Some Concluding Thoughts on Masechet Gittin

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
After 90 double-sided pages, Masechet Gittin is coming to a close. We have discussed in great detail the intricacies of the laws of Gittin; how to write them, how to deliver them, how to sign them, what to say in them. We have even discussed the events leading to the destruction of the Temple - G-d's near divorce of the Jewish people - and a series of Rabbinic enactments to better the world and to bring peace to the world. But what we have not discussed is why and when a couple should get divorced and what our attitude towards divorce should be. Until now that is as we reach the 90th[1]and last page of Masechet Gittin.
 
"Beit Shammai says: A man should not divorce his wife unless he finds in her unchaste behaviour[2]." (Gittin 90a) Marriage is a commitment for life as we partner with someone through the ups and downs of life. One does not end such a relationship unless something is seriously amiss - something like a serious breach of modesty. 
 
While this may seem "outdated" to us moderns such was the norm in all modern liberal democracies until very recently. The first of the United States to adopt no-fault divorce was (as you may have guessed) California in 1969. In Canada the only grounds for divorce until 1968 was adultery and no fault divorce was only introduced in 1986. (Between 1968 and 1986 one could also get divorced if one demonstrated physical or mental cruelty!) And while Beit Shammai suggest one divorce only for moral reasons even they agree from a legal perspective a divorce is valid regardless the motivation. 
 
That the Torah allowed no fault divorce can be seen in the fact that according to Torah law a man may divorce his wife without her consent for no reason at all. It was the decree of ex-communication promulgated by Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz[3] in the 10th century that required a couple to reach agreement on the terms of divorce. Beit Shammai is giving more of a moral exhortation than a legal one. 
 
If the Mishna lists the opinion of Beit Shammai we can be sure that the view of Beit Hillel is soon to follow. And Beit Hillel goes to the other extreme teaching that one can divorce one's wife even for the flimsiest of reasons, "even if she burned his food." This rather startling statement is actually an indictment of the husband. Once we have established the fact that Judaism sanctions no fault divorce, even such a sad spectacle of a husband divorcing his wife over her cooking skills cannot be denied. But what kind of a man would do such? And what kind of a marriage can it be when one is willing to divorce because of the quality of the food? Cleary there are other issues at play and perhaps the wife should be thrilled to escape such a marriage. If cooking gets the husband mad imagine what will happen when a serious issue arises. 
 
But the Mishna does not end here. "Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than her." Rabbi Akiva does not even require some spoiled food to legitimize divorce. Finding another woman more attractive than one's wife is reason enough. If this sounds callous it is because it is. To leave one's wife for another is the height of lowliness. But if one is married and is still on the lookout for a more beautiful wife the marriage is in deep trouble. True beauty is much more than skin deep and in a wonderful marriage - and there were few more wonderful than that of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel - one does not think there is someone better waiting in the wings. The grass should not be and generally is not greener on the other side[4].
 
Divorce is at times necessary and even beneficial. Sometimes a marriage really can't be fixed and divorce allows for a fresh start - especially if there are no children involved. What constitutes a "good" reason is a matter of debate. However that a marriage has reached the point where divorce is the best option is sad indeed.
 
After 90 pages of detailed discussion of the laws of Gittin objectively and with little emotion, the masechet concludes with the teaching of Rabbi Elazar: "Whoever divorces his first wife even the altar sheds tears on him." When instead of rising to heights that could not be done alone, a couple is forced to separate it is enough to make G-d cry. 
 
Let us bring joy to G-d as we move from gittin to kiddushin, from anger and discord to the sanctity of marriage. 
 
 
[1] If one wants to be technical about it, it is actually the 89th page as Talmudic tractates begin on page two. While this is a common convention in all books with page 1 being some type of title page starting the Talmud on page 2 has symbolic meaning. Every page of Talmud assumes knowledge of other pages such that there really is no beginning to a Tractate unlike say mathematics where one begins with addition and subtraction, moves to multiplication tables...then on to calculus. One just has to jump into the sea of Talmud.
 
[2] The Mishna was unconcerned about that which is so significant to many today, namely the inability of a wife to divorce her husband. This reflects the world-view of all ancients where such a notion would have been unthinkable. That being said Masechet Ketubot especially, is full of cases where a woman can ask the courts for a divorce. Even more inconceivable to the Rabbis would be the case of a man refusing a court order to divorce his wife. So much so that the Rabbis could almost nonchalantly say that if need be a recalcitrant husband could be beaten up to and including the point of death for refusing to grant his wife a divorce thereby sentencing her to a life of loneliness. 
 
[3] For those who will be joining us this summer as we Journey through Jewish History to Germany we will visit Mainz and the cemetery where Rabbeinu Gershom is buried. Yes, it and so many other cemeteries featuring the many luminaries of Askenazic Jewry are still standing untouched by the Nazis yms. 
 
[4] In fact the divorce rate for second marriages is substantially higher than for first marriages.