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The Divorced Woman

By Diane Cohen

The transformation of the intangible to the tangible is one of Judaism's strengths, the use of metaphor to help us express our inarticulated feelings as we watch our lives unfold. Our relationships to one another, to the world, to God, are concretized in our use of ritual.

Many landmarks in our lives remain uncharacterized by any ritual fully accepted by Klal Yisrael. Some occasions, such as naming of a baby girl, have been ritualized by some families in some communities, but those rituals have become neither standardized nor widespread. Other occasions (such as one's first driving license, first professional job, retirement, grandparenthood) have gone unmarked in traditional ritual language. Someone has noted that it is odd for a people who emphasize education not to have developed a ritual to mark sending a child to college.

It may be argued that such occasions are not bounded by halakhic prescriptions, are not moments around which one needs to build ritual. There is an occasion in Jewish life, however, which is defined by halakhah and which is fraught with emotion, pain and distress. It is an unquestionable candidate for a ritual which will express inarticulated feeling. Yet layers of ritual have not been added to the fundamental legal process.

This moment is the receiving of a get.

The issuance and the receipt of a get are occasions of pain and anguish for both the man and the woman (I have heard many stories of husbands in tears as they hand the shtar to their now former wives). Nevertheless, because of the more active role played by the man in the transmission of a get and the passive role played by the woman (and because Jewish women, I believe, are more open to the development of new rituals), I have chosen to focus on the woman's need for a divorce ritual.

A sense of mourning is the most obvious element that the ritual needs to address. A death has occurred-the death of a relationship, of an expected future, of a dream. Even if the woman has initiated the civil process, there is pain; even when the marriage has been put to a merciful end, there is the suspicion of failure and a regret for mistakes, real or imagined. There is also a lack of a real sense of closure. Simply receiving a document, be it civil or religious, does not make the experience real enough. When we are not personally involved in an action (and receiving a document in the mail or in our hands is not involvement), what has actually taken place? Closure in a divorce often does not come until a former partner announces plans for re-marriage, which is also a passive experience. You receive the shtar, you receive the news. You have not yet acted. The ritual needs to address both the sense of mourning and the need for closure.

Related to the need for closure is the issue of empowerment. Divorce is usually a time of anguish. It can also be a time to re-assess skills and personal potential, as well as to celebrate (not fear) one's independence. Women who have become more independent following a divorce comment on the pleasure they find in being the one ultimately responsible for their decisions. (One friend confided that, when she re-married, she had to consciously remember to include her husband in the decision-making process of their new household, so comfortable had she become in her self-sufficiency.) That sense of celebrating independence may be far from the mind of the woman at the moment of final separation. Nonetheless, a statement to remind her of her new potential needs to be included.

Relating the ritual to God was the most difficult element of my task. Reciting Shehecheyanu, though it might come to mind, seems inappropriate in the context of traditional Judaism. Unless the woman is divorcing an abusive husband, Shehecheyanu seems vindictive and dangerously close to negating the institution of marriage itself. Do we assume that God wanted this marriage to fail? Do we then thank God for the wrenching we feel, that it's "for the best"? Do we look for reasons why God would make us hurt, or assume we are being punished for some unknown sin? Do we wonder why God didn't stop us from leaping in the first place?

We are constantly being cautioned not to re-invent the wheel. A case in point is the Jewish mourning ritual. Some Jewish therapists familiar with the tradition have encouraged the use of statements like the kaddish to define closure. There is probably no statement in Judaism as heavily laden with messages of death and endings as the kaddish, for even though one may not know the meaning of the words, the symbolic meaning is undeniable. "I would not he saying this if I were not mourning. Therefore my feelings of loss must be real." Next to the recitation of kaddish, the act of keri'ah is less familiar (perhaps) but more physical. One friend described her receipt of her get as, "OK, here's my left arm. Just rip it off. A piece of me is gone now." The sound of ripping fabric may he what the woman needs, but in this case, it should be the woman herself who does the ripping. Having someone "tear keri'ah" at a funeral indicates a mourner's inability to behave in a coherent manner. Here, however, it is most important for the woman "to cut her own keri'ah". She is not in intense bereavement. The loss is not as much of a shock as a death would he. She has been expecting this day. The rending needs to be her action.

