Divorce is a tragic loss, not how we hoped our marriages would turn out, and is painful and damaging to the innocent children. For the husband/wife the divorce may be good, bad, selfish, smart, dumb, helpful, hurtful — but there is one thing it is, no matter how you look at it — it is a brave decision.
Coming out to the public as getting divorced requires so much bravery that millions of people choose to stay married rather than face the stigma and judgment our society puts on divorced people. I have heard every one of these judgmental lines: “It’s her fault she couldn’t keep her husband.” “How can you give relationship advice, you are divorced!” “I have no baggage because I am a widow, not a divorcee.” “She looks good but that’s because she is on the divorced diet.” “Happy hunting!” (That line is used to degrade divorced women when they go out on the town dressed up.) “How could he break up his family like that?” “I wonder if she cheated?””I don’t understand, you always seemed so happy. What happened?”
Anyone divorced knows that dreaded feeling of telling your children, parents, friends, co-workers and community that you are divorcing. For some people, there is so much shame that it takes them months and even years to take their rings off. And you are “coming out” as a “divorcee” for the rest of your life. Every time someone asks you about your husband/wife, you must come out as divorced. “What does your husband think of that?” “I have no husband, I am divorced.” Awkward silence. “Oh, I am sorry,” they respond. “Please don’t be sorry. I am happy,” I answer.
Last week, a pulpit rabbi in DC announced to his congregation that he and his wife, who is also a rabbi, would be getting divorced because he is gay. Rabbi explained that he has battled with these feelings since he was young and married his wife because he believed it was the right thing for him.
This rabbi married his wife while knowingly struggling with his sexuality and knowing that it would be very challenging to have a sexually fulfilling relationship with his wife, one of the three fundamental marital obligations enumerated in a ketubah (marriage contract). Rabbi is human and therefore flawed, as we all are. I am sensitive to the difficulty in coming out as gay and I am relieved for Rabbi and his wife that he has now chosen to stop irreparably hurting those he loves and begin to try to heal himself and his loved ones.
His congregation has been supportive stating: ‘Together with the other officers…I stand with Rabbi….Our synagogue is strong, large, and inclusive–a big tent with room and respect for all….we understand that Rabbi… will be undergoing a challenging personal transition in the coming months, and we extend to him patience and a generous spirit.’ I am happy for Rabbi that his congregation loves him, continues to view him as a rabbinic role model and is willing to support him as he goes through perhaps the most trying time of his life.
This rabbi and his wife were courageous to come out as divorcing. This bravery is compounded by them having public jobs, communal positions and Rabbi coming out as gay.
I very much relate to and sympathize with what this couple is going through as I too had a public divorce from a pulpit rabbi. I had a lot of fear about being labelled a “divorcee” and shed many tears in anticipation of making the decision to wear that label for the rest of my life.
I also relate to Rabbi’s description of how he and his wife decided to divorce: ‘We have shared a love so deep and real, and together we have built a loving home with our children–founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition,’ he wrote. ‘But my inner struggle never did go away. Indeed,(my wife) herself has supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades….” He told the Washington Post that he and his wife had tried for the past three years to figure out how they could stay married. ‘What we’ve had for 20 years is very real, and the last thing I’d want is for us to live a lie,’ he said. He said that, for now, they would continue to share their home.
Like DC Rabbi, I too shared a loving home with my ex husband. We have decades of family memories that our divorce does not invalidate nor erase. We led a community together for a decade. We had four children together. We hosted Jewish and national holidays with family, friends and community in our home for years. We took our family to Israel three summers in a row. We too shared a deep and real love and had inner and joint struggles for years trying to figure out whether to stay married. We too supported each other through our struggles and our decision to part. We shared tears when we told our children. We shared our home for two years after that. What we had was as real as the marriage of DC rabbi.
I feel the pain of the wife of DC Rabbi, their children and Rabbi himself. This process is brutal and long and there is no getting around it. But I disagree with approach of the synagogue president and that of many of my rabbinic colleagues. In a letter to congregants, the DC synagogue President wrote, “I have great respect for their ability to face changing circumstances in their lives with honesty and integrity. We can all learn from their example,” In blog posts and on FaceBook, my rabbinic colleagues have described Rabbi as “an example to all” and “a role model.”
Pulpit rabbis have gotten divorced before and haven’t received public admiration from their synagogue leadership and fellow rabbis. Nor should they. Divorce is a tragedy and not a choice that others should necessarily aspire to emulate. When people divorce there is destruction all around them. Damage to their family, friends and community. The level of carnage in every divorce is unique. In this case, Rabbi stole from his wife twenty vital years of sexual partnership and love.
Communal leaders should be sympathetic to the difficulties of coming out as gay and be understanding that there is often hiding and deception in broken marriages but to laud Rabbi for coming out as gay when he has hurt his family to such an extent is misplaced.
In addition, by distinguishing a divorce that occurs because one spouse is gay, communal leaders are being insensitive to and denigrating heterosexuals who choose to leave unfulfilling marriages. Is this rabbi’s divorce righteous because he is gay?
Rabbi shared details about his marriage that most don’t share and it is unlikely anyone would have publicly asked. In Rabbi’s letter he stated: “…despite our fidelity throughout our marriage….As our divorce was not born of rancor, we pray that together with our children we will remain bound by a brit mishpacha, a covenant of family.” That statement attempts to elevate the dissolution of his marriage above other’s divorces. Rabbi implies that in divorced families where there was infidelity or anger, those families have a weaker “covenant of family”.
As communal leaders we should accept the fragility of marriage and support couples who choose to divorce whether they were or not they were sexually loyal and whether or not there is acrimony between them. We understand that people often make hurtful decisions and should accept them when they are ready to own their mistakes and heal. All the while we should be sensitive to the pain that one or both spouse feels when their life partnership comes undone.
Coming out of the happily-married closet is a hard and brave choice, causes pain to the couple, their family and beyond but divorce is a choice that Judaism has supported for thousands of years. The process of divorce is described in the Torah in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Communal leaders should make an effort not to stigmatize divorce so that divorcing people don’t have added shame as they struggle through their long and painful healing process. Straight or gay, people are permitted to leave marriages that are not fulfilling romantically, sexually or otherwise. One is not more righteous than the other.