In this week’s Torah portion there is an intriguing passage (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) about divorce. Torah says: when a man takes a wife and possesses her, and then finds something about her displeasing, he is to write her a bill of divorce and she is to leave his house. If she should marry a second time, and then divorce a second time — or the second husband should die — her first husband is forbidden from marrying her again.
The Sforno says that this is because to allow remarriage in this way would be a recipe for wife-swapping. Rabbenu Bahya says that this is because the woman in the story has been “known” by another man, so of course it would be inappropriate for her to be intimate with her first husband again. Unsurprisingly, these classical commentators and others take for granted the text’s apparent assumptions about gender, marriage, and power.
There’s plenty that is problematic about this passage from a modern perspective. For starters, the idea that a woman “belongs” to anyone other than herself. The presumption that divorce is necessarily initiated by the husband because his wife is no longer pleasing in his eyes. The lack of agency granted to the woman. The notion that a woman who has been with another man becomes תמא / tamei, emotionally and spiritually charged in a way that would be damaging to her first partner if they got back together again.
Not to mention the fact that the text doesn’t speak at all about how the woman in this situation feels: did she want to divorce in the first place? How about the second place? What kind of grief is she enduring, especially when the second marriage ends? Torah doesn’t say, but we can begin to imagine.
That said, I think we can glean some wisdom from this passage despite its troubling dynamics.
First, let’s remove the genderedness from it. Torah is teaching us that a marriage has to be consensual, and requires the active participation of both partners. When a marriage becomes irreparably broken for one partner, it’s no longer a consensual whole, and the partnership is broken. A bill of divorce must be written so that the partners can release each other.
Anyone who is considering taking these steps needs to know that words ending a marriage, once said, can’t be un-said. Once the marriage has been broken, even if one or both partners should later regret the breaking, it can’t be glued back together into the configuration it had before. No one should go into divorce thinking “well, if this doesn’t work out, we can go back to the way things were.” There is no “going back.” Only going forward. In our modern paradigm sometimes former partners do re-marry, but there is no re-creating the wholeness of the first marriage when it was new.
That significant words, once said, can’t be un-said is a running theme in this week’s Torah portion. The verses about divorce come shortly after verses instructing us to take care in vowing vows to God, because when we promise things to God, we have to live up to them or incur sin. It is better not to make vows, says Torah, than to make them and fail to live up to them.
Promises that we make to God and fail to sustain… we’ll come back to those on Kol Nidre night. Once we’ve said them, we can’t un-say them, but we can ask God to forgive us for our failure to live up to who we intended to be.
Promises that we make to each other and fail to sustain… once we’ve said them, we can’t un-say them either. Neither can we un-say words that end a relationship. We should take care with our words, and not commit ourselves to promises we can’t keep or to endings we aren’t really ready to face. But maybe especially during this month of Elul, we can ask each others’ forgiveness — in all of our relationships — for failure to live up to what we thought would be.
[Image source.] This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday morning at services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)