A Hadaka ritual for when a marriage comes apart

Naomi, one member of our Jewish women’s group, asked us for a ceremony to mark her separation from her husband Joseph. Naomi and Joseph [their names have been changed here] had been married for nineteen years, and in the past several years conflicts between them had escalated to the point where Naomi felt that it was not possible for her to continue in the marriage. She chose to mark the occasion of their moving to separate residences with a ceremony.

For six years, the Princeton Rosh Hodesh Group had been meeting regularly to mark Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of each month of the Hebrew calendar. We create and participate in new rituals, particularly to help each another make life transitions of all kinds.

Linda Oppenheimer, Shoshana Silber, and myself created the ceremony. I had spoken with Naomi at length about many aspects of her decision, and I drew on this knowledge in preparing the ceremony. She herself did not participate in constructing the ritual, except to let me know that she was open to whatever our creativity produced.

We took a long time developing the themes and symbols that we finally used here, and many ideas were discarded in the process. Ultimately, though our ceremony was held on a Sunday evening, we chose to use and reinterpret the symbols of havdalah [the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath]—the wine, the spices, and the candles—along with a plant, to enable Naomi to mark this transition to a new phase of her life.

About twelve of us gathered in a living room to conduct the ceremony, which took about an hour and a half. I served as the leader, with everyone taking part. It was a moving experience for all of us, and we reproduce it here for other women’s groups to use or adapt.

What’s needed:

• 2 candles and 2 separate candlesticks

• fireproof bowl

• wine and cups for all

• fragrance; pine branch, potpourri, flowers, etc. (We used fragrant wood chips.)

• very small natural objects such as bark, leaves, pine needles, stones, clay (We set all these out on a coffee table and they looked quite pretty.)

• a plant (We used a flowering cyclamen, which was blooming in Israel at the time the ceremony took place; ivy is another good choice.)

• a nice ceramic pot with a hole in the bottom for drainage

• potting soil and a trowel

• newspaper to protect the table

• matches

• basin and a pitcher of water

• copies of the ceremony text for all (We gave Naomi a copy that contained only the blessings she was to say aloud.)

We began with an abbreviated Ma’ariv (Evening) service so that another member of the group could say Kaddish for her daughter. We used the new Reconstructionist prayer book, Kol Ha’Neshamah, choosing from it Marcia Falk’s alternative Amidah, from which we selected poems and blessings. We sang the blessings in Hebrew and English, using Faith Rogow’s tune for “As We Bless.” (This tune is on her tape “The Courage to Dare.”) The readings introduced the themes of endings, separation, and death, setting the tone for the ceremony that followed.

We sang a simple niggun [a tune without words], written by me, which was meant to be wistful, sad, a little joyous, and was a kind of comforting lullaby when sung softly and slowly.

Lighting two candles, we poured wine for all, and recited three blessings together:

We praise You, Source of Life, for the wine that helps heal our wounds and points to future joys. (We drank the wine.)

We praise You, Source of Life, for the fragrance that enables us to savor pleasant memories of shared experiences. (We passed around the fragrant wood chips.)

We praise You, Source of Life, for the flame that lights the direction to the future, guiding us on new paths. (The flames of the two candles were held together for the blessing, and separated afterward.)

Naomi read these blessings aloud:

Blessed is the One who separates and makes distinctions.

Blessed is the One who guided me to join my husband under the huppah [marriage canopy].

Blessed is the One who enabled us to bring our children into the world.

Blessed is the One who sheltered us in our home.

Blessed is the One who has helped me to decide to leave this marriage. Blessed is the One who separates and makes distinctions.

This part was very difficult for Naomi. She said later that she was surprised, and relieved, to realize that she might imagine “the One” as being involved in her decisions to marry and to divorce—she had previously felt solely responsible, and blamed herself for the outcome. We sang the niggun again at this point, to give Naomi a chance to collect herself.

We wanted to give Naomi an opportunity to talk about her marriage, to tell its story to the group and to herself. I had included in the ceremony text the prompts listed below so that each of us could help Naomi reconstruct the history of the marriage and reflect on it. I gave a brief introduction to this part of the ritual and then asked the first question. The rest unfolded easily and naturally for about half an hour. Naomi said later that it had felt important for her both to affirm for herself and also to share with us the things that had been positive about the marriage. As a group, we knew more about the pain and frustration that we had seen her experience than about the richness and excitement that had once been present in the relationship.

Question Prompts:

• when you met—what was/is attraction

• courtship and decision to marry

• wedding/early years/birth of children

• moment(s) of greatest joy/sadness

• what has made you most angry

• regret—what you feel you could have done differently

• Jewish life

• turning points—looking back, when were they?

• how have you changed since the beginning of this relationship?

• what do you know now that you wish you had known then?

• other questions

Once we had reached a natural stopping place, each person was asked to choose one of the small natural objects from the table and place it in the ceramic pot. I had earlier asked Naomi to bring something symbolizing her marriage to burn. She brought a copy of her marriage license that she had carried for many years as identification. She placed it in the bowl, along with the fragrant wood chips (which we had blessed earlier), and lit them with both of the candles. We all watched quietly for several minutes while the certificate and the wood chips gradually turned to ash. While everything was burning, Naomi repeated the passage below phrase by phrase after me:

1, Naomi S., affirm that I have chosen, with sorrow and with anger, with regret and with relief, to end my marriage to Joseph B. Before we were joined; as of now, we are separated. Before, we shared our home; now, we live in separate homes. I leave behind me forever my married life with Joseph. I look ahead to a new life for myself a life that will grow from the sweetness and the bitterness of our marriage.

Blessed is the One who separates and makes distinctions.

Blessed is the One who enables us to make transformations and new beginnings.

This was the emotional climax of the ceremony.

We mixed the ashes of the the marriage certificate and the wood chips with potting soil and the objects in the pot, and we then placed the plant into the soil. I had originally imagined that Naomi would do this herself, but members of the group very spontaneously did it for her, and Naomi said later that it comforted her to have people take care of her in this way.

We ended by chanting our opening niggun again as we moved to a larger open space in another part of the room. We all stood in a close circle, with Naomi in the center. We had planned to do a kind of “trust fall,” in which a person is literally handed from and supported by one person after another around the circle. Instead, we found ourselves growing quiet, hugging and slowly rocking Naomi as a group. We gradually stepped back from her, and she hugged each of us individually as we again sang our niggun and “As We Bless.” We lingered in the spell of the moment, all of us bound together by the moving experience we had shared.

Ruth Berger Goldston, a member of a Princeton, New Jersey Rosh Hodesh group, is a psychotherapist and former Chair of the National Havurah Committee.