Talmudic Divorce

What is the fundamental nature of the relationship between the husband and wife who have divorced? One would normally think that if there were no children born to the couple during the marriage, that after they have split, and all outstanding issues have been resolved, they are to each other as total strangers. However, this is not the case.

The nature of the post-divorce protocol between husband and wife is best spelled out in an episode that is reported in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketuvot, 11:3), and also in the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah, 34:14). It concerns a Talmudic sage by the name of Rabbe Yose, whose life was made miserable by his wife. After enduring continued hardship, but with much agonizing, he divorced his wife.

The wife remarried, but regrettably the fortunes of Rabbe Yose's ex-wife and her new husband fell dramatically and precipitously. The new husband lost his vision, and had to be led by his wife as they went from neighborhood to neighborhood to beg for alms.

The wife was understandably reluctant to venture into the neighborhood of her ex-husband, Rabbe Yose. The new husband, upon perceiving this reluctance, actually began to beat his wife in public. This scene caused a great furor, and no end of embarrassment to Rabbe Yose's ex-wife. By chance, Rabbe Yose saw this scene unfolding. He immediately took his ex-wife and her husband, and placed them in a residence to which he had access. He also brought provisions to sustain them for the remainder of their lives.

Beyond The Legal

Rabbe Yose was under no strictly legal obligation to behave as he did. But, as is made clear in both the Talmud and the Midrash, he was living through the ideal form of post-divorce protocol, which urges the divorcing couple not to be oblivious to their own flesh. The Talmud states that the obligation, "and do not be oblivious to your own flesh" (Isaiah, 58:7), applies specifically to the wife whom one has divorced.

When the husband and wife were married, they were considered as one. Since they were united symbolically, spiritually, even physically, as one corpus, they are forever linked through that original union. The divorce may separate them, but the linkage of flesh which once existed does not automatically evaporate into nothingness. It remains forever.

Thus, the ethical application of the obligation to be mindful of one's own flesh, or as it is expressed in the prohibitive, not to be oblivious to one's own flesh, is applied to that very flesh and blood relationship which one may, under normal circumstances, perceive as having terminated. It has not terminated, and the relationship goes on.

Always Linked

The ethical imperative, "be not oblivious to your own flesh," is applied to the spouse whom one has divorced. One could ask the simple question — why apply it to the ex-mate, and not to the more obvious flesh and blood relationships, such as one's grandchildren, or cousins, or whomever?

This obligation, not to neglect one's own flesh, is the culmination of a verse extolling the virtues of authentic charity. It could hardly be a great virtue that you give charity to your own flesh and blood; certainly not a culminating virtue, over and above those cited at the beginning of the verse, namely bringing unrelated poor people into the home, and covering those who are unclothed. This is something which people do under normal circumstances, and is not even considered anything extraordinary. People normally do fend for others within the family.

Thus, one is left with no other choice but to understand this imperative as referring to an extraordinary situation, wherein there is a flesh and blood relationship, but the nature of that relationship is such that one would normally not expect that any obligation for support still exists.

Accordingly, this imperative is applied to none other than the spouse whom you have divorced, who once and therefore always is your own flesh and blood. Even though convention may absolve one from any obligations to a former spouse, Judaic ethical principles do not allow for such release.

Continual Compassion

Thus, the obligation to give of one's income to charity is applied to one's ex-wife. If one's ex-wife has sunk into poverty, then the ex-husband should give of his charity allotment to his ex-wife. She has priority over all other poor.

This dictum certainly comes as a surprise, since it flies in the face of what would normally be the post-divorce pattern. One can see in this moral prescription an instructive message with regard to the husband and wife after divorce; that they still have obligations to each other. Even though the relationship has obviously changed, there is nevertheless an ongoing connection, and therefore an ongoing moral and ethical responsibility.

By being mindful of the obligation to exercise this responsibility should it become necessary, the divorcing couple is made aware that whereas the marital relationship may have been characterized by the passion of each for the other, the post-divorce situation should at the very least be characterized by the presence of compassion of each for the other.

This is nothing less than ethical programming, consistent with the spirit of the Torah, which urges individuals to conquer innate desires, to rise above petty, vindictive behavior; especially in circumstances when one might be likely to wallow in such negative expression.

