By Israel Drazin
In “A Message to the New Chief Rabbis,” in the Jerusalem Post of August 16, 2013, the prominent Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, reports the halakhic (Jewish legal) ruling of the highly respected Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein addressed the question: do wives and husbands need a get, a Jewish divorce, if they never went through a Jewish wedding ceremony, but only married in a civil service or without any wedding ceremony. Rabbi Feinstein’s solution solves part of a great Jewish problem.
One of the great tragedies of Judaism is the way it handles divorces. Rabbis interpreted the Torah to state that only men can initiate marriages and divorces. Thus if a woman wants a divorce but her husband refuses to give it to her, she is chained (Hebrew, aguna) to her husband forever. Couples can obtain a civil divorce but husbands may refuse to give wives a Jewish divorce unless the women hand him a huge sum of money. While wives are unable to remarry without a get, Jewish law allows husbands to do so under certain conditions. He is unhurt by his outrageous behavior.
Rav Feinstein ruled that a get is unnecessary when couples did not have a religious marriage. It “is a necessity only for a halakhic marriage; the very concept of marriage is unique to the halakhic concept – and therefore” the get is not required, and these women avoid the aguna problem.
Rabbi Riskin notes and rejects the opinion of Rav Yehuda Henkin who interprets the Torah’s “When a man takes a woman…” (Deuteronomy 24:1) as indicating that a get is required whenever a man and woman live together as husband and wife and describe themselves as husband and wife.
Rabbi Riskin mentions this rabbinical dispute to advocate for the allowance of civil marriages in Israel. This makes very good sense, but it is also worthwhile analyzing this rabbinical dispute by looking at two other ideas. First, many Jewish restrictions were initiated by rabbis, and what rabbis initiated, they can annul or modify. True, Deuteronomy speaks of “taking” a woman and does not restrict marriage to a Jewish wedding ceremony, as Rav Henkin observed. However, the verse is ambiguous, if not obscure, as to how the taking is done. In fact, rabbis understood the Torah to mean “taking” is by having sexual intercourse, and they added two other ways to effectuate a Jewish marriage, by contract or by giving the woman something of value, such as a ring (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 2a). Thus the rabbis chose to interpret this verse as stating how a Jewish marriage is effectuated. So, either Rav Henkin is wrong or we can say that what the rabbis instituted by their interpretation, they can annul or modify. And this rule of annulment or modification can be applied to many other Jewish restrictive practices today.
Secondly, as noted previously, Judaism is faced with the serious aguna problem. Rav Feinstein was known for searching Jewish literature to find reasonable solutions to solve difficulties, as he did in this case of civil marriages. There are many other situations in Judaism where rabbis can seek stringent rules, as Rav Henkin did here, or helpful solutions, as did Rav Feinstein. Shouldn’t today’s rabbis stop the current trend of ruling strictly and follow Rav Feinstein’s approach?