Rabbis Urged to Undertake ‘a Major Initiative’ to Solve the Problem of Religious Divorce

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, has urged his colleagues in all three trends of Judaism to “undertake a major initiative” aimed at solving one of the most vexing and divisive problems in Jewish community and family life — the get, or religious divorce.

Lookstein, who is rabbi of Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun in Manhattan, defined the central problems and offered solutions at the Board of Rabbis annual meeting here last Wednesday at which he was re-elected to another one-year term as president.

THE CENTRAL PROBLEMS

“The first problem concerns encouraging Jews to obtain a get prior to remarriage,” he said. The second “results from a recalcitrant partner to a previous marriage who refuses to give or accept a get after a civil divorce has been granted.”

The get is not a universal requirement. Many Reform rabbis will perform a second marriage where one or both of the previously married partners has not obtained a religious divorce. Orthodox and Conservative rabbis generally will not.

Lookstein pointed out that a second marriage where there has been no get is considered adulterous under Jewish religious law and the offspring of such marriages are “mamzerim”– illegitimate. “I appeal to all of my colleagues to compromise on this and to require a get before remarriage,” said Lookstein, whose stated goal is to “avoid all future mamzerut in America.”

He pointed out that illegitimate persons may never marry religiously into the Jewish community and have no recourse, such as conversion, to alter their status.

PROPOSED STRONGEST POSSIBLE SANCTIONS

Lookstein called on the Board of Rabbis to resolve that none of its members should officiate at a second marriage unless and until every possible effort has been made to obtain a get for the partner who needs it.

With respect to the second problem, the Board of Rabbis president noted that “there are at present thousands of men and women — mostly women — who have received a civil divorce but who are prevented from entering a second marriage because of a vindictive or avaricious former spouse who refuses to cooperate in the get process.”

He proposed the strongest possible sanctions against such a spouse, including denial of all honors or privileges of membership in a synagogue or temple. “This kind of social pressure will have a great impact on recalcitrant spouses and may go a long way toward eliminating the problem,” Lookstein said, adding that “the publicity alone which will attend the acceptance of such a proposal may greatly enhance the get process.”

In urging that the get requirement be made universal in all trends of Judaism, Lookstein acknowledged “problems with the non-egalitarian structure of a get.” Under Jewish law only the male partner to the marriage can give a get. But “the problem of mamzerut is sufficiently grave to warrant a compromise on the issue of egalitarianism,” Lookstein maintained.

Ironically, the issue of non-egalitarianism has arisen in connection with New York State legislation enacted several years ago, known as the Get Law, which is intended to protect women seeking a get from a spouse who refuses to give one.

The law requires that in order to obtain a civil divorce decree in New York State, the complainant must remove all barriers to future remarriage of the other party.

Julie Frank, of New York City Council President Andrew Stein’s office who is knowledgeable on the Get Law, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it works only when the male partner is the complainant. A woman complainant may agree to remove all barriers to future remarriage of her spouse but it is meaningless because a woman cannot give a get, Frank said.

Lookstein offered as another solution to the problem of a recalcitrant spouse that members of the Board of Rabbis urge all prospective brides and grooms to sign a prenuptial, civil agreement pledging to cooperate in giving and receiving a get should their marriage end in divorce.

He said he has been using such an agreement at his congregation for the past five years which provides a model and which conforms with New York State law and is halachically acceptable.

TWO RESPONSES OFFERED

Lookstein’s presentation was generally supported by members of the Board of Rabbis. There were two responses at the meeting, however.

Rabbi Marc Gelman of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, Long Island, and sexism in the get process requires much more study. He said many Reform rabbis find the process in conflict with the principle that men and women should have equal control over their lives, which includes marriage and divorce.

He also expressed qualms about the idea of sanctions against a recalcitrant husband. Since Reform rabbis do not at present require the get as a prerequisite for remarriage, it is unfair to apply sanctions to a husband in a temple where the rabbi does not consider the get necessary, he said.

Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst, N.Y., said he agreed with Lookstein’s proposals but was concerned by the fact that there are many “agunot” (abandoned wives) who cannot obtain a get.

He said a prenuptial agreement would solve the problem for the future but leaves unresolved the problem of abandoned spouses now. Similarly, it may reduce or eliminate mamzerut in the future “but it will not solve the tragic dilemma for tens of thousands of mamzerim who already exist,” Rosenthal said.

The Board of Rabbis voted unanimously to appoint a committee of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to study the proposals further and to report back to a plenary meeting with specific suggestions for action.

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