Jewish Journal

The Spirituality of Separation

Rabbi's guide to Jewish divorce offers helpful, if not somewhat unrealistic, advice

by Howard Kaplan

Posted on Oct. 10, 2002 at 8:00 pm

"Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A practical guide to finding wholeness and holiness when your marriage dies" by Rabbi Perry Netter (Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95).

Perry Netter's wonderful title comes from the preeminent biblical commentator, Rashi, who in the 11th century said of the biblical command to write out a bill of divorcement: "Divorce is a mitzvah." A divorce is not to be pursued, Netter comments on the commentator, but should a separation between husband and wife be warranted, obligations are imposed upon the spouses that contain all the weight of God's commanding voice.

This is a profoundly spiritual book, a work about help and healing, with God and the tradition walking alongside those who find it necessary to end their marriage.

Netter, a child of divorce himself and then a divorced father of two children, simultaneously counseled troubled couples and searched for what Judaism had to say about that latter moment in his life -- what guidance, what strength, what insight derives from Judaic sources -- and finding no book to answer these questions, he decided to write it himself.

The book unfolds in nine chapters that correspond to the questions Netter found separating couples most frequently asked when they came to him:

  • The Existential Question: Why Is This Happening to Me?

  • The Hardest Question: To Leave or Not to Leave?

  • The Psychological Question: What Do I Do With All This Anger?

  • The Most Painful Question: How Do We Tell the Kids? -- in other words, issues common to those of any faith ending a marriage. What makes this book a unique contribution is that Netter answers them from the psychological and experiential chair, as has often been done, but additionally weaves in our Sages thoughts about these dilemmas.

That I am divorced dad is a fact of my life. I have been under the assumption that with the avalanche of divorce descending on our society, the stigma had subsided. But Netter's book has convinced me that this is not so.

Two chapters here, The Guilt Question: Is Divorce Kosher? and The Awkward Question: What Do You Say? -- meaning how do you tell others -- should be particularly helpful to those strained by the stigma or the social awkwardness of divorce. Simply put, Netter unearths how the tradition wants you to be fulfilled and happy.

At times however, I found the tradition distracting. For example, in the midst of an important look at releasing divorce anger, Netter diverts into a discussion of God's anger that did not speak at all to my temporal life.

On the other hand, I was fascinated at the end of the section on How Do We Tell the Kids? when he drew the parallel to the creation story when the universe was tohu vavohu (chaos). Each day of creation brought a little order out of the chaos. Netter writes in a detailed look at how best to tell your children, "The initial discussion with your children is the first step in creating order out of the chaos which you are about to introduce into their lives."

Yet here, in an otherwise brilliant chapter, Netter misfires. I believe, in a fascinatingly human way, he has not escaped his own history and is repeating his parents' error.

Netter explains how, in 1967, then 12 years old, his parents, knowing they were parting permanently, told him and his brother that they were embarking upon a trial separation. Netter writes movingly: "By not telling us the truth of their desire to live separately forever, my parents inadvertently added to my confusion. The words 'trial separation' allowed me to harbor a fantasy that they would reconcile, that this was just a bad dream that would be over some day."

Netter's prescription for his own children and for those telling theirs: "To address the children's reconciliation fantasies ... this is what I said, 'Some couples do get back together after a separation, but most couples don't.'"

This is an invitation for a child to fiercely hope that his parents will be among those small number of couples who do reconcile. It is not the truth and clarity of the desire to live separately forever, that Netter wanted to hear from his parents. Even if there is some possibility of reconciliation, I feel it best to tell your children that there is not -- better for them to be joyfully "shocked" at their parents' reunion, than longing for one that never arrives.

Even so, Netter's writing is efficient and highly readable, and the chapters easily direct the reader to problems that require immediate attention. "Divorce Is a Mitzvah" has importantly filled a gap for Jews in the life-cycle literature.

Rabbi Perry Netter will speak at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, on Monday, Oct. 14, at 8p.m. Admission is free. For information, call (310) 652-7354.

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