While the Torah in this week's portion (Ki Satzei) sanctions divorce, it also expresses how undesirable is the dissolution of a marriage. The Torah calls for divorce only in the case of “a promiscuous matter” -- an act of unfaithfulness or other moral offense (1).
Indeed, there is an opinion - held by the School of Shammai - that this constitutes the sole grounds for divorce. But also the sages of the School of Hillel, who allow divorce on other grounds as well, agree that “When a person divorces his first wife, even the Altar sheds tears on his account (2).”
Yet astonishingly, Jewish law deduces the laws of marriage from the biblical laws of divorce!
The Torah devotes a full section (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) to detail the procedures of divorce and the grounds for it. Yet nowhere in the Bible can we find the laws of marriage! How then do we know the procedures of marriage according to Torah law? The Talmudic sages derived them from hints and allusions inserted within the very verses which specify the laws of divorce (3).
This seems very strange. Marriage by definition must precede divorce. Marriage, in the biblical perspective, is the desirable state ("It is not good for man to be alone," Genesis famously declares). So how is it that the Bible makes not a single mention of the procedures and laws of marriage, only of divorce, and then we must deduce the laws of marriage from divorce legislation?!
If that is not enough, in the Talmud, the tractate that legislates divorce (Gitin) precedes the tractate that legislates marriage (Kedushin). But how can you get divorced if you're not married?
If this might have been a question millennia ago – when the Torah and the Talmud were transcribed – today we can appreciate the subtle message conveyed by these seemingly strange factors. The Torah understood that marriage can never be taken for granted. Just because people have been doing it for thousands of years does not mean they will continue down this path. Marriage does not occur automatically when a nice girl meets a nice boy, nor can it be sustained by the natural conditions of human beings. Marriage requires an education of a particular set of values.
Thus, the Torah is subtly indicating the psychological and sociological link between marriage and divorce. The laws of marriage are deduced from the laws of divorce in order to teach us that our perspective on divorce will always define our perception of marriage. Examine how a society views divorce and you will learn much about its marriages.
How does Judaism view divorce?
The ninety-page tractate of Talmud legislating the Jewish laws for divorce concludes with these words:
“Whenever anyone divorces his first wife, even the Temple Altar sheds tears. As the Bible states, ‘You cause the altar of G-d to be covered with tears, with weeping and with sighing; so that G-d no longer turns to the offerings to retrieve it with good will from your hands. And you might ask: Why? -- Because G-d has borne witness between you and the wife of your youth that you have betrayed her, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant.”
Divorce, in the Jewish perspective, may at times be a necessity, but it is profoundly painful. When two souls fused together in marriage are severed, something very holy and special was destroyed. Marriage is a divine institution, a sacred edifice, the recreation of the divine image here on earth. When a marriage is severed, the world becomes a smaller place; the part of us that is sensitive to the G-dliness of life, cries.
“The wife of your covenant!” What a splendid definition for a marriage relationship. Marriage, the Bible is telling us, is not merely a choice; it is a covenant, a commitment to be there for each other. The declaration of marriage does not mean that you are husband and wife as long you find each other attractive or compatible; as long as your hearts are aglow with passion and romance; as long as you don’t meet someone else more attractive, or as long as you don’t get into a major conflict about life’s dilemmas. Marriage is the commitment that “I will be with you whatever fate brings; I will remain loyal to you. When you need me, I’ll be there; when things are tough, I won’t walk away.” Marriage is the pledge to share a life together, come what may. It is, in the words of the sages, “an eternal edifice.”
This commitment does not stem from passive resignation, fueled by fear or social pressure. On the contrary, it stems from the mature choice of two human beings who see enough of each other to know that their souls belong together. Once they recognize this, they make an unwavering commitment to each other, that nothing, really nothing, will ever get in the way of their loyalty to each other. Of course, they are both aware that the future may bring about unexpected situations that might warrant divorce; one of the partners may fall prey to base instincts and choose to betray their soul-mate. Other tragic circumstances may necessitate the dissolution of the marriage, which is why the Torah sanctions divorce. Yet in their present state, the commitment is absolute, timeless and unbreakable. And that in itself will usually ensure that betrayal does not occur.
The fact that many people consider divorce as a feasible alternative in their marriages increases the chances that they will actually end up parting ways. The possibility of separation is already the fact of separation. Can a woman or a man be expected to share their complete self with the other when they know that their marriage partner might walk away one day? You can’t immerse yourself in love all the way if you are frightened that your love might be violated.
This is why the Talmudic tractate dealing with divorce must precede the tractate dealing with marriage. You need to examine your attitude – instinctive and philosophical -- to divorce before you're ready for marriage; you ought to also learn the attitude of your partner to divorce. The moment you are ready to marry a person, divorce should not be an option anymore. What the future will bring nobody knows; yet separation must never be part of the marriage equation (4).
Today it seems that timidity and reservation have become the defining staples of our marriage commitments. Many of us lost the courage to make choices that will define our lives; we have become afraid to step out of our solitary comfort zones, to live the lifestyle G-d envisioned for each of us. To say "I love you" and mean: Forever!
1) "If a man takes a wife and cohabits with her, and it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her a promiscuous matter - he should write her a writ of divorce and give it into her hands, and send her away from his house" (Deuteronomy 24:1).
2) Talmud, Gittin 90a-b; see Rashi ibid. (im senuah).
3) Talmud Kedushin pp. 2-4.
4) See Likkutei Sichos vol. 34 Parshas Ki Seitzei.