Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies


If your marriage must come to an end, do it the right way?
with wisdom, practicality, and understanding.

What does Judaism tell you about divorce? What guidance, strength, and insight can Judaism provide?

In this first-of-its-kind handbook, Perry Netter?divorc, father, congregational rabbi, and pastoral counselor?shows how wholeness can be found in the midst of separation and divorce. With a title drawn from ...

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Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies

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If your marriage must come to an end, do it the right way—
with wisdom, practicality, and understanding.

What does Judaism tell you about divorce? What guidance, strength, and insight can Judaism provide?

In this first-of-its-kind handbook, Perry Netter—divorc, father, congregational rabbi, and pastoral counselor—shows how wholeness can be found in the midst of separation and divorce. With a title drawn from the words of the eleventh-century biblical commentator known as Rashi, Divorce Is a Mitzvah provides practical wisdom, information, and strength from a Jewish perspective for those experiencing the challenging life-transition of divorce.

Drawing on wisdom from centuries of biblical and rabbinic teachings, as well as modern psychological research, Netter offers suggestions for transitioning through the stages of separation and building a new life.

This indispensable guide for people in crisis—and the family members, friends, and counselors who interact with them—shows us how to transform a traumatic time of life into one of growth, right behavior, and greater spiritual understanding.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A rich resource for Jews seeking wisdom as they face divorce. Skillfully draws upon Jewish tradition to point the way to a path of holiness and hope amidst divorce's painful terrain of sadness, anger, and confusion."
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, editor, Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources; director, Geriatric Chaplaincy Program, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

“A highly readable explanation of the cycle of love, marriage, and divorce, drawing on Judaic sources, psychology, true stories, and personal experience. Reveals great truths and can enhance a stable marriage, help a marriage in crisis, and facilitate divorce if needed.”
Rabbi Levi Meier, PhD, chaplain, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; clinical psychologist; author, Ancient Secrets: Using the Stories of the Bible to Improve Our Everyday Lives

“A unique, perceptive, and constructive book about divorce. Any Jewish divorcing couple will find the wisdom and guidance in this book a great help.”
E. M. Hetherington, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia; author, For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered

Publishers Weekly
If marriage is a holy act, what does that make divorce? A rabbi, divorced father of three and the child of divorce, Netter writes about divorce with clarity on both practical and emotional issues and doesn't hesitate to share his own pain and growth. Jewish literature, both classical and contemporary, he says, is uncharacteristically silent about divorce. Conventional wisdom still interprets it as a sin, an embarrassment to family and community. One exception is Rashi, the 11th-century biblical commentator, who states succinctly that "divorce is a mitzvah"(a commandment or good deed) in his remarks on a passage in Deuteronomy about granting a bill of divorce. "To seek the holy and the sacred is what I believe to be the central question governing divorce," writes Netter. Each chapter tackles common questions that Netter addresses with tact and sensitivity, placing them in appropriate psychological, legal, emotional, financial and religious contexts: Why is this happening to me? Should I leave or not? What do I do with all this anger? What is the ritual of the "get" (Jewish bill of divorce)? Do I litigate or mediate? How do we continue raising children together? Powerful biblical examples recast the growth process that often accompanies divorce. Rabbi Laura Geller's afterword on new Jewish divorce rituals adds a welcome feminist perspective. Netter's guide reads like an extended visit to the rabbi's study-especially comforting because this rabbi knows all too well what his visitor is going through. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580231725
  • Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Publication date: 8/1/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 645,942
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabbi Perry Netter is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, a large Conservative congregation in metropolitan Los Angeles. He is a frequent guest on TV and radio programs on the subject of divorce. An adjunct lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, Rabbi Netter's work has been published in many magazines, including Moment and Sh'ma, as well as in the Los Angeles Times.

Rabbi Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She was twice named one of Newsweek's 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America and was featured in the PBS documentary Jewish Americans. She has contributed to many books and journals, and was on the editorial board of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.