Upon leaving a cemetery, or before entering a shivah home, one customarily washes one's hands. I suspect that most people are no longer aware of the original reasons (the symbolic removal of tum'ah). Most communities will tell you that the washing effects a separation between death and life. In an ideal situation, the woman would go to a mikveh after receiving her shtar. Any number of reasons would preclude her from taking this highly symbolic step, however. Nonetheless, I want to include the element of washing.

Empowerment is addressed in several ways. Not only does she tear her own keri'ah (and I leave to the individual to decide the article to he torn, not necessarily a garment). To address this issue, I have borrowed not only from mourning ritual but from marriage custom.

Mourning families generally come home to a meal prepared by friends. This support is needed at a time of great shock. A newly divorced woman, on the other hand, needs to feel as useful as possible. Therefore, even though the meal following this "service" may be a potluck affair, a significant part of the meal should have been prepared by the woman. If time is a factor, perhaps she could be responsible at least for challot, the central feature of the meal, over which she would recite ha-motzi. Following the meal, the friends who have gathered with her would recite aloud and in unison a Ha-Rachaman asking for blessings on ba'alat ha-bayit ha-zeh, emphasizing the woman's authority over her domain, her reshut.

The element borrowed from marriage customs is the encircling of the groom by the bride. Commentators tells us this is to describe a circle of protection around the groom. The image is an attractive one-defining a circle of protection around that which now belongs to you. For this reason, at a specific time in the service, the woman circles the room in which the service is being held, symbolically declaring her protectorship, indeed her dominion, over everything she is encircling. Her friends should be ready to remind her that even if the room is nearly empty (depending on her financial situation), the decisions of staying or leaving, of what to bring into that reshut, down to the color of the throw-rugs, is now hers alone.

The woman is greeted on her arrival by a minyan of friends, chosen by her (although it would be highly appropriate for one or two of those friends to have brought her home from the Beit Din). This minyan represents community, both her community of friends to whom she will be able to turn for support and the greater Jewish community. By their presence, her friends represent the hope that the Jewish community will not turn their backs on this woman, now single.

The minyan, the keri'ah, the hand washing, the circuit of the room are all what Rabbi Neil Gillman defines as the drama of the ritual. Words are equally important. Not only do we need the "drama and the affect . . . the visible, public expression" of what is going on; we need "the specificity . . . just what is happening and how the community understands this moment".1

God did not want the pain. If any comfort in a Jewish context is to come out of this ritual (and comfort is a vital part of any mourning ritual), God's involvement in the anguish needs to be, as one woman put it, "the knowledge that God is crying with me". In addition, I sought to structure a liturgy that would emphasize God's role as Rock, as Supreme Support. I chose verses from Psalms that emphasize the direct relationship between the woman and God.

The wisdom of Jewish mourning ritual provides limits. Intense mourning lasts seven days, followed by three weeks of intermediate mourning, after which we return to the world while maintaining some of our grief. For parents, the mourning period extends in an even less intense way for another ten months. In our new ritual, limits also need to be set. The message that mourning will end must be conveyed. Therefore, I close the "service," following the meal, with the recitation of a piece of another Psalm, a verse speaking of hope and a new tomorrow.

Yad Lagrushot Toward a New Ritual for the Divorced Woman

1. After receiving her get, the g'rushah returns to her own home, where she is met by a minyan of her friends, chosen by her to be her welcoming community. (Men as well as women may be included. Depending on the community, the presence of one or more men may invalidate the minyan, so the gender mix is up to the woman's feelings and traditions.) At the door she is handed a basin, a pitcher of water (or n'tilat yadayim cup) and a towel.

Before washing, she says: Without loss, there is no growth.

She washes, first one hand then the next, then says:

I praise You, Source of Strength, who helps us make separations between what has passed and what is yet to be.



