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Emerging on the Other Side of a Marriage

Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies
by Rabbi Perry Netter, Afterward by Rabbi Laura Geller, Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95

The Get: A Spiritual Memoir of Divorce
by Elise Edelson Katch, Simcha Press, $10.

In the Talmud, the tractate on divorces appears before the tractate on marrying. The wry explanation for this curious order? It’s better to learn the cure before getting the disease. If the metaphor holds, two recent books on Jewish divorce demonstrate that the cure can be as varied as the disease.

Rabbi Netter’s Divorce Is a Mitzvah (the title is a line by Rashi) is a constructive, sensible, even hopeful book that attempts to mitigate the scars and the stigmas usually associated with divorce. He weaves the story of his divorce from a wife of seventeen years with practical information, psychological explanation, and readings of traditional Jewish sources. He is especially forthright on the importance of making divorce as safe as possible for the children, to which end he devotes two full chapters. Netter and his wife gathered their three children on the family marital bed to break the news that they were divorcing; this to convey the message that despite the changes to come they would still be a family. The difficult but also healthy, holy path, advises Rabbi Netter, is for the ex-spouses to actively co-parent the kids, to subordinate their pain with one another to meet the needs of their children.

Rabbi Netter wants the gel to be understood as a meaningful ritual rather than the businesslike implementation of a contract. The get, he believes, has the power to provide closure to a failed relationship; if approached consciously, its ritual can allow man and woman a final, emotional un-coupling. He deftly narrates the grief he felt at his own gel, and likens a divorce to a death—the death of a marriage, of innocence, and of an intact family. And he calls for more organized support for the divorcee within the Jewish community, something akin to the support we give to comfort a mourner.

Elise Edelson Katch’s memoir, The Get testifies to how scaring and unreasonable divorce can be. Edelson Katch, a prominent Denver therapist, has brought to print a haunting tale that, sadly, reads more like untouched diary entries than a crafted work. She and her husband were both nonobservant Jews, free spirited children of the 1960s, when they fell in love and married. When their daughter was three years old, they joined a havurah. Ten years later, during what Katch believed was a temporary separation, her husband, who had increasingly been drawn to a nearby congregation of “black hats,” initiated proceedings for a gel. Edelson Katch tells of late night telephone calls from an Orthodox rabbi she never met who harassed her with whispered questions for information needed to write the gel: “What is your name, what is your father’s name?” Her husband, who does not attend their daughter’s bat mitzvah, dates a friend of Katch, and quite conveniently loses most of his assets, continually asks her for a gel. Edelson Katch refuses. She is not ready; she wants their civil divorce finalized first. When she does consent, she gets an Orthodox bet din. In a room with three men who will not meet her eye, she feels deeply shamed. She too yearns for a meaningful context, a ritual to help her mourn the death of her marriage. I found it particularly piercing that Katch, who throughout the book conveys a sense of her own genuine need for spirituality, be it New-Age affirmations or the lighting of Shabbat candles, should find her marriage so torn and herself so hurt by religion coming to her via the patriarchy.

Karen Propp is the author of two memoirs, In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story and The Pregnancy Project: Encounters with Reproductive Therapy. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and son.