For the sake of argument

What the Jews can teach us about divorce

RABBI ABRAHAM L. FEINBERG June 4 1960
For the sake of argument

What the Jews can teach us about divorce

RABBI ABRAHAM L. FEINBERG June 4 1960

What the Jews can teach us about divorce

For the sake of argument

RABBI ABRAHAM L. FEINBERG

Divorce law in Canada, with its degrading insistence that adultery is the only ground for dissolving a marriage, appears to Jewish eyes to be based more on dogmatism than on reason; more on compulsive Puritanism than on compassionate Christianity.

Jews are not. of course, the only people who shudder at the human waste inflicted on couples who are ruining their own lives—and often their children’s—by living together in enmity, either because they can’t pay for a bill of divorcement from parliament or because they refuse to soil themselves by producing evidence for it, or both. Nor are Jews the only people who wonder why this harmful law is perpetuated even though it doesn't work —even though the divorce rate is rising rapidly in spite of every difficulty posed by the law.

Divorce without apology

But Jews are almost the only people who can describe from their own experience an ancient and honorable attitude to divorce, both social and religious, that permits the captives of tragic marriages to escape while it encourages the partners in less disastrous marriages to resolve their differences and live together constructively. The Jewish faith holds marriage sacred. But it permits divorce without apology, and regards sex with reverence instead of repugnance.

As a Jewish clergyman, and as a human being, I believe Canada’s divorce laws need the searchlight of honest, forthright realism. Once a marriage deteriorates into nothing more than a post-office address, means should exist to bring it to an end with complete freedom of remarriage for both parties. From biblical times, my religion has recognized the validity of divorce.

Most other faiths treat divorce as a crime, to be prevented if possible and punished when it cannot be prevented. I respect the sincere religious conviction that undergirds Canadian resistance to more liberal

divorce laws, but such laws need not interfere with the unimpeded exercise of anyone's faith. Those who regard divorce as a contravention of God’s law should never enter a divorce court. The precepts of their religion are sacrosanct and override all private and personal considerations. But those who hold a contrary belief deserve the right to enter a divorce court.

In February. 1952, when adultery was the only ground for divorce in the state of New York, the New York City Board of Rabbis, which comprised 550 spiritual leaders from Orthodox. Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations, called for a widening of those grounds.

Declaring that the conditions which encompass the quest for divorce in New York are “scandalous.” the resolution stated: “Judaism throughout the ages has conspicuously upheld the sanctity of law and the integrity of the home and family. It affirms that marriage is a moral and divinely sanctified union of husband and wife. Therefore,.when the moral and sanctifying elements are no longer present in marriage. Judaism recognizes that divorce may be wise and necessary, and traditionally it has made provision for the dissolution of such marriage under religious auspices. It teaches that successful marriage rests upon a strong and enduring unity of purpose between husband and wife, rather than upon the prohibition of divorce.”

The adjective “scandalous” also describes the conditions that prevail in parts of Canada today—and the rabbinical resolution of 1952 defines at least a partial remedy.

The intermingling of two lives and persons in marriage is the most complex, difficult and fragile of all human enterprises. Yet humanity — and certainly Judaism — places the home at the heart of civilized values. To the end of preserving it, Western culture has brought to bear the massive weight of religion, respectability and law. A mature

ABRAHAM L. FEINBERG IS RABBI OF THE HOLY BLOSSOM TEMPLE, TORONTO.

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“Parents mastered by hate may hurt their children more than parents separated by law“

and socially responsible community will demand the sacrifice of personal whim, desire, even fulfillment and a measure of “self-expression." and it will exact heroic discipline, to hold divorce to a minimum. Yet it must also recognize that under certain circumstances a divorce is the lesser evil and may salvage something from the wreck.

This does not mean that the Jewish faith holds the married state in less esteem than other religions do. Even the enemies of the Jew have long confessed the comparative stability of his family life. It is not too much to say that the Jews' survival as a people has rested to a considerable extent on family. A mainstay of the Jewish religion is ritual and righteousness in the home. In fact, just because Judaism respects marriage, it has never forbidden divorce as a release from a morally intolerable situation.

