Karen Reiss Medwed

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

Rabbi Reiss Medwed scribing a sample get
Rabbi Dr. Reiss Medwed scribing a sample get (image courtesy of author)

“Rabbi, I do not understand why my rabbi cannot be a witness for this get [Jewish divorce writ].”

Conversations centering on this question are not unusual for me, as currently the only mesadderet gittin – female-identifying rabbi who is certified to write Jewish divorces for the Conservative movement – in the Rabbinical Assembly. You see, close to 15 years ago, when I was certified alongside Rabbi Chana Thompson-Shor, who was the first woman in Jewish history certified for this work, we had to promise that even as we could write the get, that we would not allow women to serve as witnesses for the document or its delivery. This dissonance, between our serving in a leadership role arranging and pastorally guiding couples through the journey of uncoupling into two self-differentiated adults, was difficult for me to hold. It was even more challenging for the Jews who came to me, and for their rabbis who engaged me, as they navigated their Jewish divorce.

This month, the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative Movement issued a statement allowing mesaddrei gittin who chose to do so, to employ shomrei mitzvot adult Jews as witnesses for the writing and for the delivery of a get.

What is the magnitude of this decision?

There are those who might have assumed women served in these religious roles for years and see this as a committee catching up with social reality. Others look at this decision as one more disconnect between the Conservative movement seeking to align with its halakhic counterparts in observant Judaism and a move away from serious rigorous contention with that observant community. Across the global Conservative/Masorti movement, there is discord still around the implications of this decision.

Yet for those seeking a get from mesaddrei gittin across the Conservative/Masorti movement who passionately view all adult Jews as viable witnesses for lifecycle events, this decision is a strong and bold arrival at a more complete and comprehensive egalitarian halakhic Judaism, viable to endure and thrive across the generations.

What stands out as unique in this decision?

The Jewish community in the United States continues to reflect the demographics of the broader community in its marriage and divorce rates for heterosexual marriages. Jewish law presumes that couples will dissolve their marriage through Jewish ritual in the same way couples engage a rabbi when they stand under the huppah to celebrate their marriage. Unlike other Jewish life cycle rituals which can be facilitated by any knowledgeable Jew, the Jewish divorce process stands out as requiring support by one who has completed specific studies and certification to attain the level of expertise to write and deliver the get.

In recent years the Joint Beit Din has received many questions regarding our policies for the writing and delivery of Gittin and the role of women in this process. When the Rabbinical Assembly ran the course to train a new cadre of mesaddrei gittin in 2007, it was the first time women were included in the training. This was a welcome addition to this ancient halakhic ritual, and having women join the cadre of mesaddrei gittin of the Conservative movement has been important both in the writing and delivery of gittin and in the conversations we have had in our Joint Bet Din surrounding our practices. What did not change when women became mesaddrei gittin were the specifications of the Joint Beit Din that all witnesses of the get, both eidim for the writing of the get and eidim for the delivery of the get have remained male Jews of adult age.

This year, in a serious two-day deliberation of our Joint Beit Din (The role of the Joint Beit Din includes certification of the mesaddrei gittin of the Conservative movement. Similarly, the processes and procedures for securing, writing, and delivering a get are overseen by the Joint Beit Din as well), at the urging of colleagues from across the country and the globe, the Joint Beit Din revisited the question of women serving as eidim for both the writing and delivery of gittin for the Conservative movement. This dialogue of deeply thoughtful and respectful conversation was a recognition of many changes across the religious landscape of the US, Israel, Latin America and Europe, and with deep respect for the diverse needs of the global Conservative/Masorti movement.

We believe these new guidelines, alongside teshuvot being submitted to the CJLS on rituals surrounding gittin, all continue to ensure reducing the barriers to obtaining a get and increasing the accessibility of the get to divorcing Jewish couples.

What might come next?

In the coming year the Joint Beit Din will continue this important work of extending the inclusivity of the get for all Jews across all sacred partnership rituals. The vote by the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement to permit this heiter holds respectful space for the individual decisions of our mesaddrei gittin and of our rabbis who work with them and their couples who are divorcing. The arranging of gittin in the Conservative movement remains in the hands of the qualified and trained mesaddrei gittin. This vote continues to affirm that Mesaddrei Gittin have sole discretion of the writing and delivery of their get, in accordance with the standards and halakhot as established by the Joint Beit Din that has certified them for this sacred work. In this way our work of inclusivity continues, even as our trajectory towards an egalitarian Judaism is visible to me.

Expressions of Gratitude

This decision was arrived at by the Joint Beit Din, but historically, this decision began in 1972, when Ezrat Nashim organized the earliest conversations on Judaism and egalitarianism. This decision was part of the early conversations “On the Ordination of Women,” and Rabbi Simon Greenberg’s book references arguments in favor of and against the role of women as witnesses in the Jewish divorce process. This decision was discussed by colleagues in Israel and support can be found in the work of my colleague Rabbi Gila Dror, and her counterparts, making the case for women as witnesses in all aspects of Jewish ritual life. This decision is in the work of my colleague Rabbi Pamela Barmash, the first woman to sit on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement, and of my colleague Rabbi Lionel Moses, the current Av Beit Din of our Joint Beit Din. It is in the partnership I enjoy in working with and learning alongside my colleague Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, as together he and I crafted the language and supported the conversations which allowed our Joint Beit Din to arrive at a final decision shared this month with our broader rabbinic membership and colleagues. So many have been at the table and made room at those tables to bring us together to this moment.

Alongside these rabbis are the women who came through our offices, asking the questions, expressing their bewilderment, sharing the importance of experiencing the get as holistically being part of the egalitarian Jewish life in which they engage. A lovely congregant of Rabbi Neil Blumofe who delayed her get multiple times when we believed earlier in the timeline she might be able to include female identifying witnesses in her get. A special congregant of Rabbi Andrea Merow who passionately expressed how not seeing the name of her trusted rabbi on her documents felt invalidating. And each and every woman and colleague who expressed the cognitive dissonance that a mesadderet gittin could not sit on her own beit din or include women as her witnesses.

This is a historic decision and a paradigmatic shift; it is a halakhic heiter reflecting a halakhic viability already resolved over twenty years ago. It is a shift for rabbis, and it is a shift for the Jewish people and the divorcing individuals we serve. It means that next week, when that call comes in, I will be able to say to the voice on the other side of the call, “you are welcome to invite any adult Jew to be a witness at your get delivery ceremony.”

At the conclusion of a get delivery some Jews might elect to recite the she’hehiyanu blessing, sanctifying arriving at this moment in time. The road ahead already beckons with important questions asking us how we will address and support Jewish sacred relationships beyond the current heteronormative rituals of kiddushin and gittin and we will need to have halakhic, sanctified and dignified answers. We know our ongoing journey towards a more just, sustainable, equitable and egalitarian Judaism is ahead, and she’hehuyanu, we have lived to arrive at this moment and for that, I am grateful.  

About the Author
Rabbi Karen G Reiss Medwed, Ph.D. is the only certified practicing female identifying mesadder gittin in the Conservative movement, and is an appointed member of the Joint Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly. She works as a Teaching Professor at the College of Professional Studies of Northeastern University.
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