The Fundamental Principle

This, then, is the fundamental principle of the aftermath protocol; that there is an ongoing connection between husband and wife, even without the presence of children. This is a connection which places upon the divorcing husband primarily, the obligation to at all times have compassion for his ex-wife, and to assure that she never sinks into poverty and despair. Husbands who have divorced their wives may wish the worst for their ex-partners, and would love to gloat over their total failure. But that cannot be the Jewish way, and should not be allowed to become the Jewish way.


If the divorcing couple were blessed with children during their marriage, then the divorce takes on an added dimension of ongoing connectedness, via the children. Like it or not, the husband and wife will thereby be involved with each other on an ongoing basis. They will hopefully discuss such matters as the children's education, the children's general welfare, their health, their summer camp schedule, the visitation procedures, and adjustments of the custodial arrangements when one or the other of the divorcing mates may have difficulty keeping to the usual pattern.

If compassion and understanding are the fundamental ethics of the post-divorce situation between the couple, then goodwill and cooperation should be the governing ethics of the husband and wife when it concerns the welfare of the children.

Guaranteed Delivery

Both husband and wife should be aware that whatever they tell their children will be relayed to the other spouse. It may not be done with precision, but the general tenor of the remarks made by one of the ex-mates about the other will find its way back to the original object of the remarks.

Thus, if a custodial mother complains about the fact that the visiting father is nasty, or does not really care about the child, or was always a rotten husband, her remarks will find their way back to the visiting father. One need not have a vivid imagination to picture what type of downside syndrome this will initiate.

The father who hears that he has been bad-mouthed by his ex-wife will most probably become furious at her (if he is not already). He might also at the same time launch a counter-attack, by badmouthing his ex-wife to his child or children. This negative rhetoric is also likely to follow in a reverse type of custody, with the father the custodial parent and the mother the visiting parent.

The child is inevitably dragged into this ongoing conflict, and may become the carrier pigeon for the invective, as well as the ultimate victim of the long-range missiles hurled by the ex-mates at each other. The ongoing ill-will between the former spouses may result in a renewed court challenge to the original arrangement. Or worse, it may result in the custodial parent shutting the door to the visiting parent, or in the visiting parent taking the child on a designated visiting weekend and disappearing to another locale, even another country. This is the tragic scenario that can result from ill-will, and the unsavory remarks made by the spouses about each other.

Relaying the Good

On the other hand, consider the scenario in which each one of the couple resolves to say only nice things about the ex-mate. This may be hard to swallow originally, at the onset of divorce, but the rewards are well worth it. Each one of the divorcing couple would probably be well advised to rehearse within himself or herself such statements as — you know that your father really loves you; or, I really appreciate the extraordinary steps your father is taking to make sure that he sees you as often as possible; or, you have a very caring mother; or, your mother is really going out of her way to do the best for you.

The more you rehearse these comments, the easier it will be to say them. The effect of these positive comments about your ex-mate can be of never-ending benefit. On the undeniable assumption that whatever you say about your former partner will be carried back to him or her, the nice comments that are made will engender a good feeling by the former spouse, who probably expects just the opposite.

The ex-mate who hears that nice things are said about him or her will in turn more likely say nice things about the other to the child. The child will then once again be a carrier pigeon, the carrier of good words, and will thereby be the elicitor of good feelings between the ex-spouses. Most importantly, the negative impact of divorce on the children may thereby be checked.

The cooperative spirit this can establish will be of benefit not only to the child, but also to the divorcing couple. They will remove the agenda of bitterness from each other, and get on with life in a positive way.

Anger Self-Destructive

No matter how much one may deny it, by being bitter towards the other and ventilating one's anger at the other, one does not thereby get rid of it. One is actually rehearsing that anger within the self. The anger will remain, and quite likely intensify.

The biblical advice, to "eliminate anger from your heart" (Ecclesiastes, 11:10), is most appropriate to a divorcing couple. For it is they who are more likely to have anger in their heart, and therefore it is they who must remove it. With bitterness in the heart, one is not likely to find peace of mind.

The biblical phrase, "and eliminate anger from your heart," is followed by the words, "and remove evil from your flesh." Indeed, by eliminating anger, you remove evil from your flesh. "Your flesh" may refer to one's own flesh, or to one's spouse, who once and always is as one's flesh. By taking away anger, one removes the potential for a harmful post-divorce relationship.

