensue from his having taken on a malodorous, offensive trade, from which he comes home with an intolerable stench.

The wife who was aware prior to marriage that her husband would be making his livelihood in an offensively smelling vocation, is still able to claim that her awareness prior to the marriage did not prepare her and condition her to live with it. Even though she had the best of intentions, it turned out that the stench was much worse than she had envisaged, and she now finds it unbearable.

Childlessness

If the husband is unfortunately sterile, the wife has a right to a divorce, on the proviso that this demand for divorce is linked to her assertion that she desires to have children. The same is true if the husband is impotent. When the husband takes issue with the wife's claim that he is impotent, her statement of his impotence is considered to be the more powerful argument. She is believed as long as she makes this statement directly, and not via the "good" offices of a lawyer.

Although the grounds spelled out here do not exhaust the full gamut of legitimate right for the wife to demand a divorce, they do provide sufficient insight into the wide range of circumstances which are found to be unfair to the woman, and because of this unfairness, she is allowed to demand exit from the marital union. Much as divorce is not a desideratum within Jewish life, neither is the locking in of either husband or wife in a prison of misery.

Israel and Jerusalem

The land of Israel, a potentially explosive issue within marriage, has implications for divorce. The general rule is that whichever of the couples move to Israel has the full right to the cooperation of the other spouse in this desire, and can demand a divorce from the reluctant spouse, if that spouse refuses under any circumstances to move to Israel. The exception to this is when moving to Israel would transform the couple into a charity case, unable to make ends meet on their own.

The same general equation applies when the issue is moving, within Israel, from any other city to Jerusalem. The spouse who desires to move to Jerusalem has the more powerful hand, and can demand a divorce from the intransigent other spouse who refuses the move to Jerusalem.

The reasoning behind this is that Israel is crucial to spiritual growth. Since marriage is a spiritual union in which the couple should grow together in a decidedly spiritual way, the failure to move to Israel, or Jerusalem, obstructs rather than facilitates this growth. There is a transcendent quality to the marriage that is neutralized through this refusal.

Neither of the marital partners has the right to stand in the way of the marriage taking such a positive direction. The obstinate refusal to go along with such an obvious incremental improvement in the marriage's spiritual content is considered to be a breach of the primary intent of the marital covenant. But it is advisable that the marital partners not use the Israel or Jerusalem factor as a weapon. This, and other marital growth issues, should be a shared concern.

A Unique Title

Within the realm of claims to divorce, there is a unique title and attendant rules given to one specific situation. That is the situation when either the husband or the wife refuses to be involved in conjugal relations. In this matter, the affected party, be it husband or wife, has sufficient grounds to demand divorce. This has already been discussed.

The instigator of this refusal is given a precise title, a title of dubious distinction. The instigator is labeled as a "rebel." If it is the husband, he is referred to as a mored; if it is the wife, she is referred to as a moredet.

This term is generally accepted as applying specifically to conjugal visitation. It speaks eloquently and powerfully about the seriousness with which deviation from conjugal responsibility is viewed within the Judaic perspective. It is well known that pejorative labels are not the usual Judaic way of expressing displeasure with behavior. The use of such a label here must be seen as an extraordinary deviation from the norm, and a sharp comment on the extreme gravity of this offense. Using one's body as a weapon to punish one's partner prostitutes the marriage compact in a most serious and inexcusable way.

General Rules

The husband who is a mored must give his wife a divorce, and must also give her the marriage settlement known as the ketubah. The wife who is a moredet may be divorced by her husband, and she forfeits her right to the ketubah settlement. When it is the husband who is the mored, the rebellious one, the wife has the right to seek a divorce, but she is not compelled to exercise that right.

The reasoning for this is quite simple. Compelling the wife to seek a divorce would contravene the basic notion that the wife cannot be divorced against her will. It is obvious that any situation which forces the wife to seek a divorce from her husband would open up a convenient excuse for the husband to behave in that derelict manner, so as to be sure that he will gain the wife's cooperation for the divorce. This is unacceptable.

Conjugal Games

It is interesting to note that the husband is considered a rebellious one, a mored, even if he just swears off conjugal relations for a short period of time. He is a mored even if that period coincides with the wife's menstrual period, when conjugal visitation is in any event proscribed. The point being driven home with this stricture is that one's body, one's very being, may never be used as a device to punish, deprive, or threaten the other. When the relationship reduces itself to that level, the exit door is opened wide.

A husband who insists on engaging in conjugal union with his clothes on is likewise considered a rebel, a mored. Even though he may be motivated by considerations of modesty, and he thus may argue that this is not spiteful deprivation, it is deprivation nevertheless.

The wife who denies herself to her husband is considered a moredet, a rebellious wife, even if she claims that her locking the husband out of conjugal intimacy is because of the husband's debts incurred to her.

Limitations

Under any circumstances, the wife does not have an obligation to submit to frequent conjugal union beyond the norm. She can never be reduced to chattel, to be used by the husband at his lustful whim.

The wife is likewise not considered a moredet if she leaves the house because the husband has failed to live up to his maintenance responsibilities. In fact, in such an instance, the husband is considered to be the instigator.

Additionally, if the wife leaves for other reasons, such as because of difficulties with her in-laws, then too she is not labeled a moredet, if she maintains her willingness to engage in conjugal union with her husband. The fact that she has left the premises does not necessarily mean that she has denied herself to her husband.

With regard to the extraordinary situation and label of mored and moredet, the husband and wife are equal, in that whatever legitimately removes from the one the label of rebel, would accomplish the same for the other.

