Having libertarian values and being proud to live in Israel is tough. Balancing a value system that may seem self-contradicting at times invites a unique brand of cognitive dissonance. It’s a dissonance that extends to how one sees security issues, social problems and welfare in a social democracy, the explanation and defense of these stances in difficult milieus of educated people and academic circles, and yes — how one feels about marriage and divorce in the State of Israel.
I have always been defensive and angry at the centralization and mandate of religious “services” in Israel. I’ve seethed over the religious monopoly at the hands of a ruling minority, the alienation and delegitimization of other Jewish factions worldwide, and the fact that one cannot — CANNOT — convert, marry or divorce in Israel outside of the mandates laid down by the Rabbanut and within its purview.
Despite my opinions of these issues, when I married an Orthodox boy five years ago, I made certain concessions. I agreed to get married in Israel and by the rabbi of his choice. This week, we got divorced. It would have made no difference if we hadn’t married in Israel. The only way to get legally divorced in Israel is through the Rabbanut.
I had been dreading our appearance in the court for the gett-giving ceremony for the better part of a year, fantasizing about how I’d show up dressed in a statement and teach them all a lesson. I pictured rabbis — facilitators of an authoritarian, borderline Satanic system, oppressors of women, decriers of enlightened secularism — peering down at me from their bench, the ultimate impersonation of all that I find evil.
While young, I know that antagonizing them probably wouldn’t be the best approach, and reluctantly heard the advice of both of my divorced parents and lawyer — get in and get out. Don’t be a martyr. It’s not fair and it’s a horrible process, and you will suffer, but that is not the time to make a statement. So here now is my statement, and it’s not the one I thought I’d be making.
I showed up, no skin showing, in a completely respectable pantsuit. My lawyer had asked me on the phone a few days prior if I wanted him to walk me through the process, and I had said no, because I didn’t want to show up angry. I had two friends with me, and my ex had one, as witnesses. Right from the beginning of the process, I knew it wasn’t what I’d expected.
As the long-white-bearded, prophetic-looking rabbi began asking us the initial questions about our marriage and our personal details, he began checking to make sure that we were picking up on his subtleties and whether we were able to infer more personal questions from a modest and roundabout form of speech. Making eye contact with me, he explained the process, appraising me before turning his gaze on my ex, who had no idea what he was talking about. “Women have ‘bina yeteira,” (extra understanding, or intuition) he smiled, before translating himself in plainer speech.
I told him that it was important to me to understand each step of the process and its halachic significance, and he obliged me, addressing me as a peer. When he brought in the sofer (scribe) and beit din’s own witnesses for the pre-gett writing procedure, I insisted on staying in the room, contrary to custom, because “I’m a person who likes to know what is happening to me and why.” The witnesses were baffled and protested, and the rabbi made a calming gesture at them with his hand and said, “See? We can be feminists.” Everyone laughed and I responded, “You don’t have to be a feminist to respect women.” The elderly French yid taking protocol winked at me.
The sofer in his room messed up the gett twice before managing to produce a kosher one. We waited for two hours. We went back into the courtroom for the giving of the gett. I insisted on having my two friends with me, again at the protest of the beit din’s witnesses, which the rabbi silenced with a word. One of them joked, “See, this whole process isn’t worth it.” My friend answered from the back of the room, “I know, I just texted my husband to tell him that we should stay together if just to not go through this tedium.” “It’s expensive too,” the witness answered. I interjected, “Yeah, what’s that about? Why do I have to pay 700 NIS (more than $200) to get divorced?!” I got an unexpected answer, “See? They see there’s a need and they rush to exploit it.”
We completed the ceremony and my ex and the beit din left, leaving myself, my friends, the rabbi, and the French yid. From my seat at the back of the courtroom in my friend’s embrace I asked the rabbi, “Do you mind if I ask how…”
And he gently completed the question which I found myself unable to finish. “How our hearts don’t break every single day all over again?” I nodded mutely, and he told me, “When I first started doing this, I used to cry all the time. Every day. Your skin gets thicker.”
I stood up and gathered my things, then straightened and told him and the secretary, “I would like to thank you. You are not what I expected. You made this easier for me than it could have been.” My friend left the room and as I opened the door to leave myself, the rabbi’s voice called me back. I looked back at him and found his eyes glistening with unshed tears. “My heart is shattering into a million shards for you right now.” “I know.” “Do you believe me?” “I believe you,” I answered, my own heart breaking for us both.
I turned to leave again when he said, “I wish you all of the happiness in the world. If you ever find yourself walking down this street with a twin baby carriage, stop in and see me so that I know you’re okay.” His voice followed me out, “Goodbye, Batya.”
The conclusions of this day are difficult for me to formulate, but I’ll try. I think that it’s easy for us all to paint the other in shades of black and white. It’s easy to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of those in the line of fire when raging against an intangible injustice. Who can we blame? Soldiers, politicians, rabbis, the press. Maybe that is what is broken in our system. Rather than find common ground, we are determined, driven by righteous loathing, to lose our ability to weep, laugh, commiserate, rejoice and embrace one another, with all our differences and all our hatred. And the loathing is justified, and the system is broken. Of that there’s no doubt. There is bitterness in my heart but I’d like for it to be productive, and maybe even be colored in shades of gray. I guess what I want to say is, “I hate what you represent but I’m sorry for hating you.”