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Read an Excerpt

Divorce Is a Mitzvah

A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies
By Rabbi Perry Netter


Copyright © 2002 Perry Netter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1580231721

The Existential Question: Why Is This Happening to Me?

You are reading this book, I would imagine, because you, like David, are in crisis. Never in your darkest fantasies did you imagine that you would be in this position. The threat of marital dissolution is something that happens to other people. You know people who have gone through marital difficulties, who have separated and divorced, yet you never believed when you got married that it could happen to you. Years ago, when you stood in front of your rabbi, in front of your family and friends, in front of the State, in front of God, you were filled with ecstatic hope for your future. The American dream was unfolding for you as you began your life with the one you were certain was your soul mate. You had experienced the magic of that moment of meeting, of the first kiss, of building an exclusive relationship, of dreaming of a life together. You probably endured the stresses and strains of planning the wedding, with its myriad decisions about location and invitations and guest lists and dresses and florists and photographers and caterers and seating and thank-you notes. You did all this because you were sure this was forever, and the weddingwas the ritual of forever.

And now you have learned that forever is not a very long time.

What began as a fantasy full of promise, of hope, of possibility, of potential has now crashed and burned on the jagged landscape of a harsh reality. Relationships are enormously fragile, and marriage is among the most difficult of human undertakings. And now your marriage is falling apart, or has already come apart at the seams. You sowed in joyous song, but you are reaping in tears.

You agonize over the question: How did this ever happen to me?

You know you are a good person. Deep down you are kind, giving, loving, generous, compassionate, affectionate. You know you are capable of a relationship, yet you feel that this most important romantic relationship in your life is failing or has already failed. Inside of you is a battlefield of conflicting emotions: rage, fear, hurt, confusion, humiliation, disappointment, despair, embarrassment, shock, disbelief, denial. And you are not alone.

There were 1,135,000 divorces filed in the United States in 1998, roughly one half the number of marriages in that same calendar year. Over 2 million adults and millions of children were directly affected by the turmoil of divorce. Millions of people in this country go through this experience each and every year. Barely a household in America has been untouched, in one way or another, at one time or another, by divorce. So much pain, so much anguish, so much instability.

How do we make sense of divorce? Why does there appear to be so much of it? What is it about society that seems to contribute to divorce, perhaps even encourages it? What has changed in family structures and in societal norms that makes divorce more prevalent today than forty or fifty years ago? If we can understand what takes place in the inner life as well as the outer life of one going through divorce, we may be able to go through the transition of divorce in a way that can bring us healing and wholeness, and not leave our souls injured by the process of terminating a marriage. The answers to the above questions are by no means simple, and the attempt to reduce a complex matrix of the causes of divorce to a few easy answers risks the appearance of superficiality and simplicity. But the attempt must be made, nevertheless, because the question haunts. The question is asked, and it cannot be ignored. In fact, you are asking it now.

Why Am I in Crisis?

This is the question I asked over and over as I tried to make sense of my own experience. Time and again, over a very long period-as denial gave way to disbelief, only to be overpowered by denial once again-in fleeting moments of honesty and lucidity, I would ask, "Why is this happening to me?" Surely I should have been able to find the formula to fix my marriage. Surely there was a button to push, a technique to follow, a magical phrase to say that would restore the equilibrium of my marriage. I needed to understand what I was going through-and clearly I didn't.

This, then, is the place of beginning, the place where we must all start to make sense of our experience. The first mitzvah of divorce is to try to understand it-its psychology, its sociology, its ontology. The first mitzvah is to try to understand why this is happening at all. For there is no growth without understanding, no insight without knowledge, no healing without wisdom. So I began to explore the issue through the world of words, both secular and sacred, to find meaning and clarity to guide me through this crisis. I was looking for information, insight, and wisdom from those who had walked before me in this garden. I began to read the studies of psychologists and sociologists who had devoted their professional and academic careers to understanding the duality of marriage and divorce. I searched the Bible and the Talmud, reading those ancient words in a new way, and from a new perspective, asking different questions of the text and deriving, for me, new understandings of the rich narratives. I discovered in those words a world of wisdom and compassion that shepherded me through the experience and helped me to grow through it.

