Divorce in the Bible

Biblical divorce law provided some protection for women by setting limits on a man's absolute power to divorce.

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Third, there were two specific instances recorded in the Bible in which a man could never divorce his wife: if he had falsely accused her of premarital sex or if she was a virgin he had raped and was forced to marry. (This law, which appears to us crude, was designed for the protection of the woman who, having lost her virginity through no fault of her own, would be otherwise unmarriageable.)

"If a man takes a wife and… hates her and… spreads an evil name about her saying… 'I found no signs of virginity in her,' then her father and mother must bring forth the signs of the wife's virginity to the elders of the city…. They shall chastise that man and penalize him 100 shekels of silver and give them to the father of the wife because the husband spread an evil name upon a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife and he shall not be free to divorce her" (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

Though in themselves these limits represented very minor safeguards for women, they must be understood as the first breakthrough in establishing a crucial principle: the right of a community to set limits on a man's absolute and private right of divorce.

Moreover, it appears from biblical narrative that the social sanctions against divorce were quite powerful and that it occurred rarely. In the isolated instances where a woman was sent away (e.g., Genesis 21:11-12; I Samuel 3:14-16), it was a great trauma for her husband as well. The fact that the divorce law appears as an aside (in the context of a law forbidding a man to remarry his ex-wife) can be understood both as a limitation of a man's absolute control over divorce and as an indication of the general inappropriateness of his divorcing his wife.

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Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.