Annulment of Marriages
Rarely do we see as clearly the tension between traditional Jewish practices and secular values as in the issue of annulment.
American society and values are founded upon the rights of the individual. When individual rights come into conflict with communal values, we protect the rights of the individual. That is the purpose of the Bill of Rights, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and many other organizations and lawmaking bodies of our country.
Traditional Judaism, on the other hand, is a community-oriented religion. When the rights of the individual come into conflict with the needs of the community, the community almost always takes precedence. In exploring the issue of annulment we will see how the different Jewish movements respond to the conflicts of community vs. the individual.
Torah Realistic About Divorce But Decidedly Non-Egalitarian
Judaism does not accept that marriage is a permanent sacrament. Our tradition has always recognized that not all marriages work and has sought uncomplicated ways to dissolve failed marriages. In fact, we find divorce mentioned as early as the Torah. However, because the Torah reflects the culture of its time, the laws of marriage and divorce were based upon the then-prevailing notion that women were considered property. Women were rarely allowed to have control of their own destinies. Thus, according to Torah law, only the husband can grant a divorce, and the woman has no say in the process. Under rabbinic law the woman can initiate divorce proceedings in some situations and obtain help from the beit din (rabbinic court) in doing so. But in the end, the husband must still give her the get (bill of divorce) for the divorce to be valid.
This practice continues to this day. Currently, the Orthodox and Conservative movements follow halakhic (Jewish legal) norms and will only process a religious divorce (get) if the husband initiates the procedure. Rabbis from these movements are not allowed to perform second marriages where there is no get. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements do not require a get, and will process a get initiated by the wife, but these alternative gittin (plural of get) are not accepted by the Orthodox or Conservative movements.
Divorce Without a Get Divides the Jewish People
So what? We live in a secular society. What if there is remarriage without a get? What does it matter? For those who accept the authority of Jewish law, and for our children who may be attracted to more traditional forms of Judaism, it is very important. According to Jewish law, if a woman remarries without a get and has children from the second marriage, these children fall into a category of Jews called mamzerim. They are considered Jews (they can be counted in a minyan, or prayer quorum of 10) but are allowed to marry only other mamzerim or converts. While this poses no problem for the Reform, Reconstructionist, and perhaps a large portion of the Conservative movement (who do not accept the concept of mamzerut), it does for Orthodox Jews (who will not consider a marriage with a mamzer).