The more I read, the more I discovered that there were good reasons why I was in crisis. While it is true that every marriage is unique and distinct-governed, as it were, by the needs and wants and motivations and behavior patterns of the individual personalities of the husband and wife-it is also true that there are issues that affect every married couple. The intensity with which a marriage is affected by these issues can vary from home to home, and from marriage to marriage, but there is a commonality of experience that married people share. Marriages do not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by culture, history, and the values of the society in which we live. Relationships are shaped and influenced by a host of factors, some that are beyond our control and others over which we exercise complete mastery.

Why is Divorce So Common?

I suggest four distinct yet interdependent phenomena that go a long way toward explaining the rise in the incidence of divorce in recent years. The first two are part of the makeup of human beings and have been around as long as there have been people; the second two are unique to our age. The categories I will explore are these:

The Psychological Factor. Attraction to our mates is influenced by many factors, not least of which are subconscious impulses, desires, and expectations that are derived from early childhood experiences. Before we are married, we fantasize about what our marriages will look like. The reality rarely matches the fantasy. • The Developmental Factor. Part of the process of human development-in fact, a defining characteristic in the stage of adult development-is to be in crisis during the transition from early adulthood to mature adulthood. The values, skills, and ideas that worked for us in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood can no longer guide us along the adult life journey. Mature adulthood means beginning anew. The choice of a life partner, a choice we often make in early adulthood, is reassessed and reevaluated as we emerge into mature adulthood. Sometimes we discover that decisions we made while young do not work for us as we age. • The Socioeconomic Factor. Society has undergone radical changes in recent decades that have altered the structure of both the family and the marketplace, to the detriment of married life. • The Demographic Factor. Personal life decisions, particularly in adulthood, are made differently today than in previous generations because of the simple fact that we are living longer. The blessing of longevity influences personal decisions-like whether or not to stay married-in ways that previous generations could not imagine.

Alone, each of these topics puts a strain on contemporary marriage. Taken together, these factors can make navigating in the waters of marriage extremely treacherous. Let's explore each of them in turn.

Why Were We Attracted to Our Mate?

Let us begin with the psychological factor. Our marital relationships are influenced by a constellation of forces. Some are beyond our control; others lie beneath our conscious minds. These forces are governed by a confluence of biology and psychology and sociology. Within every marriage, a subconscious drama hovers beneath the surface of every interaction and encounter between spouses. That drama is scripted by a combination of biological urges, universal psychological needs, and particular experiences from early childhood to emerging adulthood. Marriage attempts to fulfill our deep-seated psychological need for wholeness and security. This is its strength and also its tyranny.

Freud spoke of one of the goals of marriage-at the very least, for the man-as arising from a subconscious desire to replace the mother. He might not have been the first to suggest this. The Bible even hints at this idea in the story of the marriage of the second generation of patriarchs: the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. The background to the part of the story that interests me now is the arrangement of Isaac's marriage. Abraham, now old, advanced in years, facing his mortality, put his house in order. He had just finished burying Sarah, his wife of many years, the love of his youth. His attention turned to arranging a wife for his son, Isaac. This was the responsibility of the father in the ancient world.

Abraham did not want a local Canaanite woman for Isaac. He sent his servant, Eliezer, back to the ancestral birthplace, Aram Naharaim. There, at a certain well, Eliezer met Rebekah, the future wife of Isaac. When Eliezer saw Rebekah's beauty, her compassion, her kindness, her hospitality to strangers, he knew instantly that this was the woman for Isaac. Jump forward a few biblical scenes. After arranging for Rebekah to come back to marry Isaac, the biblical story describes, in a few terse verses, the events of their meeting and their marriage.

