Official Stance on Divorce: "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he writes her a bill of divorcement, gives it to her and sends her from his house."
Divorce in Judaism is "no-fault," emphasizing the couple's freedom from the chains of a marriage that hasn't fulfilled their hopes. The traditional ritual hasn't changed much in hundreds of years. Different branches of Judaism vary on the degree of women's participation, but Jewish leaders across the entire spectrum strongly encourage the use of a divorce ritual.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram, a Reconstructionist rabbi who is faculty chair of professional skills and spiritual development at the pluralistic Academy for Jewish Religion Seminary in New York, is "bemused" that "some rabbis require Jewish weddings but honor civil divorces. If anything, the civil divorce rituals entangle and exacerbate warring souls. A get done consciously with depth [and] kindness.accelerates and helps make possible a healthy transition."
When? Some rabbis require a civil divorce to be completed before a get is given, but in some places (New York and Canada, for example), civil law requires partners to remove any "religious impediments to remarriage" before a civil divorce is granted.
Who Participates? Either or both spouses, a sofer (scribe) to write the document, and three rabbis. At least one of the rabbis should be an expert in divorce; the others are witnesses. In Orthodox circles, it's becoming common for the wife to bring along a "court advocate," a woman who is trained in the Jewish court system. Either spouse can also bring along a friend or family member for moral support. Children don't usually participate, because the traditional ceremony is quite short and austere. In a nontraditional ceremony, however, you can use your judgment about what your children are capable of understanding and whether or not it will help them to participate.
Where? The get need not be given in a synagogue. Any location that can accommodate all participants is acceptable. In fact, because the husband can give a get through an agent or a series of agents, the wife can receive it in a different city from her husband. A get can be arranged in almost any Jewish community, as long as a rabbi and two witnesses are available.
The two options presented here--traditional and nontraditional--are not mutually exclusive. Either spouse can hold a private ceremony before or after the traditional ritual, or incorporate elements of nontraditional ritual into the standard procedure. The get is more contractual than spiritual; in fact, there's no mention of God's name in the traditional ceremony. Adding prayers and other spiritual elements can offer direction for growth without supplanting the standard ritual.
The ceremony begins when the husband tells the sofer to write the document. In the document, the sofer includes any name (including nicknames) by which the spouses have ever been known ("I, _____, also known as _____, the son of _____, also known as _____"). The place where the get is given is also identified, not just by name but by geographic landmarks ("in the city _____ located on the river ____"); this document is designed to stand the test of time.
Once written (and it can take some time for the ink to dry!), the get is signed by the witnesses and read aloud. If the wife is wearing any rings, she's asked to remove them so her skin can directly touch the paper of the get when her husband hands it to her. Though this act doesn't specifically refer to the wedding ring, taking it off can be incorporated into the ceremony as a meaningful parting ritual.
She takes hold of the get and walks a few feet to symbolize ownership. The document is then scored with a sharp knife so it can't be reused; the rabbis keep it on file and issue a certificate of divorce so the spouses can remarry (after a three-month waiting period for the wife, to verify paternity in case of pregnancy).
In the divorce ritual Rabbi Milgram uses, she asks spouses to acknowledge (silently or aloud), "what they might forgive the other person for, what they need to forgive themselves for." Her ceremony is egalitarian, and each spouse (where possible) authorizes a get document, which is written by a scribe using a variation of the traditional wording. After these are written and signed, the spouses hand them to each other and acknowledge the parting of ways, saying, "Your doorway is no longer my doorway." Because her egalitarian ceremony and documents aren't accepted in Orthodox circles, she suggests that Jews looking for the broadest possible acceptance may consider a traditional get as well.
Rabbi Milgram describes other Jewish divorce rituals, including one in which partners take turns untying a segment of knotted rope, "recalling alternately the good things that are being ended as well as the bad." She also suggests that after a divorce ritual, the spouses walk apart towards their own groups of friends. She prefers one group to leave first, then the other: "No final hug or mingling, no matter how friendly the divorcing parties still are. This is about cutting a cord."
However, if children of the marriage are participating in the ritual, obviously that kind of neat separation isn't possible; no child should be made to "choose" between parents. In that situation, the rabbi can help the couple find sensitive alternatives to this type of stark separation.
Word to the Wise: Milgram points out that divorcing without a get means future children will not be accepted in marriage by observant Jews. To avoid this, Milgram urges all Jews to consider a traditional get. Even if you don't keep kosher and never go to synagogue, she says, a get is an investment in your children's (and grandchildren's) future; it is an hour and a half that can make a big difference towards ensuring Jewish continuity for them.
Though to some people the traditional get ceremony might seem unfairly biased toward men, some women find it a spiritual experience. One woman writes: "Though legalistic, the traditional ceremony was also very meaningful. The rabbis treated me with dignity, and watching the scribe carefully write out the letters of my Hebrew name and my ex-husband's, along with many of the particulars of our marriage (including a few nicknames I blushed to reveal), was surprisingly touching."