Why I refused to get a 'get' - Jewish rabbinical divorce - opinion

Why cause me further suffering and humiliation? Why was my conduct not enough to satisfy the Rabbinate that my divorce was justified?

 WHAT IF he says to you, ‘Vivian. We can only get married under a huppa.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WHAT IF he says to you, ‘Vivian. We can only get married under a huppa.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After about 20 minutes of lively discussion and repartee, Rabbi Yisrael Lau, then in his early 80s, asked an unexpected question.

I was serving as the Canadian ambassador to Israel at the time and knew Rav Lau by reputation, of course, and his tragic and miraculous distinction of having been among the youngest of the child survivors of Nazi concentration camps. I had also heard that he was very astute politically and had a strong knowledge of Canadian political affairs. 

We met in his office in the building that houses the Chief Rabbinate, in the heart of one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. This is where couples go to finalize their divorces in the get ceremony.

After some chit-chat, Rabbi Lau popped the question. “Vivian,” he paused, “what is your personal situation?”

I was taken aback by the sudden shift in topic, as well as the ambiguity of the inquiry. My “situation”? That could mean so many things.

Illustrative photo: Divorce. (credit: REUTERS)Illustrative photo: Divorce. (credit: REUTERS)

“I’m not sure what you’re asking, Rav Lau.” 

In his world, I realized quickly, such an inquiry could mean only one thing.

“Are you asking about my marital status?”


I expect he knew the answer to his question, and I did wonder, in the moment, why he chose to raise this with me. We were meeting in our professional capacities. In hindsight, I suggest that it is unlikely that he would have ventured, unbidden, into such personal matters had I been a man. 

A quiet pause filled the room. There were so many ways to manage this conversation, and I decided that the unvarnished truth, as usual, was the right approach.

“I’m divorced, Rabbi.”

He raised his hands, looked momentarily towards the ceiling. “Oy,” he exclaimed, quietly, as if in lamentation.

“No, Rabbi,” I offered. “It was all for the best and at my initiative.”

My reassurance was received very differently than I had anticipated.

“We have to find you a shidduch,” he said, using the Yiddish word for a “match.” A husband. 

“Not so fast, Rebbe.” 

I had no interest in explaining to him that I preferred independence, in every way. Nor did I want to discuss the personal freedoms which women today may indulge in and enjoy. My life is not only fulfilling, but we unmarried types are no longer reduced to sitting at home, alone, doing needlepoint day and night.

He waited, a touch beseechingly, for my further comment.

“I never got a get.”

My words were thermonuclear. He looked at me. Genuinely shocked. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

Why did I never get a get, a rabbinical divorce?

A GET, in Judaism, is a rabbinical divorce decree that follows a ceremony in which the husband, in the presence of at least two witnesses, presents the wife with a document confirming that he releases her from the marriage contract. 

When a Jewish couple marries, they sign a ketubah, a contract which sets out the rights and responsibilities of the groom to the bride. In many ways, this ancient protocol was incredibly modern for ancient times. It specifies the promises made by the husband to his intended wife, to provide and protect. Additionally, it anticipated the possible breakdown of the union and suggested what might be appropriate compensation should such an event arise.

The husband is contractually obliged to support his wife and family financially and fulfill his conjugal duties. The bride accepts his legal commitment, as well as her role as the nurturer – entrusted with creating a warm, loving, moral home built on Jewish values.

These core identities imbue every moment of the life of a Jewish person with purpose and a framework for how to live. The path is set, and each person’s duty is to do everything possible to honor and fulfill – to the best of his/her ability – their destiny within this structure. What has always struck me is that these social and religious parameters have prevailed for thousands of years, in spite of so much change. 

As in the civil law context, Judaism favors a mutually agreed-upon divorce. But millenia of rabbinic wisdom also  – understandably – prefers to encourage reconciliation over dissolution of the marriage. If that is not possible then the get will be finalized. Ideally, both spouses agree. 

