A ritual for ending a marriage
September 18, 2016
When a Jewish marriage has ended, there is an act that brings closure to the marriage -- the granting of a גט / a "get," a legal document of release. (Here's some basic information about how that usually works.) What follows here is a ritual intended for that purpose. I wrote it for my own divorce. It was important to me that we release each other, emotionally and spiritually, before the Days of Awe usher in the Jewish new year.
In the most traditional paradigm, the husband grants a get to the wife. In this ritual, the granting of the get is bilateral -- each of the divorcing parties writes out a document of release and gives it to the other. Also, in this ritual the get is written in the vernacular, rather than in Aramaic. In theory a get can be written in any language, but in practice most are in Aramaic. (You can read a translation of a standard get at this page about Jewish divorce.) My choice to use the vernacular follows on the custom of התרת נדרים / "hatarat nedarim," the pre-Rosh-Hashanah "untangling of vows," which is done in the vernacular to ensure that the person seeking release knows what they're saying.
I've been working on this ritual off and on for several months. We used it this morning: on Tu b'Elul, the midway point in the month of Elul, the last full moon of 5776. The Jack Gilbert poem at the beginning of the ritual is one of my favorites -- I met him many years ago, and he was tremendous -- though in part because it speaks in the voice of a partner grieving the departure of a wife, I would not have presumed to include it on my own. But Ethan brought it to me and asked whether I would be open to him reading it as part of the ritual, and I was glad to agree. (Edited to add: here's his essay about the ritual and about embracing change: Going Solo.)
I'm still processing the experience of doing the ritual, and will probably write more about that at a later date, but for now I wanted to share the ritual here in case it is helpful to anyone else. That said, if you are ending a Jewish marriage, please consult with a trustworthy rabbi to ensure that your get is valid.
A marriage that has ended is like the first set of tablets and the covenant they represented. They were given in love, but then they shattered. Still, Torah teaches that we carried them thereafter in the ark along with the second set of tablets which remained whole. As the two of you move into a new chapter of your lives, you carry with you hopes for new wholeness -- and you also carry the broken pieces of your marriage, which are also holy.
At your wedding you vowed to betroth yourselves to each other in righteousness, in lovingkindness, and in compassion. May those same qualities be present as you disentangle your lives and separate from one another.
As we open this ritual, a poem from Jack Gilbert of blessed memory:
Failing and Flying
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Jack Gilbert, 1925 - 2012
2. The separate cup
Beneath the chuppah you drank from a single cup, representing the shared cup of your life together. I pour wine now from that single cup into two glasses. Please join with me in blessing this wine, which you will sip each from your own cup, as you drink from your own cup of life henceforth.
ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם ברי פרי הגפן.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei pri hagafen.
A Fountain of Blessing are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of all space and time, creator of the fruit of the vine.
3. Prayer of forgiveness
The divorcing couple speaks these words, either in turn or simultaneously:
Eternal Friend, witness that I forgive [Name]
for any injuries sustained over the course of our relationship
whether by accident or willfully, carelessly or purposely
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes
now or in previous incarnations.
May s/he not experience harm because of me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Who protects and frees me.
4. New beginning
Every ending is a new beginning. Although these two are no longer married in the eyes of God or the Jewish community, they will always be co-parents to their child. I invite them now to share promises they make to each other as co-parents.
The former partners read, taking turns:
I promise to keep our child's needs at the forefront.
I promise never to speak ill of you to our child.
I promise to maintain good boundaries as we co-parent from separate households.
For the sake of our child, I promise to be as generous and flexible as life will permit.
I promise to join you in revisiting our custody arrangements every few years, so that we can adapt our practices to meet the changing needs of our growing child.
I promise to do everything in my power to maintain a friendly relationship with you so that we can share in our child's joys and sorrows.
5. Writing the release
Each partner copies the following text in silence:
On the X day of the week, the Y day of the month of [Month] in the year 5776 from the creation of the world (equivalent to the secular date of [secular day, month, year]), here in [Place], near to the [name of the nearest river], I, [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name], do willingly consent to release you, my wife / husband [English name], also known as [Hebrew or any other name].
We are no longer bound together. If you so choose, you may remarry freely. Your doorway is no longer my doorway. Wherever life takes you, may you go in peace.
This is a bill of divorce, written in alignment with customs of Moses, Miriam, and the Jewish people.
Each document is signed by the person who wrote it and by the court of three witnesses.
6. The cut
(making a cut in each document)
As my scissors cut into the heart of this document, divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing. Your hearts have already been torn. May receipt of this document help you heal.
Each partner places the paper they wrote, now signed and cut, into the cupped hands of the other. The partners turn away from each other and take three steps away from each other, signifying the beginning of the new life journey each will take alone.
At the end of your wedding you shattered a glass, a reminder that in every joyous occasion there is some sorrow. Now that your marriage has broken like that glass, may you find that even in this sorrowful occasion there is access to joy.
Now go forth in peace, to life.
The idea that a marriage that has ended is like the broken tablets comes from Rabbi Leana Moritt, from Ritual Possibilities Within Traditional Gittin In a Pluralistic / Post Denominational Setting, 2008.
The prayer of forgiveness is adapted from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l's translation of the bedtime prayer of forgiveness, part of the Bedtime Shema.
The phrase "Your doorway is no longer my doorway" comes from Rabbi Goldie Milgram.
Regarding the cut in the document: "Be sure to explain that the cut does not sever the document in two. Rather, it cuts into the heart of the document just as divorce cuts deeply into the heart of those who are divorcing." (Per Rabbi Pam Frydman.)
Related: Immersion, April 2016.