Many experienced family and divorce mediators are familiar with the term “Get” and are aware of its relevance when a Jewish couple seeks a religious divorce. But as often is the case with religious concepts and procedures, the Get, for many, is shrouded in mystery. It represents an aspect of divorce that many professionals tend to refer to outside experts for answers, explanations and arrangements. In truth, there is no need for all the mystery.
Why is this important for mediators to know? One of the many hats we wear as mediators is to help divorcing couples make informed decisions which affect their and their families’ future. Towards that goal, the Get is one more issue to raise, inform and discuss with the parties. For a Jewish couple, it is no less relevant of a discussion than the grounds or steps towards obtaining a civil divorce decree. This article will review the fundamental aspects and procedures of the Get, explain the vital importance of the Get and will offer suggestions and practical guidelines for integrating this knowledge with our civil divorce and mediation practice for the goal of fully serving our clients’ needs and concerns.
What is the Get?
The Get is simply a writ of divorce. It is a specific hand written document by a professionally trained scribe (with quill and bottled ink) containing 12 Hebrew-Aramaic lines 1 on a parchment. It must be written under the direction of an ordained and specifically trained rabbi.
When is a Get required?
According to Jewish law, a religious writ of divorce, or a Get, is required whenever a Jewish man and woman, who have lived toGether as husband and wife, wish to dissolve their marriage. Even if a Jewish couple was not married in accordance with Jewish ritual, but were married by a justice of the peace, or through common law, they still require a Get. However, married couples where only one spouse is Jewish do not require a Get.
Under qualified authorities, the Get process is quite simple and takes minimal effort or time (generally not more than 1 – 1 1/2 hours). The procedure begins by the husband instructing a trained scribe to write the Get on his behalf for his wife. The scribe, having undertaken his charge, gives the completed and specifically drafted Get to the husband who then gives it to his wife in the presence of a rabbinical tribunal of three individuals and two witnesses. The wife’s acceptance of this document is what makes the divorce effective and final.
The Get is not an adversary proceeding. The document makes no references to responsibility, blame, fault or details of settlement. Unlike civil divorces, there are no additional hearings or drawn out proceedings. Not only is there no confrontation, but under certain circumstances the Get can be done through proxies or agents, so that the couple does not have to be present at the same time. Although the Get is a religious requirement, the procedure is devoid or divine references or religious formulas. There are no blessings, prayers or professions of faith. There are no personal questions that are asked, only standard queries to verify that the participants understand the implications of their divorce and that they are acting of their own volition. The document itself simply certifies the fact that the couple, now released from the bonds of marriage, are each free to remarry.2 Once the Get has been accepted by the wife, it is then returned to the supervising rabbi in whose files it remains. The rabbi subsequently issues a certificate of proof (p’tur, literally: a release) to both of the parties, attesting to the fact that a Get was properly drawn up, delivered, and accepted. 3
Importance of the Get
For a divorcing Jewish couple the Get is a Biblical mandate, 4 an imperative of the highest order. The consequences for not complying with the Get procedure can not be overstated. According to Jewish law, a rabbi may not officiate at the remarriage of either a husband or a wife unless their Get has been obtained. Furthermore, and most tragic, if a Jewish woman were to marry without having obtained a Get, the future offspring of her subsequent relationship are considered ineligible to marry a person of the Jewish faith.
Although the consequences of not getting a Get may not concern a particular individual or couple at the time they are going through the divorce process, especially as they are engulfed in conflict and crisis with other priorities that consume them, the professional working with such a person(s) would be negligent if the issue of the Get was not addressed. Informed of the practical consequences of not obtaining a Get, the responsible mediator should encourage every Jewish divorcing spouse to seriously consider getting one, especially considering the simple and easy procedure to obtain it.
Difficulties arise when the husband or wife do not obtain the Get at the same time they secure the final decree of civil divorce. Often ex-spouses separate geographically, and years later, when one or the other wishes to remarry under Jewish law, it may be extremely difficult to locate the other party to obtain the Get. Even for unaffiliated Jewish individuals not interested in a religious divorce, they should be made aware that although this is not something they deem of importance, they should consider future spouses, or future children, or spouses of future children, who might be very concerned and personally affected, with potentially irreversible consequences, if a Get is never obtained.
When should the Get be obtained?
