Can My Divorce Be Civil?/Martin Rosenfeld

Posted on January 9, 2012


I recently wrote an article on divorce for A few comments challenged my proposition that Jewish divorce can, and should, involve civility on the part of the divorcing couple. These comments focused on the nature of the confrontations that define divorce. I will start again with my proposition that if we expect our children to marry as Bnai Torah, we must also expect that, where divorce is necessary, they will likewise divorce as Bnai Torah.

There is a Medrash on Parshas Noach that is based on the Pasuk that “Tov HaShem LaKol V’Rachamav Al Kol Maasav”. We are expected to imitate the Goodness of HaShem, and Noach did so by providing for the animals in the Tevah. The Medrash bolsters this idea by telling of a divorced man who supported his ex-wife even though he had no such legal obligation. Why did he do so? The Medrash instructs that when he saw her state of poverty, he was overcome by feelings of humanity and kindness.  What is the Medrash telling us? Its message seems to be that while kindness to a former spouse is not easy to perform, it is a meritorious act to conduct ourselves with compassion and decency, notwithstanding the challenge of doing so.

It is not easy to be civil and cooperative when a marriage has been terminated. The natural impulse is to blame the other party for their role in disrupting our married state, our inner peace and our sense of  self-worth.  It is not for naught that Chazal describe that the sadness of divorce makes even the mizbaech weep tearfully. However, as sad as it is, the Torah demands certain behavior from us. Divorce does not exempt us from conducting our life in accord with Torah values and principles.

The Baalei Mussar often talked of “strategies” we need to devise to cope with life’s challenges.  What strategies can exist for the young man or woman going through divorce? I will list a few below that I have advocated in my work as a divorce mediator and former Bais Din Menahel.

1. Life presents us with many nisyanos. Why that is we may never know. However, it is clear that how we react during a nisayon will color the rest of our life. A divorce is one of the most traumatic events a human may ever experience. How will the person act during that time? Will they call up their inner strength or will they rise to the occasion and show sterling behavior? This behavior need not mean that one will give up all their rights in a discussion negotiation. However, it does mean acting in a way that shows that one is imbued with Torah values. One needs to be civil and respectful, even in a divorce process. The divorce process is trying and embittering. One strategy to call upon is simply to ask: “Will I be proud of my present behavior in 5,or 10, or 20 years?”. If the answer is not in the affirmative, you may need to dig a bit deeper into your “Kochos HaNefesh” to define appropriate behavior.

2. Children always learn from what they observe in parental behavior. A divorce is a period of great challenge. One day our children will go through challenges in their own life, of many possible varieties. Will they learn positive or negative lessons from the way we talk, act, and perform during our period of divorce?

3. There is a theory about mediation that it works best when the parties will be continuing some type of future relationship. Thus, for example, it behooves a landlord and tenant in dispute to search out mediation but it is less important for a fired employee to seek out mediation for his demands on his former boss. What future relationship will a divorcing couple have? They will always be the co-parents of their children. (If there were no children in the marriage, they may be responsible to care for aged parents, etc.) The need to co-parent means the need to communicate effectively in the future. How this will be possible in cases of bitter divorces is something that is not at all clear to professionals. The only remedy is to seek to eliminate the bitterness and confrontation during the divorce process. This also eliminates the likelihood of children choosing sides in the divorce that their parents will undergo.

4. The last suggestion is perhaps the most universal. Rancor and bitterness taint our Neshama. It is hard to bounce back, spiritually, from prolonged legal battles, charge and counter-charge, and finger-pointing.

I read recently of a woman who visited her father in prison. Her father, a borderline personality, had killed the woman’s mother, after he been through a bitter divorce with the mother. The visit in prison had been arranged through a program in England which was created to get parties to discuss the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness after tragic events. Victims of crimes, in this program, were being asked to consider forgiving the perpetrators of terrible crimes. This woman did forgive her father. Her reason was simple: “I couldn’t see living my life, consumed by hate”. Divorce is sad, tragic, and quite painful. But do you want to live your live obsessed with feelings of hate and rancor? It simply makes sense to consider being civil and dignified in a divorce. Divorce may be the end of a chapter in your life; it is not the end of the book. Live, and act, accordingly.

In the above few paragraphs I have summarized possible insights that may help you in your divorce (or even if you experience marital difficulties). Life has challenges. The Alter of Slabodka once addressed such situations by saying :”There are those who say if you have obstacles in the road you must go around it. In Mussar we say, if there is an obstacle in the road you must soar above it.” There is much to ponder in these profound words. Divorce is a stressful time. Remember that life will go on, post-divorce. For your own sake, if not for that of your children, act in a way that will make you proud of the choices you made and the behaviors you exhibited.