Regard for the home as the keystone of a decent life, and resignation to the occasional inevitability of divorce, are not contradictory ideas. In extreme circumstances divorce preserves family ideals and standards, instead of endangering them. Dissolution of a marriage that has sunk into a mephitic morass of hostility and bitterness is of greater benefit to the home than enforcement of such a marriage. When marital sanctity has been defiled, it cannot be restored by legal sanctions.

In Jewish law and literature, the Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin,

derived from kodosh, which means “holy." Marriage is a sacred, shared experience, a spiritual-physical communion of man and woman sanctioned by the state and sanctified by religion.

The ultimate source of holiness, however, is not the state or synagogue, but the mutual affection, love and understanding of two people — husband and wife. If those feelings vanish, sacred communion degenerates into profane union. To punish the partners in a wrong marriage with life imprisonment, to bar another chance with a more suitable mate, would be inconceivable within J udaism.

['lie “secret” of Jewish marriage

Before the acids of modernity began to corrode the moral fiber of the Jews (along with other groups), divorce was a rarity in Jewish life. Now greater freedom and independence (especially for "emancipated” women), the twilight of religious authoritarianism, concentration into cities, the impact of environment and pandemic materialism surge against the family fortress. But the bulwark remains fundamentally intact. Juvenile delinquency (often a symptom of broken households) and chronic alcoholism (also a measuring rod. whether as effect or cause) are relatively rare among Jews. So is divorce.

What is the "secret" of Jewish marriage? The answer lies imbedded in the

centuries-old attitude of the Jewish folk and faith, a deeply ingrained, historic approach to sex and sin — a habitual response to marital relations implicit in Jewish law, lore and life throughout numberless generations.

To the Jew, marriage is not a sacrament —the outward channel of inward grace. It is a covenant between two persons who, being human, are prone to errors in judgment and frailty of character.

Since not only biological reproduction, but personal happiness, is a God-ordained purpose of conjugal union, there is no reason why husband and w-ife must endure a lifetime of pain when the contract can be terminated. Therefore, after every possible effort is made to re-establish harmony and reconcile the couple, divorce should be made available. If there are children, the marriage may be ended only as a desperate final resort—although parents mastered by hate may hurt them more seriously than parents separated by law, and cumulative discord can sometimes breed more complexes in children than an "agreement to disagree.” 1 have seen neurotic youngsters with telltale tics for whom a cler.n break would have been less damaging psychologically than the cockpit in which they live.

How did the Jewish attitude toward divorce develop? The Hebrew Bible provides that a man who wishes to divorce his wife “shall write for her a bill of divorcement, place it in her hand and send her from his house." The initiative

was vested in him alone. (Today, Judaism permits divorce only with the consent of both parties.)

But the Bible merely set down elementary principles; most Christians, in their glance at Hebraic law. stop there. Actually, the Bible was not the end, but the beginning. It had to be expanded, applied, made to work, just as the BNA Act or the American Constitution must be interpreted for practical purposes by lawyers, courts and scholars.

Jews have an earned reputation for individualism in opinion. With regard to divorce, there were two schools of thought. One recognized adultery as the only justification for dissolving a marriage. The more generous view, which became the law in Judaism, embraced a wider range of causes. In very ancient times, as among some Moslems today, a husband could issue a divorce if he found his wife displeasing.

Some specific examples of a husband’s legitimate grievance, such as a spoiled dinner, sound unreasonable. One man contended, in words which seem curiously modern (and applicable to movie stars), that he ought to be able to divorce his wife "if he discovers another woman more attractive." I am quite sure that such invitations to moral chaos were never taken seriously by Jews even in those far-off days.

But the rabbis of early times knew that when a man seemed ready to sever his marriage for a trivial reason, the real

grounds lay far deeper. They emphasized that when there is no real fusion of husband and wife, when love has fled forever, the marriage is no longer moral in the true meaning of that word or holy in the eyes of God.

Nevertheless, there was always very potent and persistent pressure against the ending of marriage bonds. But this pressure was moral and social, not theological; it came from the people themselves.

The family institution was not packaged with a supernatural belief, but with the ripe, day-to-day experience of ordinary men and women. They loathed divorce because it weakened the foundation of the Jewish community, which was the home. Jewish opposition to divorce did not hang on conventional dogmas about the supernatural; therefore it did not sag when those dogmas crumbled under the blows of modern science. To make marital stability depend on rigid doctrine is poor tactics during a period, like ours, of rationalistic revolt against "changeless” creeds. When the beliefs are shaken, marriage shifts too. I believe that is a factor for divorce today.

