The Ketubah: Evolutions in the Jewish Marriage Contract

Once a protection for women, the traditional ketubah has been critiqued by liberal Jews on several grounds.

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"Those who think that they can achieve major halakhic change within the existing Jewish community will perhaps be disappointed by my perspective. I believe, however, that those who are struggling to change Orthodox halakhah and/or the minds of the traditional Orthodox decision-makers are wasting their time and energy. It is my conviction that change is effected through the creation of new alternative and rival Jewish rituals and halakhic forms which will ultimately effect and bring about change in the traditional forms and the traditional community."

Addressing the Agunah Problem

Before concluding our discussion of the ketubah, mention of another common emendation to the traditional text is in order. This emendation addresses the ever-vexing ethical problem of the agunah, the Jewish woman whose husband refuses to grant her a religious divorce. In response to this agonizing dilemma, the Conservative movement began widespread use of an additional clause [in the ketubah] written by the eminent Talmudic scholar Dr. Saul Lieberman. The "Lieberman clause," as it is known, stipulates that the bride and groom agree that their lives will be conducted according to Jewish law and that, in the event of a divorce, they agree to follow the dictates of a given beit din (Jewish court).

Thus, if the husband refuses to issue a get (a traditional Jewish writ of divorce), the beit din will order the husband to do so; if he refuses, the theory goes, his wife can petition a secular court to compel the husband to issue a get or else find him in breach of a contract, namely, the ketubah he signed at the time of his marriage.

The Reform movement has not adopted any parallels to the Lieberman clause, because that movement does not require a get for the dissolution of [a marriage]. In the Orthodox community, where the problem of the agunah is unfortunately a serious one, [halakhic prenuptial agreements are being promoted by some prominent Orthodox rabbis].

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.