Divorce and Jewish Ethics/Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka

Posted on August 25, 2010

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“Ethics of the Elders,” what is popularly known as Pirkay Avot, contains timeless ethical instruction for all contingencies of life. Since divorce is one of life’s contingencies, it would be useful to extract from Ethics of the Elders appropriate ethical instruction that can be used as a guide in the divorce process. What follows are some guidelines for a Jewish Divorce Ethic, consistent with the ideas presented in this volume, and which are suggested in Pirkay Avot.

Make for yourself a guide — Choose a person with wisdom and insight, to guide you through the difficult travail of the divorce process.

Keep far away from a bad neighbor — Do not let the undesirable behavior of your spouse influence you to behave in a like manner. Your behavior should be beyond reproach at all times.

Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace — Obviously, loving peace and pursuing peace should help in keeping a marriage intact. However, even if the marriage has reached the point of being beyond repair, your love of peace and pursuit of peace should continue unabated, so that the divorce process is as tranquil as possible.

One who seeks a name loses one’s name — If you enter into the divorce process trying to justify yourself, to maintain your honor, and to heap dishonor on your marital partner, you will lose your honor and your name.

If I am for my own self only, what am I? — If you are for yourself only, then this may be at the root of the marriage’s failure. However, do not carry that failure over into divorce. When divorcing, make sure that the welfare of others, including your spouse and children, are utmost in your mind.

Greet all people with a cheerful countenance — This across-the-board ethical imperative should include those people about whom you may not feel so cheery, including the mate that you are divorcing.

I have found nothing better for the body than silence — Especially when you hear insulting and degrading words from the former partner whom you have divorced, do not counter-attack and start a war. The best thing to do is to keep quiet. Maybe the verbal invective will disappear from the dialogue between you.

The world is preserved through three things: truth, justice, and peace — You should be able to accept the truth, the fact that after all has been attempted, the marriage is doomed to failure. As a next step, you should accept the verdict of the court, as it wades through the mass of details in order to hammer out a settlement of outstanding issues. And finally, having accepted the judgment, you should live with it, at peace with yourself, and committed to making the best of it for all others involved.

Which is the right path that a person should choose? That which is an honor to the one who does it and which also brings honor from humankind — If your behavior in the trying, traumatic process of divorce is ethically above board, it will enable you to look in the mirror with a clear conscience. It will also bring you the approbation of others, who will see your absolute commitment to uprightness even in the most trying times as a true model of what a human being should be.

Concentrate on three things and you will not fall into the grip of sin: Know what is above you — a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds being recorded in a book — The this-worldly conflict of divorce may elicit, from the parties to the divorce, nastiness, ill-feeling, and the desire to exact revenge from the other. Were any of those contemplating such evil to be aware that others are listening in to their thoughts, and are aware of what they are plotting, they would be embarrassed. They surely would think twice about carrying this out. This is exactly the way the divorcing couple should behave, knowing that G‑d is watching, that G‑d is listening, and that G‑d is taking notes of all that is transpiring.

Do not judge your fellow until you have been in that person’s position — There may be reasons why the marriage went sour, and you may tend to blame the other partner for what went wrong. However, you do not think the way your partner thinks, nor do you feel the same emotions that your partner feels. Quite possibly, had you been in your partner’s position, you would have reacted the same way as your partner did, though you now blame your partner for such behavior. By being cognizant of this, you will avoid the blame trap.

In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person — Even if you are hounded by a spiteful ex-spouse who is mercilessly vindictive, who ridicules and reviles you, you should be a mentsch at all times. Do not sink to that level.

Let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own — Even in situations when you are obviously hurt, and have a natural desire to dishonor the mate whom you are divorcing, try to resist the temptation. You would not want to be dishonored in this already trying time.

Do not be easily provoked to anger — The process of divorce surely qualifies as an anger-evoking situation. You are angry at yourself, you are angry at your spouse, you are angry at the world. However, the more angry you get, the more angry you will be. You will not get rid of the anger; instead you will lock yourself into an anger pattern. The bitterness that is the outgrowth of this anger pattern will only make your life even more miserable. So, keep away from the anger.

A bad eye, bad passion, and hatred of one’s fellow creatures drives a person out of the world — Your seeing the bad in the other, your having a bad passion, which in a divorce situation may be a passion to hate the person whom you once loved, and your ensuing hatred that emanates from this bad passion, drives you out of the world. You may think that by exercising your justified anger and hate you will ventilate, but in fact you will make yourself into less than a person. You will eventually drive yourself out from meaningful existence. The hate will eat away at you.

Let your friend’s possessions be as dear to you as your own — Do not enter into the divorce proceedings with the idea of making a killing, of taking as much out of your ex-marital partner as you can. Fairness and equity should prevail. You should be as caring and careful of your former spouse’s possessions, as you would want that partner to be with your own, were you in that other person’s position.

Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven — Make sure that whatever you do in the divorce process is for a higher purpose, namely to make the best out of the situation, and to assure the most harmonious post-divorce conditions possible. You do not have to answer to your friends, or your lawyer, or anyone else. Ultimately, you have to answer only to your Creator, so make sure that your actions are for Heaven’s sake.

