Wanted: shivah rituals for divorce


By Rabbi Rory Katz
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Teitzei,
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Nowadays, divorce, a topic discussed in this week’s Torah portion, is often a very private experience. The actress and comedian Amy Poehler gives the following description in her memoir, “Yes Please”:
“When you are a person going through a divorce you feel incredibly alone, yet you are constantly reminded by society of how frequently divorce happens and how common it has become. You aren’t allowed to feel special, but no one knows the specific ways you are in pain.”
Do divorces have to be such lonely experiences? Divorces are often sad, so maybe people want them to be private. The Torah, however, prevents them from being completely private affairs.
If a man decides he wants a divorce, we read, he must write a bill of divorce. This ritual serves two essential functions. First, it serves as a protection to the wife; her husband cannot give her a divorce in the heat of a moment, but rather must first go through a whole procedure.
Second, the divorce document, like a ketubah, requires witnesses. In both weddings and divorces, the relationship transition happens in the presence of representatives from the wider community.
But for many, a couple of witnesses do not answer the needs of an individual going through divorce. Many people feel isolated and alone with their pain.
When I was in my 20s, I went through my first major romantic breakup. My roommates exposed me to a core modern breakup ritual: the presentation of a pint of ice cream to the newly single person. I appreciated the gesture and the blessing that I read into it (“May you find sources of sweetness and fatty nourishment from people who love you”), but I wanted more. I was in mourning. I wanted to sit in my house for a week. I wanted everyone to come over and keep me company and bring me food. I wanted to be sitting shivah.
Jewish traditions around death are so powerful. What would it be like to bring some of that wisdom to divorce and other settings that also have grief and loss? Could we organize meal trains and visits? Could we write and listen to eulogies about the ended relationships? Could we wish newly single people that an ended relationship’s memory be for a blessing? The Torah portion describes the initial ritual in a divorce. It is up to us to expand upon it to bring comfort to one another in hard times.
Rabbi Rory Katz leads Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore.

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