Women witnesses for Jewish divorce: A major misstep

Failure to provide a divorce of unimpeachable halachic validity spells catastrophe for Jewish unity

I cannot join my colleague, Rabbi Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed (Times of Israel, June 21, 2023), in celebrating the recent decision of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement permitting women to serve as witnesses on Gittin (Jewish divorce documents) and other aspects of the divorce process. Neither can many of my Conservative colleagues – men and women alike – who understand that this is not a “small step” in the halachic or social enfranchisement of Jewish women, but a major misstep in Conservative Movement leadership, a grave halachic error, and an entirely avoidable blow to Jewish unity.

For two years (culminating in 2007), Rabbi Dr. Reiss Medwed and I were classmates in the Rabbinical Assembly’s training program for Mesadrei Gittin (certified divorce experts), learning the halachic parameters and requirements, as well as the scribal techniques and traditions necessary for the preparation of kosher divorce documents. In fact, we were in the same study group, preparing passages of Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and other Halachic codes to be covered in class, and refining our scribal dexterity.

It had been my earnest hope to be the first among that cohort of aspiring Mesadrei Gittin to complete certification, and thus to become the first new Conservative Mesader Gittin to be recognized in decades. The final, days-long certification exam, however, coincided with my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I took the day off to celebrate with my bride, understanding it would be an egregious misplacement of priorities to neglect one’s marriage in order to study divorce! As a result of that brief delay, a younger classmate beat me to the finish line, so to speak, by a few hours. I consequently (and without regret) became the second new Conservative Mesader Gittin.

The recent decision of the Joint Bet Din, of which I was a member for ten years, represents a similarly lamentable misplacement of priorities. Yes, rabbinic experts administering the divorce process must be sensitive to the pastoral needs and responsive to the emotional state of the parties involved. However, the defining sacred trust vested in the Mesader Gittin is not to a divorcing wife or husband who longs to have an admired and familiar female rabbi sign their Get or officially witness its delivery. Our sworn duty is to execute a Get of unimpeachable halachic validity. Our primary obligation is to the unity and integrity of Klal Yisrael: the Jewish people as a whole, in all its diversity, religious nuance, and unfortunate family feuding. Our most fundamental responsibility is to produce a Get, an instrument of divorce, that any halachically concerned Jew or fair-minded rabbinic authority, judging the document and process on its merits, can recognize in good conscience.

The recent decision of the Joint Bet Din makes that goal quite impossible for all who would act on the permissive position it provides. The “new paradigm” it establishes, as its authors and supporters certainly understand, is well beyond the ability of significant numbers of serious, sensitive halakhic Jews and rabbinic authorities, both within and outside of our own movement, in any way to accommodate, and on far more than institutional or political grounds. I am deeply concerned and saddened that I have been put in the position of having to question the provenance of Gittin (otherwise entirely valid and punctilious in their preparation) prepared by classmates and cherished colleagues.

Jewish law considers the requirement that the role of witness be restricted to men to be of biblical authority: not merely a matter of public policy left to the discretion of individual rabbis and rabbinic courts. Throughout my 35 years as a congregational rabbi, I have (not without a measure of public resistance) maintained this standard in matters of marriage, divorce, and conversion – wherever the need for witnesses has arisen. That standard is most critical and most consequential in matters of divorce.

READ: Women witnesses for Jewish divorce: A small step & paradigm shift

An invalid Get or divorce leaves the ostensibly “divorcing” parties still bound to each other in marriage. An invalid Get thus renders subsequent relationships of the parties to such a putative divorce adulterous. Children subsequently born to women with invalid divorces are rendered mamzerim – not merely “illegitimate” in the Western or civil, colloquial, or Victorian sense, but halachically precluded (together with their children and descendants) from marriage to most fellow Jews. The now reasonable assumption that Conservative Gittin may well be invalid, due to the appointment of ineligible witnesses, leads inexorably to traditional Jews suspecting that those born and raised in the Conservative Movement may well be unmarriageable. The impending consequences for Klal Yisrael – Jewish unity – could be catastrophic.

The unfortunate recent decision of the Joint Bet Din was based on a 2001 responsum submitted to the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards by Rabbi Myron Geller, a minority opinion endorsing the recognition of women in the role of witnesses to halachic proceedings. As a member of the Law Committee at that time, I wrote a formal dissent to Rabbi Geller’s opinion. I stand by the halachic approach and conclusions I detailed in that dissent, a stance I believe is even more urgent in its necessity today:

I will, on behalf of the individuals and community who are my religious charge, even at their principled and earnest request, take no action which can reasonably, even by standards widely held in the Conservative Movement, be argued to render their marital status unchanged when it is divorce they are seeking… or subsequent relationships adulterous or otherwise illicit when it is Kiddushin (sanctified, valid marriage) they are seeking… or their religious status unchanged when it is entry into Judaism they are seeking through conversion.

In 2001, I cast my vote against Rabbi Geller’s responsum permitting women to serve as witnesses because I was (and am) convinced it was wrong on the law, and because I was (and am) persuaded that the ruling courted disaster: I could not in good conscience support a halakhic decision I believed would create a culture of reasonably contested personal status in Klal Yisrael.

For all the same reasons, today I call upon the Joint Bet Din on which I proudly served to recognize the deleterious and unintended consequences of its action and to renounce its misguided ruling.

I call upon classmates and colleagues (Mesadrei Gittin and local rabbis, as well as lay leaders acting as their agents) to reject the ruling of the Joint Bet Din, and to refrain from using women as witnesses – particularly in matters of Gittin and divorce, where the consequences of invalid proceedings are so very dire and irremediable.

I call upon women in the Conservative Movement and beyond (ordained rabbis and laity alike) to forgo – I acknowledge, with a measure of regrettably painful self-sacrifice – the option they may now be offered to serve as official witnesses to divorce proceedings. I call upon women turning to Conservative authorities for halachic divorce to advocate for themselves and their future children by demanding those proceedings use only witnesses acceptable to the broadest possible segment of the Jewish People.

Finally, I call upon rabbinic colleagues and leaders in the Orthodox community – the Beth Din of America prominent among them – enthusiastically, sincerely, unambiguously, and publicly – to acknowledge the validity of Gittin properly executed by duly recognized experts in the Conservative Movement, then signed and delivered using kosher witnesses. Such public and principled recognition of our Gittin strictly on the merits (notwithstanding the destructive politics of partisans and ideologues) will help incentivize their more progressive colleagues to be exacting in their halachic standards. It will reduce the sense of futility that can arise among devoted but demoralized rabbis whose halachic actions are rejected and vilified even when exacting and punctilious and substantively identical to those of their Orthodox counterparts. Some rabbinic colleagues distressingly but understandably despair: why impose halachic standards I myself deem objectionable, and which are unwelcome by my primary constituents, if my principled traditionalist stance is rejected even by traditionalists?!

Until that warm, public, and proactive endorsement is forthcoming, the Orthodox rabbinate remains complicit in the grave error the Conservative Movement’s Joint Bet Din has just made.

Ta’ut L’Olam Chozer… It is never too late to correct a mistake.

About the Author
Joseph H. Prouser is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey (Franklin Lakes, NJ) and a practicing Mesader Gittin. A former member of the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he currently serves as editor of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism.
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