Finding kindness, decency and holiness in divorce

All divorcing parents of children should read “Divorce is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies.” This small book is a how-to manual for handling divorce with kindness, compassion and decency, and it likely could save many families from undue pain and unnecessary guilt.

Rabbi Perry Netter, spiritual leader of Conservative Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, penned the oddly titled guide based on his personal and congregational experience. Culling from modern psychological research, conversations with congregants wanting to know what Judaism has to say about divorce and the practicalities of ending his own 17-year marriage, he came up with advice that could be useful for anyone — Orthodox or unaffiliated, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim or atheist.

Ultimately, Netter surmises that divorce is a fait accompli according to Jewish tradition. Deuteronomy presumes divorce as a fact. “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, sends her away from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

According to Netter, little else is said about divorce in Jewish tradition. One exception is by biblical commentator Rashi, who said of the biblical command to write out a bill of divorcement, “Divorce is a mitzvah.”

Shocking words. But Netter understands them as how we respond to the voice of God commanding us to behave in a particular way. A mitzvah is not just a good deed but also an obligation. “It is this understanding of divorce, I believe, that we can learn from Rashi. A divorce is not to be pursued, of course, but should a separation between husband and wife be warranted, obligations are imposed on the spouses that contain all of the weight of God’s commanding voice.”

Making order out of chaos is a highly religious act: It is what God did in creating the universe. And it can be done in the swirling chaotic vortex of divorce as well. Judaism, he says, creates order through ritual.

Enter the get — a Jewish divorce. Many modern Jews have shied away from it as antiquated and sexist. Yet Netter argues that since God was present at the marriage, God should be present at the divorce. By allowing all parties to be present, the get can offer closure in a way a civil divorce cannot.

Such biblical commentaries and religious musings are tempered with practical advice. Netter devotes a chapter for each of nine questions with a decidedly egalitarian and practical bent, among them: “Why is this happening to me?” “What do I do with all this anger?” “Is divorce kosher?” “To litigate or mediate?” and “How do we continue to raise children together?”

Especially powerful are Netter’s suggestions for minimizing the trauma of divorce for children. He suggests telling them together, as a unit. Find a safe setting — for Netter and his wife, it was their king-size bed, where his kids came to snuggle when nightmares lingered. Tell them the marriage is ending but the family is not, he says. Let them have their feelings, and keep an opening for questions, now or later. Similarly, Netter reminds us not to tear down one’s ex in front of the children.

Also noteworthy is the section on handling anger. Netter explains that the Zohar expects it. Anger isn’t a problem, but how we deal with it can be. He suggests blessing the anger, as blessing it is to control it. And he implores readers not to let anger destroy the legacy of their marriage.

Throughout, Netter’s style is conversational and never preachy. The stories he tells are richly detailed and full of heart, and the advice he gives is exceedingly practical. This isn’t just good Judaism; it is good therapy. Unfortunately, he writes, many couples act in decidedly unholy ways.

The mitzvah of divorce, however, doesn’t allow for such treatment, but “requires complete honesty … The mitzvah of divorce requires collaboration to achieve the most benefit for the most people … The mitzvah of divorce requires us to ask the question ‘What does God want me to do at this moment?’ ”

“Divorce is a Mitzvah:

A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” by Rabbi Perry Netter. (224 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95).