Question: I am getting a civil divorce. Do I also need a Get? Why?
What is the significance of a Get (or is it gett)? I know it is a Jewish divorce, but do I need this since I am Jewish? I am getting a civil divorce, but I wonder if I also need a Get to be divorced.
Thank you for any info!
Answer: Dear Gail,
Thank you for your question. As you indicate that you are in the process of a getting a civil divorce, let me wish you wholeness and healing through what can be an emotionally difficult process.
You ask about the significance and process of a get, a ritual divorce, in Jewish tradition. Just as marriage is entered with specific, recognized rituals in Jewish tradition, so is it ended. In traditional observance, the get is a document prepared according to precise formulas that is presented by a husband, or his agent, to his wife to dissolve the marriage. In traditional observance, this is the only way to end a marriage in the lifetime of the husband and wife.
Most Reform rabbis hold that a civil divorce is sufficient to dissolve a marriage in all cases, following the rabbinic principle that "the law of the land [in which a person resides] is the [binding] law." Most Reform rabbis do not require a man or woman to produce a get from a previous marriage before officiating at a subsequent marriage. So, why would a Reform Jew want to acquire a get at the dissolution of a marriage? There are several reasons.
Conservative rabbis do require a get from a previous marriage before they will officiate at a subsequent marriage. A divorced Reform Jew who might in the future want to be married by a Conservative rabbi should acquire a get that will be recognized by the Conservative Movement. It is sometimes easier to arrange for a get at the same time as the civil divorce, however a get may be arranged many years after the civil divorce.
The consequences of not ending a marriage with a get are much more severe with regard to the orthodox rabbinate. From the perspective of orthodoxy, if a woman fails to receive a get after one marriage ends and then bears a child in a subsequent relationship, that child will be regarded as a mamzer (commonly understood as illegitimate or a "bastard," although the rabbinic concept of a mamzer is different).
The stigma of being a "mamzer" will follow that child and all of that child's descendents for life. Once a person is a mamzer there is no way to undo it. According to traditional Jewish law, a mamzer can only marry a person of the same status - virtually eliminating the possibility of marriage under orthodox authority, including any marriage in the State of Israel. This is why it is so important from the perspective of orthodoxy to prevent the possibility of creating a mamzer.
Another issue related to a get is the problem of an agunah. In traditional Jewish law, an agunah is a woman who is forbidden to marry because she has not received a get from her absent husband. Historically, this was most likely to occur when a husband disappeared and the authorities were unable to confirm his death. Today, there is an increased occurrence in the orthodox community of women becoming agunot when their husbands refuse to produce a get following a civil divorce. Many orthodox rabbis consider the situation of the agunah to be one of the most serious problems facing Jewish law today.
I generally recommend that all Jews acquire a traditional get at the time of civil divorce if they believe that there is even a remote possibility that they subsequently may have children born to them. Acquiring a traditional get is relatively easy and inexpensive -- certainly much easier than dealing with the consequences of a child who is labeled a mamzer. The organization, Kayama, helps Jews through the process of acquiring a traditional get.
Some Reform rabbis will help divorcing individuals and couples end their marriages with a non-traditional get and appropriate rituals. In such a case, a Reform rabbi may produce a non-traditional get that is mutually created and mutually exchanged by divorcing husband and wife. Some Reform Jews have found great comfort and closure in using a Jewish ritual to end a marriage that was created with Jewish ritual. It is important, however, that the divorcing individual or couple understand clearly whether such a get would be recognized in other movements of Judaism.
I hope these comments are helpful to you.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser