Divorce is complicated. Jewish divorce, as with many other Jewish life events, can be even more complicated.
Battei din (Jewish courts) and piskei din (decisions of Jewish courts) are both recognized under state and federal law in the United States, so long as they are given authority by a binding arbitration agreement. Parties to a Jewish divorce can use the process of confirming an arbitration award to transform a psak din into a legally enforceable decision. In other words, they can use the power of the courts to compel compliance with a psak din issued by a beit din; otherwise, there will be legal consequences.
The Beit Din
In the Torah, Jews are commanded to “appoint judges and officials for your tribes” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, a group of 71 rabbis (called the Sanhedrin) sat as a tribunal, hearing cases and handing down rulings to the Jews of Israel and according to halakhah (Jewish law). After the destruction of the temple, Jews began spreading throughout the diaspora (outside of the homeland) and gathering the Sanhedrin became impractical. Consulting a group of three men knowledgeable in Jewish law (a beit din) became the commonly accepted way for Jews to settle legal disputes.
Fast forward to modern times, there are many situations in which a Jew might consult a beit din, but the most common is to arrange for a Jewish divorce. For a couple to be divorced according to Jewish law, the husband must present the wife with a Jewish divorce document in the presence of a beit din. The beit din ensures that everything is done precisely according to Jewish law (at least one member of a beit din is usually an expert on the laws of Jewish divorce). In addition to the divorce itself, a beit din may also be involved in property division, financial support, custody, and visitation issues that arise from a divorce.
The Jewish Get (or Gett)
“When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly matter, and he writes for her a document of severance, gives it into her hand, and sends her away from his house. She leaves his house and goes and marries another man” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2).
The divorce document presented by the husband to the wife in the presence of a beit din is usually referred to by its Aramaic name, “get.” The get serves dual purposes. First, it is proof of the dissolution of the marriage in the event that either the husband or wife wants to remarry, Second, it actually effectuates the divorce.
The get is a dated and witnessed document where the husband expresses his intention to divorce his wife and sever all ties with her. The get is written by an expert scribe, and is individually tailored to the particular divorcing couple, which precludes the use of form documents (i.e. you can’t find an enforceable get on LegalZoom). The get can technically be written in any language, as long as it contains the language required by Jewish law, it is usually written in Aramaic (similar to the ketubah marriage contract). Generally, the get is written in twelve lines (12 is the numeric value of the word get) and the two witnesses sign beneath the twelfth line.
While Jewish law requires a divorcing couple to also obtain a civil divorce in the law of the land where the husband and wife reside, a civil divorce cannot substitute for a Jewish divorce. Without a get, no matter how long the couple is separated and no longer what the civil divorce decree states, the husband and wife are still married under Jewish law. For this reason, and the potential harsh consequences associated with it, many Jewish couples will sign a prenuptial agreement or ante-nuptial agreement stating that, in the event of a civil divorce, both husband and wife will cooperate in obtaining a get.
The Jewish Divorce Ceremony
The Jewish religion views marriage as a union, not simply an agreement between two individuals which can be dissolved at will. There is a detailed formula that must be followed for husband and wife to break the marriage union.
The whole divorce procedure is conducted in front of a beit din consisting of three rabbis. From the perspective of the rabbinical court, technically only the presence of the husband, wife, and two witnesses is required to effectuate the divorce. Practically speaking, however, the Jewish divorce process is considered so complex that it cannot be done correctly unless done in the presence of experts in the field; hence, the requirement that at least one of the rabbis be an expert in the laws of Jewish divorce).
After the document is written by the scribe, the husband hands it to his wife in the presence of two kosher witnesses. At this point the marriage is dissolved and the beit din will give both parties a certificate confirming their new marital status.
The Role of the Civil Court in a Jewish Divorce
It is important to note that, even if a couple is granted a divorce by the beit din through a get, the husband and wife still need to go through the civil divorce process to be considered legally divorced under state law. Additionally, through the use of an arbitration agreement, the divorcing couple can give certain powers to the beit din to decide other issues arising out of their separation and eventual divorce. These issues can include division of marital property, financial support, custody, and visitation issues, among other things. If the couple properly gives the beit din the power to address these issues through a valid agreement, the civil court will validate the decision of the beit din. Divorce arbitration can be complicated, and should be undertaken with the assistance of an experienced divorce attorney.
Contact a Wayside Legal Divorce Attorney
Wayside Legal LLC is an award-winning law firm located in North Bethesda, Maryland, with years of experience handling Jewish divorce proceedings throughout Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. If you are facing a separation and divorce from your spouse, contact a Wayside Legal divorce attorney today for a consultation to discuss your specific situation.