Leaving Babylon

A Walk Through the Jewish Divorce Ceremony

Two years after Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire, he allowed the Children of Israel to return to their land. The year was 537 BCE. Two thousand five hundred and thirty-six years later, I walk down his street in Jerusalem, on my way to get divorced at the district rabbinic court. The travel agencies on Cyrus Street are not advertising group tours to Iraq, not yet. Nonetheless, Babylon is on my mind. By its rivers we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion and wondered how we could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. I wept and wondered, too, for 27 years of married life. Now, just as the Children of Israel walked back to their homeland, their freedom, I am walking to mine.

If all goes well at the courthouse this morning, I will receive my get, a Jewish writ of divorce. I already have a civil-divorce document, signed and stamped by an Israeli judge from the district family court. But to remarry in Israel, where I live, and to have “Divorced” rather than “Married” written on my identity card, I need the get. Only this document states categorically that I am divorced according to the Law of Moses and Israel.

The civil divorce derives from the decree of a civil court. The Jewish divorce derives from a ceremony steeped in tradition, played out by husband and wife in a rabbinic court. Friends have told me that the get ceremony, to which I am walking, is demeaning, primitive and meaningless.

Demons flitter and play along the narrow hallways of Jerusalem’s rabbinic court. They are waiting to snatch a soul. Rabbinic legend claims that when people—women, especially—are in transition from one stage of life to another, demons get restless. Since the rabbinic court is the venue for changing one s personal status, the building is a playground for demons. Watch out, the Talmudic sages warned. Break a glass at weddings; walk around the groom seven times; read Psalms; wear amulets—anything to keep away the evil spirits.

I weave my way through the hallways and arrive intact at the waiting room of Hall A. Other than Psalms, there are no instructions for the soon-to-be-divorced, save for two signs on the door to the courtroom: Turn off your cellular phone, and Dress modestly. I pick up Psalms, open it randomly to Number 13, and read:

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?

How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

Look and hear me, O Lord my God:

Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death

I am wearing a long, black skirt, a white blouse with sleeves that cover my lascivious elbows, and a black sun hat. When my husband enters the room and sees me dressed in uncharacteristically ultra-modest garb, reading Psalms, he chides, “Who the fuck are you kidding?”

I am sitting at home by myself, reading the newspaper by the light of one lamp. There is a knock at the door. It is snowing outside, but I can’t see the snow because black paper is still taped to the windows. The Yom Kippur War has been over for two months. My husband, a paratrooper, is still stationed in Goshen. Before the war we were trying to make a baby, but now with his being mobilized, there is no chance. My eggs escape unnoticed, untouched. The snow has closed all the roads to Jerusalem.

The knocking persists.

All day I work with bereaved families. As a volunteer social worker for the Ministry of Defense, I help mothers mourn their sons, widows their husbands, children their fathers. I am afraid to open the door, because I know it could be a team of soldiers saying to me, “Your husband is dead. “

The knocking persists. I walk to the door. I open it. A man stands there in a green uniform covered with mud and snow. He holds an M16 in one hand and 10 red roses in the other.

Ovulate yet??” he asks.

An usher calls out our last name and escorts us into the chamber. Opposite the door, towering above us, is a long, Formica desk. Behind it, three rabbinic judges sit ensconced on cushioned chairs. They wear costumes—black jackets, white shirts, gray beards and black hats with flat rims. The rabbi on the left is immersed in reading a tome and does not look up when we enter the courtroom. The rabbi on the right is sucking his thumb. He avoids my incredulous stare, which he would have to interpret as lecherous, versed as he must be in rabbinic wisdom. The judge in the middle looks at my husband and me as if our whole, sad history is incised on our foreheads.

To the left of the long desk is a small, green Formica desk with a computer. Here sits the court secretary. He is a kindly-looking man, bald, with a skullcap.

“Has your w-w-witness arrived?” the attentive rabbi asks.

“Yes,” I respond.

“Tell her to come in and then be seated.”

I do as I’m told. Nechama, my witness, is an observant Jew from my hometown in the United States. She has played this role for other divorcing friends.

Act 1: The Name

“Do you know this woman’s f-f-father?” the rabbi asks Nechama.

“Yes. I knew him.”

The rabbi listens as if this is the most important information he has heard since his political party became the second largest in Israel.

“Was he a C-C-Cohen?”

“I don’t know.”

Now the rabbi leans over his desk to question me.

“Did your father ever tell you he was a C-C-Cohen?”

