Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Reform Marriage, An Orthodox Divorce

It’s not often that a reform Jew needs what’s called a get — a divorce decree that is usually reserved for the most observant Jews. But not long ago, Ellen, my ex-wife, asked me to give her a get. She isn’t suddenly going deeper into Judaism; she’s just dating a man who is conservative, which means that she will need a get before they can marry. (If they wish to. Eventually.) She had to ask me because tradition dictates that the ex-husband present the get to his ex-wife.

had no problem with this. Ellen and I are very close, still, and I didn’t want to stand in her way, whatever her plans may be... or whatever they become. We got the name of a rabbi in Lakewood, New Jersey, which has a very large orthodox population as well as Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva in the United States (6,000 students). I texted him, and then we spoke and made an appointment.

What I pictured was that Ellen and I would walk in, sidle up to a window, answer some questions, say a few prayers, sign the forms, and then the get would be ours. I figured this was a sort of DMV for Jewish divorce.

Not so much.

What actually happened was rather more complex — and a great deal more emotional. [...]

Having been written, witnessed, and approved, now the get needed to be presented by me to Ellen. You guessed it: more ritual. We stood, facing each other, her hands cupped before her. The rabbi folded the get and handed it to me. I was prompted to recite several lines in English and Hebrew, then dropped the get into her hands. It had to be dropped, not placed. Maybe this is to assure that we are not touching the get at the same moment. Ellen tucked it under her left arm, to be near her heart, and walked several feet away, symbolizing her being apart from me, and then the get was sliced with a knife. I imagine this is to symbolize the death of the marriage, much in the way that observant Jews rend clothing when someone dies.

Believe me, the DMV for Jewish divorce this isn’t.

What surprised me was the ceremony’s emotional weight. Its gravitas. Eighteen months ago, Ellen and I divorced collaboratively. We did not need to appear together in court. Though emotional, our civil divorce was, well, civil. The getting of the get, while no more difficult in the practical sense, was harder on my heart. It felt much more... final. It felt like a divorce before God, far more meaningful than a sheaf of papers presented to a judge in New Jersey. When I told Ellen, in Hebrew and in English, that I released her and that she was free to move on with her life without me, I was unexpectedly moved.

Driving up to Lakewood, Ellen and I riffed on the word “get.” “We’re off to get a get.” “It’s getting late. We better get going.” “We’re going up to Lakewood. Can we get you anything?” We did that to lighten the mood, because in the end the get is serious business. It’s tradition. It’s meaningful. For two people who are more culturally and spiritually Jewish than Jewish in the religious sense, the get brought us an oddly calming sense of having, well, gotten to a new place.

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