Jewish leaders stress that conditions often require a husband and wife to adjust themselves at great sacrifice of personal happiness, in order to maintain a home for the children. Furthermore, easy divorce would disrupt many families which might have been kept intact with more patience; the wounds can often be healed.

In other words, Judaism puts one primary consideration at the centre of the whole problem; namely, the well-being of the persons involved. What is best for them, especially for the innocent offspring?

There is a difference in origin and background between the orthodox Chris-

tian attitude toward marriage and that of historic Judaism. In the New' Testament some evidence appears to exist that Jesus held earthly marriage and the family non-essential to the ideal life he visualized. Centuries later the church elevated marriage to an indissoluble sacrament — without altering the Christian preference for celibacy and self-denial as the basis of a godly life. (A more flexible, permissible spirit has undoubtedly evolved during the centuries, as many liberal Christians will assert, but this original suspicion of the "flesh,” I believe, remains rooted in the Christian mind.)

In contrast with that unquestionably high-minded contempt for passion and with the feeling that sex was tainted from the beginning and in essence, the very first command in the Hebrew Bible instructed man to "Be fruitful and multiply." The implementation of this rule in later days got specific and detailed briefing. Hebrew' wise men declared marriage obligatory at eighteen: except under special conditions, a man had to be wived before twenty. Instead of a bachelor clergy, even the high priest in Jerusalem was expected to take a wife — for selfcompletion and cleanliness of mind — before he could officiate at atonement rites during the sacred penitential season. In our own time, some Jewish congregations hesitate to receive the ministrations of an unmarried rabbi. Twice in the circumcision ceremony a prayer goes forth that the eight-day-old boy shall “enter into the Torah ("Teaching”), the nuptial canopy and good deeds."

In respect to the carnal union of man and woman, a cleavage always yawned wide between Judaism and Hellenism, the ancient Greek culture which was in the air during the formative stage of Christianity. Hellenism exalted the body

and enveloped it in extravagant adulation, as attested by the naked athletes and statues and by poetry and myth. To balance this obsession with the physical form, the nubile beauty of "Greek gods," Greek philosophy turned away from the normal sensual desires of man and woman and idealized the allegedly more re-

fined and intellectual love of man for man. Natural sex thus became an amiable weakness, a plebeian indulgence or a loathsome surrender to animalism.

Judaism knows nothing of this psychological compensation and ambiguity. Jewish thinkers and spiritual leaders did not develop a monastic guilt-complex about sex in reaction against the lewdness ot Greco-Roman paganism — and they did not succumb to that paganism. Whatever the hazards that threaten their felicity from other directions, Jewish husbands and wives are not likely to be alllicted by the sickly fears and repressions which, according to many psychologists, bedevil married life in Western civilization as the heritage of puritanism.

Psychologists have told me that some marriages actually start to founder during

the honeymoon, in cases when even the sacrament cannot banish the lifelong belief that sex is "something dirty.”

I have never encountered this attitude among Jews.

In the tradition of Judaism, sex is not an act of shame or a snare of the Devil (he doesn't exist!) or an orgy under green trees (against which the Hebrew prophets and sages inveighed with titanic scorn) or a romantic ballad of medieval knights (who sought its pleasures outside marriage). To Jews, sex is the normal, natural acceptance of a part in God's joyous creativity.

Since the family contact has a deeply spiritual foundation, adultery cannot be permitted to cheapen it. Unfaithfulness is wrong not because sex comes from the lower depths and must be restrained as such, but because it comes from on high and must be respected.

Sexual immorality was considered one of the three sins which, the ancient rabbis said. Jews must avoid even at the cost of life—although it is an over-simplification to assume that it alone destroys marriage. There are countless ways, beyond the purview of any court, in which wife or husband (usually both) can snap the tie that binds. Marriage entails a delicate interweaving of many strands. Judaism holds, however, that the bodily union which distinguishes it from all other human intercourse is so sacred that it opens a path to the Divine.

Throughout the United States and Canada today, youngsters are committing themselves in marriage earlier than their parents did. 1 consider the spread of this old Jewish custom to be a healthy symptom. Perhaps the welfare of individuals and society would be fostered by earnest examination of the Jewish attitude toward divorce, as well, if