My thoughts race to Moses, the prophet who stuttered. I repress a smile. My father didn’t even know what a Cohen was.

“Never,” I say.

We are both surprised at the discrepancy in the religious documents. Apparently my name on the ketuba, the marriage contract, says I am the daughter of a Cohen. The marriage certificate, however, issued by the Ministry of Religious Affairs after the wedding, says I am a daughter of Israel.

For the purposes of personal status, Jews are divided into two categories: Cohen, the priestly class, and Israel, the rest. I always thought I was one of the rest, but now it appears I may belong to the priestly class.

“What name was used when your father was called up to the T-T-Torah?” the rabbi demands.

A Jewish name, for purposes of marriage and divorce, consists of a given name, the given name of one s mother and father, and the fathers religious class, that is, Cohen or Israel. This is why we are spending 20 minutes trying to figure out who I am. Judyth? Judy? Yehudit? Cohen? Israel?

My precise name and lineage is of the utmost importance because the writ of divorce has to be written specifically for me. The legal principle that the get be written for a specific wife on a particular day derives from interpretations of the first two verses in Chapter 24, Deuteronomy:

When a man has taken a wife and married (possesses) her and it comes to pass that she no longer finds favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly thing in her, then let him write her a bill of divorce and give it in her hand and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.

This passage offered fertile soil for reams of rabbinic free associations and legalities, which were ultimately woven together in Tractate Gittin of the Babylonian Talmud, compiled in 500 CE. Talmudic sages deduced at least nine legal principles from the passage in Deuteronomy:

  1. A man must divorce his wife of his own free will.
  2. A woman must be divorced in writing.
  3. The get must be a document that states clearly that it severs all ties
    between husband and wife.
  4. The husband must give the get to the wife. She cannot take it.
  5. He must put it in her hand. The woman is not divorced until the get
    comes into her possession.
  6. The document must state that he sends her out.
  7. The get must be given in the presence of two or three witnesses. (This
    is based on a common word
    —davar—thing, which appears in
    Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and 19:15, where it refers to witnesses.)
  8. The get must be given immediately after it is written. (For instance,
    if a husband goes bowling after he writes the
    get or obtains it from
    a scribe, and then delivers it, the
    get is invalid, unkosher.)
  9. The get must be given only for the purpose of divorce; it cannot be used as a threat.

“Was her father a C-C-Cohen?” the rabbi pleads again.

It is one hour before the wedding. The men are sitting around a table with the officiating Orthodox rabbi filling in the details of the ketuba. The rabbi turns to my father.

What was the name you gave your daughter at birth?”

She was christened Judy.

The other men, including my husband-to-be, cannot believe their ears. They motion my father to shut up.

Christened?” the rabbi repeats, eyebrows raised.

Yes. At birth we called her Judy.”

Butwas she christened?”

Oh, I don’t know. That’s what we called her.

Was she christened?”

What the hell difference does it make? You think every word is important? Let’s just get her married, for Christ’s sake.”

“Who was the rabbi who officiated at your w-w-wedding?” This rabbi is desperate for details, where, some believe, God dwells.

“Rabbi Natan,” I reply, “an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem.” I emphasize this last point so he will understand that someone in his own Orthodox establishment screwed up in 1972.

The talking rabbi looks at the reading rabbi, who points at his watch and urges him to proceed.

The rabbi decides that I am an Israel, thanks my witness, and dismisses her. Then he calls my husband’s witness. The man is a jerk. He makes light of my husband’s many nicknames. The rabbi reminds him this is serious business, chooses two names among the many, and sends him away after a 10-minute interrogation.

At this juncture a cellular phone in my husband’s briefcase rings. The judges and court secretary take cover, as if a knife-wielding terrorist has burst into the room.

“Didn’t you read the sign?” the rabbi yells. “Turn that thing off. A little respect for the court, please.”

I wonder if Moses lost his stutter when he reprimanded the Children of Israel.

Act 2: The Players

The rabbi calls in two shlubs. Their shirttails hang over their black trousers, and their black skullcaps dangle from the sides of their heads. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are full-time employees of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, two of six men who play the role of witness at divorce proceedings. They enter from a side door like extras on a movie set, their only task to stand up, pay attention, and say “Yes” or “No” when asked. My taxes pay their salaries.

