Modern religious life follows a certain trajectory. Go to Jewish day school, follow on to a year of seminary/yeshiva in Israel, swear you are going to make aliyah but then realize you have to work on Sundays, settle into Orthodox North American life and get married, settle into a community, have children and repeat. Divorce shatters this flow.
Religious life is family centred, and when your family no longer fits the typical structure, you’re left to forge ahead, largely on your own, left to create a new life for you and your children. A life that was once rich with customs and community now seems like a shoe a size too small. Divorce is a loss, and there is mourning but no structure to the pain. There is no shivah like in death, and in fear of saying the wrong thing, people often avoid communication altogether.
After years of hosting Shabbat meals and opening your home to the community for the holidays, you’re relegated to the social equivalent of the singles tables at the back of the room at your second cousin’s wedding. Left on your own for 25 hours of Shabbat or a two-day yom tov or, Lord help everyone, those three-day chagim, it’s impressive restraint not to pick up your phone, not to turn on Netflix, not to seek companionship wherever it can be found.
Simply put, religious life becomes a constant reminder that you are alone. There are only so many times you can sit at your friends’ or family’s Shabbat or holiday table as the single person – the one who comes on their “off weekends” – before it becomes a little tiresome. Like a child learning to talk, it’s fun and engaging at first, but then just gets annoying really fast.
While people today are generally marrying later in life, young nuptials still dominate the religious world. Many go straight from their parents’ home to their matrimonial home. The newfound independence that divorce brings is the first chance for many to re-evaluate their lives as adults.
Religious life presents almost as a formula: be a good Jew plus learn Torah plus marry a good person from a good family plus build a home of Torah and mitzvot in which to raise children equals happiness. However, many couples find that they followed the steps, played by the rules and the equation still equals zero.
They are left disillusioned and disappointed and questioning a deity in which they put all their hope and faith. It is only natural that, having played such a huge part in lives and marriages, religion would be among the first things to be questioned. People might ask, “Is this the life I really want for myself or is it just what I know.” The answer is never simple and rarely comes wrapped in a box on your desk. It involves trial and, unfortunately or not, lots of error.
Religion is about give and take, understanding, commitment and dedication. It’s centred on a relationship with God, and many aspects of that relationship are analogous to that of a husband and wife. So when a couple’s marriage dissolves and their relationship status changes, understandably, their relationship with God and religion may change as well.
For some, the absence of a spouse has them cleaving closer to God than ever. For others, the new single status has them wanting to explore religion in a way they couldn’t before. They break free from the restraints previously felt, the strongest of which are often social and cultural, and forge their own path. This may not be the religious path they walk forever. Rather it may just be a pit stop on their way to their final destination, much in the same way divorce is a transition to a new life, a new future.
Divorce is like a disease – we may all have the same diagnosis, but our symptoms manifest individually. Each person’s experience is different and each of us has an individual relationship with God and religion. Nobody should be judged for questioning their way in life, nobody should be looked at as inferior for not having the answers and nobody should be cast aside for their struggles.
While our relationship with religion may be on trial, the way we treat each other and the way others treat us need not be. You don’t need to be religious to be a good person, and not all the good people we encounter will choose to keep and accept religion. And that is OK. The unconditional love we lacked in our marriages must be the love we give one another and inspire others to give as well.
Originally published in the CJN – Canadian Jewish News.