Is Civil Divorce Enough?

The liberal movements who have held that a civil divorce constitutes a get, or Jewish divorce, are finding that on an emotional, religious level, it's just not enough.

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Religious Ritual Helps Couple Acknowledge Lossdivorce decree

The way we divorce is changing. These days, we’re more likely to choose a religious ritual to mark the end of our marriages. Says Rabbi Sharon Sobel, Regional Director of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, "Rituals help effect a transformation. With a civil divorce, when it’s done, it’s done. But how do you acknowledge the loss of a marriage and relationship, even if it wasn’t a great one?"

­-- Jennifer M. Paquette, "Guide to Religious Divorce Rituals,"

Jewish Divorce Recognizes the Pain, Allowing for a New Beginning

"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 [marriage canopy] when a marriage begins. I thought I had understood it all, but it wasn't until my marriage ended after 12 years, two children, and a thousand shattered dreams that I really began to understand.

I know full well that a traditional get [Jewish divorce] 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 40; 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 20 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.

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