A Get can be done any time once a couple is no longer living in the same marital residence. Generally speaking, it is felt that once a couple is certain that divorce is inevitable, having given up hope to save the marriage, the sooner the Get is given – the better. In part, this communal expectation of immediacy in giving the Get relates to concerns of avoiding potential future problems. The concern is that one spouse may become recalcitrant in cooperating with the Get procedure. Since a Get must be voluntarily given by the husband and voluntarily received by the wife, cooperation and willingness of both parties is crucial. Even if a recalcitrant spouse is willing to comply with the Get procedure, there is a risk that they might use the requirement of voluntariness as a bargaining chip to negotiate a more favorable divorce settlement. To secure that a couple can freely divorce Jewishly without risking impediments of black mail and religious coercion, many Jewish communal leaders expect that the Get should be given as early as possible in the divorce/separation process.
As mediators, we are in no position to tell parties when to do the Get. As with all matters in mediation, it is the decision of the parties. Yet, as always, we must also be on guard for abuses of the mediation process. Therefore, it would be helpful to distinguish between two types of couples.
For couples who approach the mediation in good faith with seemingly full cooperation and collaboration, the concern for abuse of the Jewish divorce system would appear less of a concern. Very often parties (usually the husband) expect and request that the Get should be done at the end of the divorce process, as they tie up all other loose ends of their marriage. If both parties are comfortable with this arrangement, the mediator should consider raising as an issue the specifics of that future time. This discussion should be followed up with an appropriate clause in the Separation Agreement. Such clause should attempt to minimize the risks to either party if at a later date, one spouse becomes recalcitrant or sees the Get as an opportunity to obtain additional concessions. Regarding drafting, consider the following:
1) Setting a reasonable time deadline as to when the Get will be done (ex: not later than 30 days after either party initiates an action for civil divorce);
2) Be careful not to include any penalty clause for the spouse who does not comply. Since Jewish law insists that the Get be done with the parties’ free will, participation in a Get because of a penalty clause invalidates the Get from a Jewish legal perspective.5 ;
3) Allocating how the Get will be paid (total costs are approximately $400); and
4) Even for those who have already taken care of the Get, as a practice, I put that fact into the Separation Agreement to give them another sense of collaborative accomplishment, by removing the barriers of the other’s remarriage.
For couples whose cooperation in the mediation process is more dubious – be on guard. To my mind, threatening to withhold one’s participation in the Get process is a form of abuse (and often is accompanied by other forms of abuse in the relationship). This is why New York State legislation has been made (even at the risk of circumventing constitutional concerns of Church and State) to create statutory measures to prevent this sort of abuse. 6 How mediators deal with various forms of abuse is a topic which is beyond the scope of this article. Hopefully, we will not have to face these questions in our practices, but if you do – see it for what it is.
For further information
There are a number of organizations that provide information and help to arrange Get procedures. For a professional and friendly resource call KAYAMA at (718) 692-1876. For a well regarded, accepted and internationally recognized Beth Din (Rabbinic Court), contact the Beth Din of America at (212) 807-9042. Both of these organizations service the global Jewish community. 7
1. 12 being the hebrew numerical equivalent of the word Get: gt= (g,gimmel=3) + (t,tet=9) = 12
2. As a point of interest, there is a subtle but significant difference between the divorce procedure in a civil court and its rabbinic counterpart, the Beth Din. In a civil court, a couple seeking the divorce must petition the civil court to grant the request and pronounce the married couple to be of divorced status. It is the court, through its power from the state, which determines that the husband and wife are no longer a marital unit. In contrast, the legal status of a Jewish divorce is created by the couple themselves, where the wife accepts the Get from her husband. The Beth Din does not create the status, but only serves a facilitative function in observing, testifying and ensuring proper procedure of the divorce determination made by the couple themselves.
3. It has been my experience that professional and qualified Beth Dins will generally not execute this p’tur letter until they receive a copy of the civil divorce judgment. This is to support the role of the civil judicial system and to ensure compliance and cooperation by the parties towards that system.
4.Deuteronomy 24:1-3. Furthermore, an entire Talmudic tractate (volume) is devoted to this topic.
5.For those who feel that a financial incentive would be helpful to protect a party, they should be aware that there is a clause, drafted by Jewish legal scholars, which in effect penalizes the recalcitrant spouse for not complying without technically being a “penalty clause”. The technical requirements of such an agreement are beyond the scope of this article. For those drafting pre-nuptial agreements, I recommend finding out more about such clauses.
6. See, for example New York State Domestic Relation Law Section 253.
7.For additional reading information, see Bulka, Reuven, Jewish Divorce Ethics, Ivy League Press (1992)