Do not consider yourself wicked — In the aftermath of divorce, you are likely to point the finger at yourself, and to feel guilty about what has transpired. Self-esteem can suffer in the process, and all hope for any future relationship diminishes. You can at one and the same time take responsibility for what occurred, and yet not consider yourself to be bad. Rather, consider yourself to be human, prone to error, but also able to learn from mistakes.

The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent — When divorce takes place, and the previously married couple lives apart, then that which came naturally now comes with difficulty. Previously short tasks are now enlarged, since each one of the divorced parents, whether custodial or visiting, now has a greater burden; one that must be shouldered alone. There may be a tendency to be daunted by the task at hand, but the reward for applying yourself to make the best of the situation is ample enough, and the master of the house, G‑d, insists that you go through with it. It may be painful at first. The adjustment to new modes of communicating and meeting with your children, as prescribed by the custodial arrangement, may be complicated. But it must be done, and with resolve it will be done effectively.

One in whom the spirit of humankind takes delight, the spirit of the Omnipresent takes delight. But one in whom the spirit of human-kind takes no delight, the spirit of the Omni-present takes no delight — The ultimate Judge of the true worth of human behavior, G‑d, judges based on how human beings react to the specific behavior. Since divorce and its aftermath are a time when an individual is most vulnerable, most likely to succumb to the easy enticement of launching a vendetta and behaving with spite, it is then that one’s true character and one’s inner nobility come to the fore. The behavior of the divorcing spouse which elicits the delight of humankind, who voice admiration for such restraint and good-will in a time of crisis, is one which G‑d also notices. The reverse is also true. Unbecoming conduct, reducing oneself to base level behavior, will bring the condemnation of others, and likewise that of G‑d.

If there is no proper conduct, there is no Torah — If, in the divorce situation, the couple behaves improperly, with no respect for one another, and resorting to all forms of devious speech and behavior to get their way, then this is an indication that however religious they may be, that religiosity is only perfunctory. They have not really grasped the essence of the Torah.

Who is wise? One who learns from all people — The wise person learns from all individuals and from all experiences. The wise person who is going through the agonizing throes of divorce will learn from that circumstance, will learn from the behaviors of those involved, and derive the right lessons on how to avoid such trauma in the future.

Who is mighty? One who conquers one’s passions — The natural tendency, in divorce, is to desire to get back at the other partner for having caused all this grief. The strong person is the one who overcomes this desire, and instead behaves as a truly ethical and upright person.

Who is rich? One who rejoices in one’s portion — Being satisfied, having basic needs taken care of, but not desiring to become overly wealthy at the expense of the other, will help facilitate the divorce settlement. Instead of trying to gouge the other, to fill one’s own pockets, the thrust is just towards manageability. With such an attitude, the actual procedure of divorce will be more amicable. The individual who behaves with such a sense of self-satisfaction is likely to enhance the entire environment that is affected by the divorce.

Who is honored? One who honors humankind — The spouse who treats the other member of the divorcing couple with dignity and respect will likely have that respect reciprocated. Instead of a post-divorce situation characterized by ill-will and bitter recrimination, it will be characterized by respect and honor; truly a better alternative.

Do not despise any person — That includes a person whom you are most likely to despise, specifically the person whom you once loved.

Be of an exceedingly humble spirit, for the hope of the human being is decay — Instead of behaving with arrogance, trying to win points and pummel the other into submission in the divorce negotiations, behave with humility. In the end, all this bickering over material matters is of no lasting value. What really counts is that one behaved in a noble fashion. That is what endures forever.

Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against calamity — The spirit of wanting to better one’s self, to correct the wrongs of the past and to embark on doing good deeds, in the aftermath of divorce, will avoid the calamity of bitterness, vindictiveness, and hatred associated with divorce.

When your enemy falls, do not rejoice — The person you may perceive to be your enemy, namely the spouse who has caused you so much agony through the divorce, is really not an enemy. But even if you perceive that spouse to be a foe, do not rejoice at the misfortune of your ex-mate. The ex-mate’s misfortune will create a melancholic atmosphere that will spill over and eventually affect you too. Rather, you should hope that your ex-mate finds fulfillment and success.

Difficult to provoke and easy to pacify, this characterizes the pious person — This is the type of behavior pattern that is necessary to endure divorce and its aftermath.

Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, but any controversy which is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not endure — In the process of working out the arrangements following divorce, you may be involved in a fight for custody, honestly thinking that you are the better parent for your children. If this is an ego battle, then the children will not gain from it. However, if your intentions are genuine, purely for the children’s welfare, then your concern for them as expressed in your argumentation will have lasting value. Its lasting value will be predicated on the fact that you present your view not out of bitterness, or through vilifying your ex-marital mate, but through the legitimacy of your position.

According the exertion is the reward — The extra effort that you expend in order to provide your children with the best in the difficult circumstances following divorce will bring its reward in that the children, through your encouragement and example, will be able to surmount the significant upheaval in their lives caused by the divorce.

Jewish ethics applied to divorce would go a long way towards lessening the trauma of divorce, and reducing the possibility that divorce develops into a no-holds-barred battle of perpetual duration. The ethical way is the better way for all involved, including the divorcing spouses, the larger family, and most importantly, the offspring.

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka is a pulpit rabbi, author and lecturer.  He has written extensively on the issue of Jewish divorce.

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