Maintaining anger will also stand in the way of the embittered spouse linking with another partner. No individual would like to become entangled with a partner who, however attractive as a potential mate, is full of anger, hostility, and bitterness. That is sure to cloud any future relationship, or more probably, forestall the possibility of such a relationship ever developing.

The Biblical Base

It is so obvious that the high road, the road of rising above the circumstances and behaving with understanding and goodwill, is the way to adopt. The basis for this is the biblical obligation (Leviticus, 19:18) to "love your neighbor as yourself..." According to Maimonides, this ethical charge is fulfilled through saying nice things about others. We would love others to say nice things about ourselves. To love others as ourselves means to do for them what you would want them to do for you. Uttering words of praise for your former spouse is a fulfillment of this most all-embracing Torah commandment.

The biblical basis for this goodwill approach is reinforced via the positive results that would ensue. No matter how illogical it may seem, no matter how outlandish it may appear, no matter how out-of-tune it may be with what normally happens after divorce, the superiority of the high-road approach must be hammered home with unabating force, as being the Jewish way of reacting in the post-divorce situation.

To Demand of One's Self

But it is the way that is not to be demanded by each of the spouses from the other. It is the way that each of the spouses should demand of his or herself. Neither of them should wait until the other makes the first move towards saying nice things. If either one waits for the other, it will be a long wait. Each should assume the responsibility to initiate the kind statements, the understanding words, the positive comments about the other.

Words can injure, words can heal. There has been enough injury to the home through the disruption of divorce. What the children, and indeed the divorcing couple, do not need in the post-divorce situation is further injury. What they do need is healing. And there is no better healing than kind words that emanate from the mouths of the two combatants in the divorce.

Children Remember

Children may not divulge everything on their own, but they do have an unconscious inventory of all that goes on. They will remember down the road whether the procedure whereby the visiting parent came to take the child for their few hours or few days was a process that was filled with tension, or one that went smoothly. These children will talk to other children and compare notes. Undoubtedly, if the comparison shows that their parents made an extra effort to smooth the way for the children, those children will have a profound appreciation and escalating love for both the parents.

Should the custodial parent place obstacles in the way, or should the visiting parent be cantankerous, the child may fear saying anything confrontational to the offending parent. But the child will harbor ill-feelings that will spill over later on. What may seem at the moment to be a vindictive victory will later on boomerang into rejection of the parent by the child. It is simply not worth it.

The Grandparents

There are other individuals who are involved in the ongoing post-divorce scenario. Probably the ones most affected, after the divorcing parents and children, are the grandparents. In the same way as father and mother do not cease to be father and mother after the divorce, the grandparents too do not cease to be grandparents after the divorce. And the grandparent connection is in force no matter what custodial arrangements have been incorporated.

The grandparents, for their part, should do all they can to maintain their relationship with the grandchild or grandchildren. They must make a transcending leap over the divorce situation, to assure that their link with the grandchildren is not severed.

They must resist the temptation to take sides in the issue of the divorce. Under normal circumstances one expects that the grandparents will take the side of their own child, and may harbor strong resentment for the child-in-law. However, it is wise for all grandparents to realize that just as marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition, so is divorce. With rare exception, the blame for the marriage not working out is not one-sided. Both of the marital partners are responsible. Blaming one or the other achieves nothing more than to further entrench bitterness.

Taking the Lead

Once divorce has become inevitable, after all the appropriate steps to conserve the marriage have ended in failure, it is time to look forward rather than backward. Each of the grandparents is best advised to approach the child-in-law who may either have visitation privileges or custody, and assure them that they would like the relationship to continue, and to be free of animosity.

As the elders within the family, they have some responsibility to create the proper atmosphere. They can do so with this simple step. They should not assume that everything will be okay. Nor should they assume that any relationship that existed beforehand is doomed to non-existence. They should assume that whatever relationship will be ongoing in the future depends on the attitude that they take, and the approach that they bring to the situation. The custodial parent, as well as the visiting parent, should likewise realize that children under normal circumstances have a very warm relationship with the grandparents. Any attempt to deny the children such opportunities of grandparental love will backfire on the parents later on.

This denial may not be as serious as denying the child access to the other parent, but it is nevertheless serious. The grandparents are an inextricable part of the child's life, and can play an ongoing positive role. But whatever role they do play is dependent on the atmosphere created by the ones who most control the situation, namely the parents and the grandparents.