The two witnesses stand between the court secretary and the rabbis. Then the talking rabbi calls in my husband’s emissary. Enter the Torah scribe. He is a short man wearing a white shirt with a frayed collar and a black skullcap placed on his bald head like a dot over an “i.” He takes up his position opposite my husband. His props are a piece of parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, a kulmus, or reed pen, and a small bottle of ink. The ink is made of crushed sap, pomegranate skin, gallnut and soot from burnt grapevines, all brewed in water for 12 hours. The exact recipe has been passed down from generation to generation for the past 1,600 years, give or take.

The drama begins when the rabbi tells the scribe to give his writing instruments to my husband.

“These are now y-y-yours,” says the rabbi, looking at my husband. “Repeat after me: ‘These are my writing implements.’”

My husband swallows his pride and intelligence to get out the sentence. “These are my writing implements.”

“Speak up and take the gum out of your mouth.”

My husband takes the gum out of his mouth and holds it in his right hand. Then he repeats, “These are my writing implements.”

The rabbi swivels toward the witnesses and asks if they heard.

“Yes,” they chirp.

Then he swivels back.

“Now give your writing implements to the Torah scribe and say, ‘I am giving you my implements, and you will write the get for me.’”

“I am giving you my implements, and you will write the get for me,” my husband whispers as he hands the writing materials to the scribe.

The rabbi turns to the scribe and asks, “Did he just give you these writing m-m-materials?”

Well-versed, the scribe produces a clear “Yes.” Then the rabbi instructs the scribe, my husband and the two witnesses to retire to a separate room to write the get, the writ ofdivorce. I am dismissed for intermission.

A scribe writes the get on a parchment marked with a stylus. The text consists of 12 lines of Hebrew and Aramaic, 12 being the numerical value of the Hebrew letters gimmel and tet, which spell get. The exact wording was finalized by the Babylonian sages of the fourth century CE, who also laid down strict details for its calligraphy. The get could only be written in a city or town with a source of water.

This is the standard Jerusalem text, which my husband and the two witnesses watched the scribe write with his reed pen:

On the___ day of the week, the____ day of the month_______ , in the year______ of the creation of the world, according to the number of years we count here in Jerusalem, on the waters of the Siloam Spring and by cistern waters, I, called _____ , son of_____ , called______ , standing today in Jerusalem, the city which has cisterns for water, do hereby consent with my own free will, without any duress, to free and release and divorce you, my wife, called______ , daughter of______ , called______ , standing today in Jerusalem, who has previously been my wife, and now I release and send away and divorce you so that you will be free to go and govern yourself and be married to any man you desire and let no person oppose you from this day and forever and behold you are permitted to every man. And this shall be for you from me a bill of divorce and an epistle of sending away and a bill of release according to the Law of Moses and Israel.

_____ , son of______ , witness

_____ , son of______ , witness

The Mishna, the code of Jewish law edited by Judah the Prince in Zippori, Lower Galilee, around 2000 CE, says that a husband can write the writ of divorce on the horn of a bull, but then the husband must hand his wife the whole bull. A husband or his scribe can write the prescribed lines on the hand of a slave, but then the wife gets the living, full-bodied slave. The rabbis argued over whether or not the writ of divorce could be written on an olive leaf. I think about these disputes as I wait for the final act of my get ceremony. My tradition often seems bizarre, ludicrous and surreal. These are the qualities that my friends warned me about, interpreting the ceremony as demeaning, primitive and meaningless. But this strangeness stems from the ceremony being rooted in a time when Jews owned slaves and scribes wrote on horns. Though part of me chuckles at the antics of the three rabbis this morning, another part acknowledges that the tradition is larger and richer than those rabbis who claim to be its guardians. Standing in front of the politically appointed rabbinic judges, I look beyond them and see the Israelites who walked out of Babylon and those who left Egypt. The Israelites came home from the North and from the South at different periods in my history. They came from the East and from the West throughout the centuries, all yearning to create a new life in a Promised Land.

We are all players in the same story. It is an ancient tale, told and retold, and though the ceremony this morning in 1999 seems absurd, I love it for the continuity it affords. Each jot and tittle holds me in place against torrents of upheaval. When pieces of my life shatter like shards, the tradition binds. Moreover, the same sages and texts that prescribe my Jewish divorce determined the ceremony in which I was wed, that in which my sons entered the Covenant and those that I enact every Sabbath and on holidays. It is that tradition, that Jewish sanctification of time, that provided the scaffolding for holding my family together for 27 years. Ironically it is that same tradition that allows me an out.

