By Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers
A recent report suggests there are more divorces than marriages happening in the UK. Judaism has never held an aversion to divorce, though that’s not to say it hasn’t had controversial moments shifting and changing over time. There are powerful elements of Jewish marriage contracts designed to protect women, the more vulnerable party some would argue, if not until today, then certainly until very recently. But in reality, despite this protective goal, women have remained the vulnerable party, especially in divorce. As it says in Mishnah Yevamot 14:1 ‘ A woman is divorced in accordance with her will or against her will. A man cannot divorce his wife except of his own free will.’
Would things have played out differently for the matriarchs and patriarchs if divorce had been an option women could pursue? Would Sara have called it quits after Abraham tried to pass her off as his sister rather than his wife (a trick their son Isaac also tries with Rebecca)? Would Leah have filed for divorce when she realised Jacob was only ever going to have eyes for Rachel? Would Rebecca and Isaac have fallen out over their choosing favourites between their sons?
Key to them staying may have been their lack of choices, but even the Rabbis, who still insisted women could be divorced against their will, created modes through which women could at least initiate divorce proceedings if they were unhappy with, for example, the smell of their husband if caused by his profession. Although women and men have not traditionally been treated equally in these systems (something Reform and Liberal Judaism have worked hard to rebalance in both their weddings and divorce proceedings) Judaism holds the principle that if a couple is intractably miserable, divorce should be an option. Trapping people in a union that causes misery is not the Jewish way- though our systems have often failed men and women in these processes.
Today many women in the UK have considerably more say over their lives, finances, careers, and choices. Many vulnerabilities remain for couples getting divorced, but increasingly the shenanigans our ancient ancestors got away with just won’t wash with those who have a say over their destiny. Rising divorce rates can mean people are putting less effort into working to fix problems. But it can also mean today both partners in couples have the freedom of choice to say ‘this is broken and making us/me miserable’. Divorce as Judaism understands it should always be an option to prevent people being trapped in miserable situations and allowing them to enjoy life once again. If we have done all we can to fix something, perhaps we shouldn’t mourn higher divorce rates, but acknowledge them as a reality in a society where couples have the economic and social freedom to live happy lives, even if that means apart.