I am a Jew who identifies most with nation and culture, but I am not religiously observant. So for me to be faced with this very sharp and prescriptive understanding of life, and my place in it, was harsh. I am reasonably familiar with – and understood at the time – the basis of so many Jewish religious practices, including the get. But I was struck by what seemed – and still seems – to me to be a rigid, sclerotic way of managing the complexities of life and intimate relationships. 

And here, I’ll take the opportunity to address, preemptively, all the “tsk-tsking” that may ensue.

No. Core morality does not change. But, over centuries, life circumstances do. And in order to remain at all relevant, in my view, organized religion must take account of that. 

Like hell was I going to let anyone release me from my wifely “obligations.” 

THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)THE RABBINICAL court of Tel Aviv. It has been said that rabbinical courts allow men to hold back consent to divorce their wives in order to extort the women into agreeing to unfair overall terms. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

High price tag and clash of values

When I phoned the Reform synagogue in Toronto where I had been married in a ceremony conducted by a female rabbi 10 years earlier, asking how to get a get, I was told to call another rabbi. Reform shuls – which had the authority to conduct all other life-cycle events – could not do so with divorce. That was the exclusive domain of “Conservadox.”

So I spoke with a rabbi I knew by name only. Off the top, he told me that it would cost $500 to get a get. He might as well have said $5 million. My life at the time was so raw, emotionally. Financial resources were not in abundance. It was all very transactional. Without the $500 paid up front, there was really nothing to discuss. I’d have expected that a religious authority, entrusted with overseeing such an important life moment, would at least pretend to take an interest in the reasons leading to such a request. 

On top of the fee, a huge obstacle for me was when I was told that in the ceremony my husband would “release” me from my marital obligations. 

Release me? From what, exactly? I was the hunter, nurturer and gatherer. As I said to Rav Lau, if anything, I should have been the one doing the “releasing.”

So I told Rabbi Lau that I never got a get. I did, however, finalize my civil divorce, which took care of the division of assets and custody of children, which was all I really cared about. 

“Oy!” he exclaimed, this time seeming more – I don’t know – truly distressed. 

“Vivian,” he asked me, “what if you meet a man? The love of your life. And he says to you, ‘Vivian, we can only get married under a huppah in Eretz Yisrael.’ What would you do?”

Rav Lau is a worldly, sophisticated man. The innocence of the question surprised me. For a second time that morning.

“We wouldn’t get that far, Rebbe. I feel no reason to marry. I’m not going to have more children. We would likely marry in Cyprus.” Popping off to this Mediterranean island, a 30-minute plane ride from Tel Aviv, has become a very common solution for many Israeli couples.

That truth, plainly, caused the Rabbi emotional pain. That had not been my intention. 

The clash of values so evident in our brief chat in many ways reflects the impassable schisms in Israel and Jewish life today. Officially sanctioned Judaism requires absolute submission to laws and interpretations that have been considered by men, exclusively, in the framework of an ancient edict. 

Jewish law makes no accommodation for my reality, and the circumstances of so many others, such as abandoned wives who adhere to Jewish law. If a husband refuses to grant a get, his wife’s life is frozen in time. She cannot remarry. She has no authority or autonomy, in the eyes of the Rabbinate, to initiate such change. She is referred to as a “chained” woman, an apt description.

There are no chained men.

I’m all for honoring marital love and responsibility but have no interest in partaking in a ceremony that disregards my actual life experience. There is so much wisdom to extract from the past, but not to the exclusion of the present or reality. 

My marriage ended. Why cause me further suffering and humiliation? Why was my conduct not enough to satisfy the Rabbinate that my divorce was justified? Slavishness to rules and form can destroy the ability to adapt, modify, and remain relevant.

I have yet to receive a satisfactory response. Which is why I have yet to get a get. 

The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016 and is founder of stateoftelaviv.substack.com, an online platform of digital print commentary and podcast launching in early February focused on Israel and the Middle East.