Jewish tradition accepts divorce as a necessary evil, evil because ideally a marriage parallels the eternal covenant between God and Israel. The prophet Malachi admonishes, “Let no one break faith with the wife of his youth. For I detest divorce, said the Lord, the God of Israel.” Being human, however, the Talmudic sages recognized the difference between the ideal and the real. They understood that divorce was sometimes necessary, but they did not want to make it an easy procedure.

A kosher divorce cannot be derived by a simple, public statement of “You are no longer my wife.” A valid divorce cannot be derived from one action—a husband sending out his wife from their home. The sages determined that a divorce, according to the Law of Moses and Israel, is valid only if a specific document is written in the presence of two witnesses and given to the wife in the presence of those same witnesses. The Talmudic sages hoped that the husband, while going through the involved process, would reconsider and not divorce.

Whereas God was present in my wedding ceremony, he is absent from the divorce proceedings. His name is neither mentioned nor invoked. I imagine him off in a corner, sulking, and for good reason. What, after all, has God been doing every day since the creation of the world? According to the Babylonian Talmud, he has been running a dating service, matchmaking, a task more difficult, the sages claim, than splitting the waters during the Exodus.

My tradition is the palace in which I play out universal themes. Encountering it here in the rabbinic court on a summer morning at the end of the second millennium, I feel as if I have been catapulted back to my roots. The penchant for detail springs from these rock-bottom roots.

I am fortunate that my husband is cooperating in granting me a get. Thousands of Jewish women are not so lucky. Called agunot, they are locked in unwanted, often violent marriages because their husbands refuse to grant them a get. For them the tradition is a prison. For me it is an ancient palace, rising out of a chaotic sea, a palace I visit at the most meaningful transitions of my life.

Act 3: The Walk

After 20 minutes my husband returns with the scribe and the witnesses. They are not smiling. The five of us walk back into the chambers.

The rabbi asks my husband if he is giving me this divorce of his own free will or if somebody is forcing him to do so. In Jewish tradition only the man can grant the woman a divorce. Even if the woman initiates the divorce, the man must say that he is willingly granting it. I hesitate. My husband could balk. He could scream, “It’s all her idea. She’s the one who left me. She’s the one who’s always taking the initiative. I didn’t want to get married in the first place. It was her idea. It’s all her fault.”

The ambivalence in my heart would like him not to cooperate, at least for a minute. I would like to hear a refusal because it would be an acknowledgement that he cares. But he acquiesces, albeit softly.

“I can’t hear you,” the rabbi bellows.

“Yes, my own free will. Nobody is forcing me.” He barely opens his lips.

We are standing under the wedding canopy in 1972. It is a warm, May eveningLag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the barley offering in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, and the only date between Passover and the Feast of Weeks when Orthodox Jewish weddings can take place. Two witnesses and my mother stand with us under the canopy. Tears squat in the corners of my mother’s eyes. I see them when I walk around my fiancé seven times. After the seventh circle, I stop next to my man. He looks like a child who has been praised by his kindergarten teacher. He lifts my veil to give me a sip of wine. It is sweet and sanctified. Then he opens his lips slightly, just slightly, and takes a sip. God is crossing his fingers.

The rabbi turns to the witnesses. “Did you hear him?”

“Yes,” they chant.

The scribe hands the parchment to my husband, who hands it to the rabbi, who folds it into sixths and hands it back to my husband. The parchment is like a hot potato. Nobody wants to hold it because it is human evidence that God failed. And if his matchmaking is faulty, what about his other interventions?

The rabbi tells my husband to say the following words to me: “Behold, this is your get. Accept it, for with it you will be divorced from me from this moment and be permitted to all men.” My husband follows the rabbi’s orders. He looks straight into my eyes.

“Behold, this is your get. Accept it, for with it you will be divorced from me from this moment and be permitted to all men.”

The words freeze in the hot, July air. I cannot believe he is letting me go, sending me out to copulate with other men. We were enmeshed for so many years. How can he do this to me?

It is the first year of our marriage. Every night, I lie on top of my husband, who lies on the living-room couch and watches television. We are one flesh. Eventually I want to sit up. I even want to go into the other room to read a book. I go.

For weeks he does not respond when I talk to him. Over the years we try five marriage counselors. Nothing works. One night after 24 years of marriage, he throws a damp towel onto my desk.

This was out of place,” he shouts.

I ask him to leave.

If you don’t like it, lady, you know where the fuck you can go.

Now the rabbi tells me to hold my arms out toward my husband and cup my hands together, with my thumbs slightly inside the cups. I do as I am told.

