Four years ago, Perry Netter feared his divorce from his wife, Esther, would end his career as a rabbi. Sitting in his office at Conservative Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, he said he knew that people want their rabbi married. Congregants like to gaze upon the rabbi's family as the ideal Jewish family. If anybody's going to get Jewish life right, it should be the rabbi, he said. The rabbi's divorce also heightens a sense of vulnerability; anybody might be next. And for the first three or four months after Netter and his wife announced their separation, congregants neither wanted the separated rabbi under their chuppah nor performing their premarital counseling.
Now Netter performs the same number of weddings he did while married and is doing more counseling than before. "People need to talk through issues," he explained. Rather than fearing Netter's divorce might somehow have a domino effect and topple their marriages, congregants have come to see that everybody goes through transitions and their rabbi, imperfect like they are, might be better equipped to help since he has walked in their shoes.
Netter said he did not intend his new book, "Divorce Is a Mitzvah," to be a confessional. The impact of his divorce on his career and his three children is not the book's subject. He said that so far, his kids have only read the dedication page to look at their names. "I am certain they will soon read the text, particularly when their friends start to," he said, "and will rise from it with pride."
But fellow rabbis who have already read the book have responded enthusiastically. A rabbi in the Midwest, separated from his wife for a month, sent an e-mail to Netter: "In times of despair and hopelessness and anger, it has given me comfort, hope and calm." The e-mail moved Netter to tears. In the past, when congregants came to him in this kind of pain, there was no book he could put in their hands, which was why he wrote his own. Several other rabbis from around the country, whom Netter did not know, called him following the book's publication to speak about their own marital difficulties.
Many of these rabbis faced the same crisis Netter did four years ago. He felt he had to fulfill the fantasies of congregants of what a rabbi is. His divorce has freed him from acting in some artificial role. "Married or divorced, I'm still a rabbi and I hope a healthier one now," he said.