2. The community escorts her into the main room where the service will take place. Chairs are arranged in a circle, with a special pillow or throw-rug on one chair, designated for the g'rushah. (Groups may sit on the floor, depending on the age and flexibility of the members.) When all are seated, the members of the community take turns reading the following. It may be divided into enough parts for all those present except the g'rushah.

In the beginning, there was a dream. This was a dream of love, of family, of future.
Some of us dreamed this dream because of the home in which we lived.
Some of us dreamed this dream despite the home in which we lived.
As human hearts will, we reached out for someone we thought would help to make our dreams come true.
Some of us were able to come close to our dream. Others were not.
Today/Tonight, we gather to lay to rest one dream of our friend (English, first name only).
No one person is responsible for the death of this dream.
No one person's hard work could have kept the dream alive.
When you received your get, (name), you heard the sound of tears.
Those tears were yours. They were ours. They were God's.
When a man divorces his wife, even the stones of the Temple altar weep.2
When you entered this room, the water that washed your hands helped put your past behind you.
Water can also mean the hastening of new life.
May your tears join with the waters of separation, and may each tear take you one step closer to the day when you come to know a truly remarkable woman--yourself.
The path you now follow is unknown to you, but we are all on paths we never have traveled before.
Please know that you are not alone.
We are with you. We care about you. We will not abandon you.
And beyond us, you are not alone.

By this time, everyone in the circle should have had a chance to read. A previously appointed leader goes to the table where the food will be served, to light candles. No motions are made and no b'rakhah is recited, but after the candles are lit, this leader says:

This light symbolizes the light of God in our midst. May God's light illumine your way, and bring you comfort in the darkest night.

3. The leader returns to the circle, and the less formal part of the service begins. The circle encourages the g'rushah to talk about her feelings about her ex-husband, the get experience, her hopes and fears for the future. Women in the group who have been divorced may gently encourage her by commenting on their own experiences. The community must allow her to talk without denying the anger, guilt or bitterness she feels. The group should also help her put her feelings into perspective.

4. After the g'rushah seems to have exhausted her need to talk, she reads the following:

Adonai is my light and my help. Whom should I fear?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life. Whom should I dread?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh,
it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear;
should war beset me, still would I be confident.3
Vindicate me, Adonai, for I have walked without blame;
I have trusted in Adonai; I have not faltered.4
Hear, Adonai, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.
In Your behalf my heart says: "Seek My face!"
Adonai, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me;
do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me, Adonai will take me in.
Show me Your way, Adonai, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes.
Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me.5
Adonai, I set my hope on You; my God, in You I trust; may I not be disappointed.6

5. The g'rushah now rises and takes the item set aside for the k'ri'ah and says:

A part of my life is over, a piece of who I am is gone. With this keri'ah (she rips now) I remove that part and acknowledge that it is gone forever.

The torn item should be discarded.

6. The group now rises and the g'rushah leads them in kaddish yatom (the text is not reproduced here but can be found in any siddur).

7. The g'rushah then circles the room inwhich the service is being held and says:

This is my home, my domain. All within these walls is mine.

(If she chooses, she may say this more than once as she makes her circuit.)

8. All gather for the meal, preceded by Hamotzi recited by the g'rushah. Following the meal, birkat hamazon should be sung. Regardless of who the leader is, the line asking for God's blessings on the head of the house (HaRachaman, hu y'varekh et ba'alat ha-bayit ha-zeh, otah v'et kol asher lah... ) should he said together to emphasize the woman's new role as head of her household.

9. After the meal, when the community is ready to leave, the appointed leader should say:

One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.7 Mourn tonight, but tomorrow get up from mourning and begin placing your feet, one step at a time, on the path that leads forward into your future.


1. Neil Giliman, Sacred Fragments (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), pp. 241-242.
2. Gitttn 90b.
3. Psalms 27:1-3 (all quotations from Psalms are taken from Tanakh, A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).
4. Psalms 26:1.
5. Psalms 27:7-12. 6 Psalms 25:1-2.
6. Psalms 25:1-2.
7. Psalms 30:6.

Found in: Divorce

Tags: handwashing, get