“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman
or a stranger in one of the communities in your land.”(Deut. 24:15)
Parashat Ki Teitzei presents laws regarding individuals, their families, and the neighbors around them. This continues the themes of social justice and ethical norms introduced last week in Parashat Shoftim.
One of those laws addresses the reality of divorce. “If a man marries a woman and lives with her, and she ceases to find favor in his eyes… he writes her a bill of divorce.” (Deut. 24:1) As with most Jewish laws, the Torah describes the general principle. The rabbis, over time, fill in the details by creating rituals and practices. The bill of divorce is called a “get,” and according to halacha (Jewish law), it must be initiated by the man. If he refuses, no Jewish divorce can take place. This continues to cause great pain for countless women today, who may have a civil divorce, but cannot remarry (within a Jewish legal framework) without a get.
The Torah’s patriarchal bias is not surprising; it is the norm in the ancient world. Rashi’s commentary on the verse, on the other hand, is remarkable: “Divorce is a mitzvah.” This makes no sense if you think of mitzvah as “good deed,” as often is the case. However, mitzvah means commandment and one of the purposes of commandments is to imbue the actions of everyday life with sanctity. Rashi is articulating a theology of relationship: the act of separation is as profound as the act of union and has a spiritual dimension, too. Tragically, it is often overwhelmed by nastiness and cruelty. This is Rashi’s challenge: to find a way, in the midst of personal loss and sadness, to let our behavior and attitude be guided by the latent spirituality inherent in every action connected to the human condition, divorce included.