“No, do not move your thumbs. Do not grab,” he admonishes. “You are a vessel. Let the parchment fall into your hands. He must give it to y-y-you.”

Now he directs my husband. “Hold the folded parchment about half a meter above her h-h-hands.” My husband obeys.

“As soon as he drops it,” the rabbi instructs me, “I want you to grasp it with two hands, like this.” He holds his hands in the position of Christian prayer.

We both do as we’re told. My husband drops the writ of divorce into my hands. I clutch the folded parchment.

“Did you see that?” the rabbi turns to ask the witnesses, who are still awake.

“Yes,” they yawn.

“Now hold your hands in front of you, grasping the writ, and walk over th-th-there,” he tells me, pointing to the far side of the room.

I am a good walker.

It is a Friday night, the Sabbath. We are seated at either end of the dining-room table, flanked by our three children. I have blessed the Sabbath candles; my husband has blessed the wine; our youngest son has blessed the bread. This is the only time during the week we sit together as a family. I want it to be pleasant, so I make conversation and encourage the children to speak. My husband watches the TV weekly news round-up. I hope he won’t explode this week, when the wine spills on the tablecloth. I want it to be pleasant, a blessing.

As my 14-year-old daughter and I clear the soup plateshomemade vegetable barleyshe says to me, Don’t you see he doesn’t love you?”

I control the tears through the homemade apple strudel and then run out the door, down the 64 stairs, up seven blocks, down two hills, over three neighborhoods, halfway to Bethlehem. I walk fast, tears streaming down my cheeks, arms swinging violently.

By the time I return to the living room an hour later, everyone is sitting in silence in front of the TV, watching the latest terrorist attack.

In the courtroom I take large, powerful strides, but the room, being small and crowded, is big enough only for three. I would crash through the wall if the rabbi told me to, but when I come up against the corner, he says to turn around and come back. I walk. I stand below the three rabbis, the folded parchment between my palms. The rabbi looks at me and says, “You are now a divorced woman. You are permitted to any m-m-man, and you can get married in 92 days. Please give me the parchment.”

I hand the rabbi the document. He tears it slightly to assure that another couple with our exact names will not use this get today.

I say, “Thank you” and “Goodbye.” The reading rabbi closes his book; the sucking rabbi extracts his thumb; and Moses wishes us good luck in our new lives.

When I say, “Thank you” and “Goodbye” to my ex-husband, his silent armor glistens.

Downstairs, outside, a smile breaks forth. It stretches from Cyrus Street to King Solomon Road. I walk over to King David Street and think what a pity these kings are dead, now that I am available and my self-esteem can handle royalty. Marriage, however, is not on my mind, despite the rabbi s mention of those 92 days. According to the calculations of the Talmudic sages, that is how long it will take to determine if I am pregnant. This is important, in order to determine the hypothetical fatherhood of the hypothetical fetus.

The King David Hotel on King David Street is bustling with activity. U.S. envoy Dennis Ross is in town trying to help Israelis and Palestinians piece together a separation agreement. Tourist buses block the road. I am glad I am not a tourist. The only place I want to go to is the land of self-respect, the land of my freedom. My feet will take me there. I turn onto Hebron Way. Cars, buses and ambulances race by as I walk out of bondage, leaving Babylon.

For our first anniversary, I want to buy him something special. He doesn’t like jewelry. In fact he doesn’t even wear a wedding ring. I choose the Encyclopedia Judaica and buy it on installments. I imagine my husband will be proud to own this rich compendium of Jewish knowledge.

On the eve of our anniversary, he opens the carton, looks, hesitates, and then closes it. He turns to me with disappointment.

You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

I turn onto Ein Gedi Street, where I live with solitude in a garden apartment. Suddenly, the earth whimpers; a soft hiss rises from the ground. From the North an unnatural dampness saturates the street. Sniffles and staccato breaths ride the hot, July air. I stop. I wipe tears from my cheeks and rub my fingers on the amulet around my neck.

I will miss Babylon, where I stayed too long. Even in a strange land, one learns to sing.

Like shards, the final words from Tractate Gittin scatter before me on the damp pavement. I pick them up and reconstruct the ancient truth, “When a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar sheds tears.”

About the Author

Judyth Har-Even

Judyth Har-Even has written personal essays for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s largest English-language daily, since 1984. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Kenyon Review, Hadassah Magazine, Lilith and Jewish newspapers in the United States and  Canada.

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