Family Involvement

The other members of the family, on either side, should likewise refrain from employing the convenient arguments that are of a partisan nature. Siblings, as a general rule, would like to come to the defense of a brother or sister who is going through a divorce.

When asked by strangers or friends what has happened, the initial defensive reaction is to speak about how one's brother or sister got entangled in a terrible marriage to an insensitive and callous marital partner. This type of comment will also be carried back, and eventually find its way to the other mate, with attendant negative consequences.

The family members are best off avoiding the blame syndrome. They should simply say that the marriage did not work out, but they hope that the divorce will work out.

The Divorce Will Work Out

This response may sound a trifle absurd to those questioners, who would like to hear some juicy gossip about an affair that took place within the marriage, or some really rambunctious fight between the couple, or some abuse of one of the partners by the other. It is most appropriate here to employ the ethical imperative to guard one's tongue, and to refrain from becoming involved in this most crude form of gossip-mongering.

The more people will resort to such comments as — "the marriage did not work out, but hopefully the divorce will work out amicably," the more such positive comments will become the norm.

It will become the norm, and the expected, that a divorcing couple maintains civility and respect for each other. With the divorce rate proliferating as it is, this is the only way, one can avoid creating a situation of continual potential explosiveness within the community.

The Friendship Network

One of the negative repercussions of divorce is that the old friendship networks may collapse. The divorcing couple may have had a close relationship with other couples during the marriage, but these relationships may suddenly disintegrate.

This may happen not because of animosity. It may be that others are in a quandary. They do not want to be caught in the middle, and feel that taking the side of one would be seen as betrayal by the other. So they do nothing, which quite often is the worst alternative.

The realization that because of the divorce you are not only losing a partner, but also an entire network of friends, can be devastating. This is when friends are desperately needed. To abandon in a time of need is to replace friendship with cruelty.

The Torah urges that when one's friend is slipping into poverty, that is the time to strengthen that person, to prevent the fall (Leviticus, 23:35). The couple who is divorcing is on a slipping, downhill course. If they are rejected by their former friends, they will indeed fall into spiritual impoverishment.

It is difficult to be single after divorce; it is difficult to be a single parent after divorce. Mothers are particularly vulnerable. Their economic situation suffers dramatically, and they are usually forced into the work force in order to manage. The breakup of the marriage leaves them lonely, sometimes also ashamed. If they handle the new reality successfully, they gain an enhanced sense of self-esteem. Former friends who remain friends can and must help in the transition. That is the ultimate expression of authentic caring, of unconditional friendship.

That friendship does not necessitate taking sides. It demands standing at the side of one's divorced friend, and helping by being an available ear, a calming influence, and a bedrock of emotional support.

Projecting Ahead

All the parties involved in the divorce should project ahead to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of the children, and their eventual marriage. They should think of what it will be like to be under one roof sharing a joyous event, but with such palpable animosity that the room is filled with tension, and subdivided into different factions. What should be a joyous event will then become an ordeal. The nature of that ordeal is such that it will generate more animosity, and more bitterness down the road.

No one wants to be locked into a life of misery. No responsible parent would want to inflict such misery upon children. Nor would any self-respecting parent want to deny the joys of grandparenthood to the grandparents. They would not, and therefore they should not.

Since the family is so central to Jewish continuity, divorce has implications for the Jewish community which extend beyond the immediate crisis. Divorce does create a rupture within the family, but that rupture need not become a permanent cleavage. With the proper attitude and the appropriate resolve, it is possible to retain some semblance of family after divorce. For the Jewish community, this is more than merely a possibility; it is a necessity.

The Obvious Choice

Whatever ensues in the post-divorce situation will probably be a reflection of how the divorcing couple actually behaves towards each other. If they behave with respect and goodwill toward each other, this will likely spill over into the attitude of the grandparents, and the extended family as well. If they are bitter towards each other, they will enlist the support of their family sides to justify their pettiness.

It is thus highly advisable that the divorcing couple resolves among themselves that they will put their best efforts into making the divorce as amicable as possible, and the post-divorce situation as manageable and respectful as possible. They should also resolve to transmit this desire to their own families, and to urge them to be kind and considerate to the other side of the family, to behave without acrimony or ill-will.

Once the syndrome of good will is set into motion, it will have ongoing positive reverberations. On the other hand, once the syndrome of bad will is initiated, it will have ongoing negative reverberations.

The choice of which button to push, and which road to take, is self-evident.