We need a new word in Hebrew for Shalom Bayit when families reconstruct themselves and live in two homes because sometimes marriage doesn’t work. In Tractate Kittubot (61a) we learn that Eve “was given to her husband to live but not to suffer.” Marriage, in Judaism, is intentional. As Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel tells us in the Avot de Rabbi Natan, “If one brings peace into the home, it is as though peace were brought to all the people of Israel.” Peace starts at home, but home can sometimes consume us.
“Rabbi Akiva expounded: When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah (God’s spirit) abides with them; when they are not worthy fire consumes them (BT Sota 17a).” The Jewish value of shalom bayit, marital harmony, can find a manifestation in divorce as well as in marriage, but it requires the will and determination of the parties.
Most divorces end in litigation, but as far back as the exodus from Egypt, there were two alternatives for addressing disputes. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin), Moses used to say: Let legal judgment pierce the very mountain; whereas Aaron was accustomed to making peace between man and man.”
The peaceful alternative to a litigated divorce is mediation. Mediation is a process that allows disputants the opportunity to determine their future by designing it, whereas justice through the court system is a zero sum game: one side wins the case and the other side loses. In divorce, it’s worse because both sides lose when a judge determines how they will divide their assets and become custodians of their children.
With mediation, the goal is not justice. It’s peace. Jewish peace, shalom, is about wholeness, as is conveyed in the Hebrew root of the word, shalem, complete. This is different from western peace, which is rooted in the Latin, pax, a cessation of conflict. Mediated divorce is enduring because it represents the will of both parties, thus bringing them to shalom. This is the most significant benefit of mediation. A mediator, unlike a judge, facilitates agreement instead of handing down orders. At mediation, the parties tell their stories and move from principled positions that keep them apart to shared interests which bind them. One of the most common shared interests is children.
A divorce is the end of a marriage, but it isn’t the end of parenthood. Being a parent is a lifetime endeavor, and co-parenting never really ends. In Judaism, the relationship of a child to her parents is eternal. It is also mandated in the Decalogue, “You shall honor your father and mother.” This is why a peaceful approach to ending a marriage and building a healthy parenting relationship is essential. In divorce mediation, the parents decide the custodial schedule: who gets the children for which holidays, how they will be raised and how the parents will relate to one another.
In a beautiful legend in the Talmud (Yoma 69b), we learn that the rabbis captured the evil instinct, imprisoning it for three days. During that time, they combed the land looking for a fresh egg [goodness] but couldn’t find one. The rabbis thought that maybe they could eliminate evil by killing it, but learned that ‘the world would go down.’ They wanted to ask for half mercy but learned that “heaven does not grant halves.” Halves represent a fracture; this is not what we want to give to our children. It’s also not what we want in our community. In the Avot de Rabbi Natan, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel concludes his lesson about shalom bayit by teaching: “If one brings envy and contention into his home, it is though he has brought envy and contention into Israel – for everyone is monarch in his home.” By choosing mediation over litigation, not only do we achieve enduring, peaceful resolutions for ourselves and our children, we also preserve the sanctity of Israel.