Over 18 years ago a Reform rabbi and a cantor officiated at my wedding. Now I am going through a divorce. I am interested in having a get (Jewish divorce decree). Being a Reform Jewish professional, what should I do? Is it necessary to have an Orthodox beit din? Are there other (non-Orthodox) means to acquire a get? What are the consequences of the various options, if they differ? And what are the expenses and requirements associated with this process?
“Is it necessary to have an Orthodox beit din?” That depends on your purpose in obtaining the get. There are, indeed, “non-Orthodox” gitin (plural for get, and see below), but Orthodox authorities will accept a get as valid only if it is issued by an Orthodox beit din. To put this another way: the only sort of get that is recognized by all Jews is an Orthodox get. To have such a document might be useful, especially if you someday wish to marry an Orthodox Jew or if you wish to get married in Israel, where the laws of marriage and divorce for Jews are under the exclusive supervision of the Orthodox rabbinate. There are other, less pragmatic reasons that argue for an Orthodox get. The fact that so many non-Orthodox Jews have divorced and remarried without benefit of Jewish divorce decrees – to be more precise, without benefit of Orthodox divorce decrees – raises some sensitive and complex issues of ritual law. These divorcees and their children might encounter difficulties if they seek to marry Jews in many communities. If the cause of “Jewish unity” is important to you – and it should be important to all of us – this is something to think about.
Still, there are some strong arguments pointing in the other direction. For one thing, the Orthodox get enforces and reinforces traditional gender roles that, as a Reform Jew, you are likely to find discriminatory. Under Biblical law, while the husband is empowered to divorce the wife, the reverse is not true. He issues the divorce to her; she, on the other hand, cannot divorce him. This imbalance of power has led to much injustice and suffering over the centuries as many wives remained legally bound to marriages when their husbands either could not or would not release them by issuing a get. Rabbis have struggled valiantly to remedy these problems, but their efforts (at least in the Orthodox community) have met with only partial success. You might decide that you do not wish to participate in a process that can lead to such painful and frankly unjust results. In addition, the Orthodox divorce process can be (though it doesn’t have to be) slow-moving and cumbersome. This, too, can be a source of much pain and injustice as well as of inconvenience: why should people be forced to wait so long for a get when their marriages have effectively ended and they are simply trying to rebuild their personal lives?
There are, in fact, non-Orthodox alternatives to an Orthodox get. The Conservative movement has its own get process, and a Reform rabbi can conduct a “ritual of separation” that, while not formally a get, marks the end of a marriage. These alternatives avoid the sorts of injustice that we have been speaking about, but remember: Orthodox authorities do not accept them as valid Jewish divorce. Whether either of them is appropriate or sufficient for you is a question you will want to discuss with your own rabbi(s).
It is sad to have to go through the pain of ending a marriage of longstanding. It is important to bear in mind that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Somehow, with G-d’s help, you will make it through.
My answers are to be found within the parameters of Jewish jurisprudence, in other words, the halakhah. There are many legal opinions to be found within the halakhic world and it often depends upon with whom you speak about the matters that you raise.
Let me point out a few issues pertaining to your situation. Within much of the Orthodox Jewish community, your status and the status of your wife as Jews and as an halakhically married couple would need to be established. Many assumptions of Jewish standing are made, also pertaining to the validity of a wedding within the purview of Jewish Law.
Since you are obviously interested in doing the proper thing within Jewish tradition, it is vital to find a well respect authority within the Jewish community. Finding a recognized Rabbi and Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) may not be as available as one might think. Frequently, it is necessary to go outside of one’s own community to find an halakhic authority and recognized Beit Din, that deal with these matters.
In our world, we find some territorialism, where some Jewish communities do not recognize Rabbis ordained within other movements. This is a matter of fact, no matter how regrettable it may be. For this reason, I believe that your question about going to an Orthodox Beit Din to arrange a Get (Writ of Divorce), demonstrates prudence.
It appears that each movement in Judaism respects its own authorities and rules; however, we find that others do not necessarily honor those authorities and their decisions.
Since one never knows what the future has in store, it is wise to take steps to protect against questions that may arise as to your own personal status.
I wish that I could paint a rosier picture of universal acceptance of Jewish divorce decrees. Sadly, this is not possible.
It is unfeasible here to review all of the movements and possible manners of marriage dissolution employed by each movement. Even if it were possible, not all communities and Rabbis follow the practices as delineated by their leadership. Additionally, there are “freelance Rabbis” that may only follow the dictates of their own conscience.
Clearly, as in all other matters in life, there is a financial outlay expected by a Beit Din in order to deal with the writing of a properly executed Get. Often, this will cost at least a few hundred dollars, but there is no set fee that can be presented, since the charges are set by the local Beit Din.
One possible established Beit Din to consider is the ‘Beit Din of America.’ The Orthodox Union looks to this, but it is by no means the only respected Beit Din to be found within Orthodoxy. Additionally, there are organizations with the sole purpose of encouraging Gittin (Writs of Divorce) within all sectors of the Jewish community so that all Jews theoretically could marry one another without worry as to their religious and marital status.
Decades ago the Reform rabbinate decided that a civil divorce decree is sufficient to dissolve a marriage, and so Reform rabbis have not used a traditional Jewish divorce document (a get). In recent years, though, the Reform rabbinate has become interested in creating some form of Jewish writ of divorce and a ceremony to accompany it. Given that you are affiliated with the Reform movement, you may want to check with your local Reform rabbi whether a recommended document and ceremony are already in use.
Jewish law, though, requires that a couple dissolve their marriage not only in civil law, but also in Jewish law through the the delivery of a get by the husband or the husband's agent to the wife or her agent. Conservative as well as Orthodox rabbis handle these matters. If the husband is willing to issue the get, all he need do is sign a letter of appointment of the local Conservative rabbi as his agent to write and deliver the get to his wife. That rabbi will then, in turn, appoint a rabbi who is certified by the national Bet Din of the Conservative Movement to write the document according to the many stipulations of Jewish law about the get. (Unlike marriage documents, which can be made in bulk with spaces to fill in the names of the bride and groom, the date, place, etc., a get must be written specifically for the couple being divorced in a particular way.) Then, if the couple resides in the same city, the rabbi, together with two other rabbis, will act as the bet din to witness the delivery of the get from the husband or his agent to the wife or her agent. If the couple resides in different cities, the husband's rabbi will appoint a local rabbi in the wife's city of residence to deliver the get in front of a Bet Din to her or her agent. The whole process costs several hundred dollars, which either party (or both together) may pay. After this has occurred, Conservative rabbis will be willing to officiate at the wedding of either the husband or the wife to another Jewish person.
Orthodox rabbis tend to accept only writs of divorce supervised by Orthodox courts, but in recent years there have been some Orthodox rabbis who have refused to accept the documents written by other Orthodox rabbis, and so even an Orthodox get is no guarantee that everyone will accept the validity of the get. Furthermore, Orthodox rabbis may prefer to see the original marriage as invalid, given that it was preformed by a Reform rabbi and the witnesses were probably not Sabbath observant to their standards, so they may tell you that you do not need a get -- but at the cost of seeing your original marriage as invalid. So unless you or your future children plan on joining the Orthodox community, I would recommend that you consult a Conservative rabbi for your get.
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