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, "Who is that man walking in the field toward us?" And the servant said, "That is my master." So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death (Genesis 24:63-67).

A remarkable narrative. The moment of meeting between Isaac and Rebekah is full of passion and romance. They see each other from a distance. Isaac is alone, walking in a field; Rebekah is on her camel. Their eyes lock, and, in the words of the talmudic Rabbis, Rebekah is "astounded" by Isaac. I would suggest an even stronger reading of the story: their eyes lock, and they fall madly, passionately, desperately in love. The Jewish Publication Society translation uses the word "alighted" to describe Rebekah's coming off her camel, but that is not What the Hebrew text says. In the original, the verb is vatipol, which means "and she fell off." Rebekah was so struck by the sight of Isaac that she fell off her camel.

That is passion. That is chemistry.

Isaac's act of bringing Rebekah into Sarah's tent as part of their marriage is startling, striking, even shocking. Why Sarah's tent? Why not his own? Why not a new tent? On one level, one can imagine reading this text with a Freudian perspective, namely, that Isaac was working out his Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother. But on another level, I think this narrative hints at another subconscious drama that plays itself out in every courtship and marriage, a drama which most of us are unaware of when we fall in love and get married.

Undoubtedly the most important decision of our adult lives is the choice of a life partner. Much of our waking energy, from the time of the onset of pubescence until we walk down that aisle at the wedding-and some of our sleeping energy as well-is devoted to preparing for marriage. We experiment with different people and different mating rituals until we find "the one." We struggle with desire and hope and expectations for a lasting relationship, only to be disappointed and hurt by the course of normal rejections and breakups. We move in and out of relationships until we find the person we believe is the one that God intended for us to spend our lives with.

But what are the things that first attract us to another? How do we understand chemistry-that elusive, yet critical initial attraction at the moment of meeting? What is it that makes us fall off our camels?

The answer is more complicated than one might imagine, for, as we stare deeply into the eyes of our beloved, powerful subconscious forces are unleashed. I think the biblical author understood this when it was written that Isaac brought Rebekah into Sarah's tent. The drama of all relationships, which plays itself out on the unconscious stage, is first written in infancy and continues to be written through each subsequent stage of development. It begins with the infant's attachment to mother, our first source of love and comfort and security and nurture. On a very deep level, we all hope to recreate those initial feelings of love and security when we fall in love. This is what Isaac was searching for, what Isaac needed, and what Rebekah provided for him: a subconscious reconnection to his lost mother, who, through her death, had abandoned him. Isaac saw instantly what Eliezer had also seen earlier at the well: Rebekah had many of the qualities of Sarah. That is why Isaac brought Rebekah into Sarah's tent; that is why Isaac was comforted. On a subconscious level, Isaac used Rebekah to replace Sarah.

Judith Viorst described this psychological dynamic in Necessary Losses:

Our early lessons in love and our development history shape the expectations we bring into marriage. We are often aware of disappointed hopes. But we also bring into marriage the unconscious longings and the unfinished business of childhood, and prompted by the past, we make demands on our marriage, unaware that we do.


Excerpted from Divorce Is a Mitzvah by Rabbi Perry Netter Copyright © 2002 by Perry Netter
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 The Existential Question: Why Is This Happening to Me? 2 The Hardest Question: To Leave or Not to Leave—How Do I Decide? 3 The Guilt Question: Is Divorce Kosher? 4 The Psychological Question: What Do I Do with All This Anger? 5 The Most Painful Question: How Do We Tell the Kids? 6 The Ritual Question: How Do I Get to Closure? 7 The Awkward Question: What Do You Say? 8 The Legal Question: To Litigate or to Mediate? 9 The Most Important Question: How Do We Continue to Raise Children Together? Epilogue "Afterwards: New Jewish Divorce Rituals" by Rabbi Laura Geller English Translation of the Traditional Get Suggestions for Further Reading About Jewish Lights

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