Can, but Not Obliged

Having spelled out the situations and grounds for which both husband and wife can demand a divorce, it bears repeating and reemphasizing that simply because such reason or ground exists, this does not militate that either husband or wife should run to the divorce court, or more specifically, to the Bet Din that supervises the granting of a get. The first reflex in situations like this is to address the issue, to carefully scratch below the surface, to find out what exactly has triggered the overtly non-cooperative behavior of the spouses.

When true love, respect, and appreciation prevail, neither husband nor wife will deny the self to the other, or be derelict in the responsibilities to the other. The fact that they do so indicates there is something seriously wrong with the marriage. Because there is something seriously wrong with the marriage, the overriding impulse should be towards correcting that which is wrong. Radical surgery is only a last resort.

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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Anonymous August 7, 2017

I think that this is very clear and I've every right to file for divorce. I want a divorce as my 14 plus year of marriage has been at times, brutal with husband's outbursts of anger, yelling and swearing, regularly viewing porn from the beginning of our marriage, to lying to me, to ogling women for years, in addition to hugging inappropriately and even kissing them, though I told him repeatedly how much it hurt me, even in tears. He continued. He's educated, a "nice" man but I've stayed far too long and it has taken such a toll on me. He informs me that we cannot divorce for financial reasons? Feeling stuck, sad, and depressed is no way to live. Reply

Anonymous Japan August 14, 2016

validation after 22 years of sexless marriage The more I learn about Judaism, the more I want to convert. My entire marriage, my parents have told me to endure verbal abuse, violent outbursts, and complete absence of sexual relations, hoping for a better relationship with my husband in the afterlife. Never before has my suffering been validated as grounds for divorce. My deepest gratitude to you for spelling it out in such compassionate and concise language. Reply

Ava November 13, 2015

Can the woman keep her married name ( the name of her children" after a Get? Reply

Yehudah Goldstein Toronto August 3, 2017
in response to Ava:

Sure Reply

MeeLee Miami, FL July 28, 2015

How is it fair? How is it fair when a woman uses 'neglect' or 'mutual consent', to divorce a man who loves her very much?

How can you justify divorce, knowing full well that one partner is going to be irreparably damaged in the process, while the other (woman) is allowed to exit whenever things don't run too smooth? Reply

Anonymous August 7, 2017
in response to MeeLee:

Perhaps I don't understand what you've written here, but I've literally sacrificed myself in a "dead" marriage of 14 years so that my husband would not be hurt. Also I've stayed out of 'fear." Reply

Anonymous February 3, 2013

Time to get a get? How long does it take to get a get -- same day, or are there days, weeks or months involved? Reply

Anonymous Toronto, ON April 1, 2011

Thank you for the info Thank you for the info, my ex-husband and I just went through a Jewish divorce, and I was feeling very bad about the whole thing and whether the reasons were ok. Now I see that they were and that I had proper grounds for divorce. I appreciate the information. Reply

Anonymous Hillsboro, USA February 23, 2010

Jewish Divorce I truly appreciate Jewish laws on divorce. Even in this modern world, it is satisfying to know that my religion has always been moral and right. Thank G-d I am Jewish! Reply

Anonymous Tzfat November 8, 2009

dear PW I doubt that this is reassuring to you, but you should know that my biological children have the same reaction as your stepchildren have – and it’s no less hurtful! I hope and pray that both your children as well as my own will mature enough to welcome the mothers who raised them back into their lives. Reply

Anonymous sandiego, ca April 5, 2009

My husband won't leave Even though I learned after age 50 that I am Jewish (which explains my grandmother keeping Shabbat and keeping it secret while quietly saying Yiddish words over pots of soup on the stove she was stirring), and now this radical Christian will not leave the house I bought and paid for! He and his self righteous militant chirstian brotherhood are bullies. When will G-d step in and help me??? I did every good thing in this marriage and now I am in misery. Reply

Anonymous August 7, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

You definitely need a powerful attorney. Check your state divorce laws. G-d will help/direct though we must take necessary steps, praying all the way. Reply

PW via chabadofsouthtampa.com March 25, 2009

Pain of the aftermath... I am uncertain how to approach my two older stepchildren whom I raised regarding the divorce between their father and I. He has talked excessively, cruel and harmful slander about me since I filed for divorce. His anger has put a wedge between me and the two older children who are away at college. My stepson who has now rekindled his relationship with his birthmother stated to me, "it was easy for me to let you go because you never cared for me". This put a knife through my heart, I raised him since the age of 6 when his father and I achieved custody of him and his sister. The children have listened to their father, they have yet to ask me why I got divorce, what happened, what went wrong in our marriage. They are distant and I feel very fearful of their father and his wrath if he was to feel we were speaking. How long must I wait to tell them I divorced their dad and not them, and they should not take it as a personal attack or abandonment? There is never a good time to leave.... Reply

Anonymous CT, USA December 30, 2008

What if the Husband Refuses? I know a couple that has been going through New York City civil divorce court for 8 years now, based on spousal physical abuse by the husband. 8 years with no decision is a terrible civil legal problem but not my question! My question is what can be done according to Jewish law when a Bet Din (not sure this is correct term but it was at least 3 Orthodox Rabbis) ruled that the husband give the wife a Get and he outright refuses. His refusal has been posted in Jewish newspapers, Shul fliers, etc. People ostracize him,including his own family, yet he still refuses. What recourse does the wife really have? Does Jewish law allow a Get without the husband's approval? How? Why does Jewish Law allow this husband to refuse? If & when the civil court grants divorce there will be no refusing it! Perhaps appeals are allowed in divorce court, I'm not sure, but the decision will stand until overturned. Why not so in Jewish law? Thank you. Reply

Anonymous August 7, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I cannot imagine Rabbis not permitting a Get when there is physical abuse. Seriously? Reply

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