There’s a topic that I have long felt the need to write about, but have always found it too painful to do so. This topic is not only painful for this writer, but has been the source of great pain for many individuals and communities as well. The topic that I am referring to is, divorce. Not just the concept of divorce; and not even about the epidemic proportions of young divorces in the Orthodox community; but specifically, I am referring to the utter destruction and suffering that too many divorces bring to individuals, their families and often to their communities as well.
Divorce happens. It has been happening from the beginning of time. Often (though not always) divorce is the right thing to do. I remember many years ago, when I was no older than 13 or 14 years old, and someone I had known my entire life was getting divorced, and I was deeply troubled by it. I shared my feelings with my beloved Rebbe, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Harav Hagaon Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l, and he responded with a few brief words that I remember until this very day. He said, “divorce is one of the greatest manifestations of the Aibeshter’s chesed.” As I grow older and see more of this everyday, the Rosh Yeshiva’s words ring true, “it truly is a great form of chesed.”
Forcing people to remain together, when they are unhappy and no longer communicate with each other, belongs to another religion; not in a Torah that is “drachea darchei noam” (its ways are pleasant). And so while there have always been divorces, and yes sometimes even bitter ones (I don’t like the word “messy”), things have changed. The change is destroying dozens of families and communities wherever Orthodox Jews are found.
Lately it seems that many divorces, often of young couples with small children don’t just happen with the giving of a Get and a civil divorce with concern for the children’s well being, it turns into a slugfest. The more pain that each side causes the other, the better. There are no limits or boundaries, after all it’s a divorce and the new rule in the game is, “take no prisoners.”
Several years ago there were a number of particularly nasty divorce battles going on and it pitted family against family. Yeshivohs were affected, shuls were affected and the children were being systematically destroyed with each mortar being lobbied by one or both of the sides.
I remember that the late Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vadaas, Hagaon Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l was greatly disturbed by these events and used his keynote address at the Agudah convention (I believe it was 1995) to cry out in pain to the community. He quoted the words of Chazal that “kol hamagareish ishto rishona, afilu mizbeach morad alav demaos” (whoever divorces his first wife, even the alter sheds tears).
He explained that the Mizbeach which is used to seeing the bringing of Korbonos, yet is brought to tears at a divorce when the Korbonos here are the children. When children are the sacrifices, even the blood soaked Mizbeach is brought to tears.
And that Chazal is speaking about just divorce in general, what would they say about the types of divorces that we have seen of late? Rav Pam zt”l then in a heart rendering appeal to the husbands and wives involved in these types of situations asked them to remember back a few years before when they stood together under the chuppah. And he then made an appeal to them to go back and look at their wedding album, and they’ll see that once they had loved each other; and if even if things have not worked as planned and divorce is necessary, they have to do it with remembering the love, and ask themselves how did it get to a point of such hate.
I heard from many people who had heard those heartfelt words of the Rosh Hayeshiva zt”l on that day; that they resolved to try to help make sure these situations do not spiral out of control. Unfortunately, rarely are they successful.
Why is this so? Why do young couples who truly love their children and want the best for them, allow their disagreements with their former spouse turn into a war, where the only casualties of that war are the children that they profess to love. Obviously there are many cases when a particular spouse has negative and destructive Middos as anger, jealousy, depression, etc; that causes these tragic situations without the other spouse doing anything wrong. Yet how many of us (and my fellow Rabbonim deal with too many of these cases in growing numbers each and every day) know of cases where both are at fault in letting it get out of hand, and taking down everyone within their reach.
To understand why this happens, we need to understand that often the emotion of love and caring for a spouse becomes as intense an emotion on the opposite scale, of hate and bitterness.
Many years ago, there lived a great Gadol and Talmid Chochom in Yerushalayim whose name was Hagaon Rav Yisroel Gustman, zt”l. He was an unparalleled Illuy (genius) who was chosen to be a member of Hagaon Rav Chaim Ozer zt”l’s Choshen Mishpat Beis Din in Vilna at the young age of nineteen. He suffered terribly during the war and eventually settled in Eretz Yisroel and served as Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshiva Netzach Yisroel in Rechavia.
Often I would go with my chavrusa to his home to talk to him in learning. He only talked Torah. It was extremely difficult to get him into a casual conversation of any type; except at one particular time. There was a bris taking place at his Yeshiva of a close student of his who was married many years without children. He was in an extremely jovial mood and I took the opportunity to engage him in a casual conversation.
I asked him if he could share with me what was the most difficult case that came before his Beis Din in Vilna that he remembered. He began to laugh out loud and a smile appeared on his face, and he said “when he began to serve on the Beis Din, Rav Chaim Ozer zt”l told him that the most difficult cases he would have to deal with, would be between husband and wife.” And he laughed again and said “and Reb Chaim Ozer zt”l was correct.”
What can we as a community do to help the people in our community who have forgotten to look at their wedding album and have allowed things to get out of hand? The first thing is for every community to have several individuals in the community, rabbis and lay people who are sensitive, astute and have an unlimited supply of patience and Ahavas Yisroel; to work with both spouses to come to a quick resolve, before the lawyers get involved. In our Five Towns community, we have such wonderful and dedicated individuals, who while I can’t name them (without their permission), I can personally attest that they have saved our community from much bloodshed, loshon hara, machlokas and also saved many children from becoming a burden to the community.
While I want to be very clear with the statement that there are many wonderful Torah inspired lawyers who are committed to doing just that, and try to convince their clients that they should remember the wedding album as they proceed with their breakup and subsequent divorce, but unfortunately there are those that do not.
I remember only too well, more than a decade ago, when I was a Rav in a different community, I was spending every waking moment and then some in trying to bring a young couple’s divorce to a quick and fair resolve. And then the accusations began to fly. They were of the most disgusting in nature, the kinds that belong in the tabloids that should never cross the threshold of a Torah home. I was told that this was their lawyer’s idea.
I had previously heard of this lawyer, who while being Orthodox had developed a notorious reputation for crossing the line of acceptability in defending his clients in divorce proceedings. I called him and asked him if he would meet with me to try to resolve this case and he readily agreed. We made up to meet at my house at a specific time. Due to traffic, he arrived an hour late; just at the time when I had to leave to Shul for Mincha. We made up that he would join me for Mincha, and then we will return to my home for our scheduled meeting.
I remember that I couldn’t help but notice his intense davening. His Shemone Esrei lasted twice as long as everybody else’s, and his “Amein” twice as loud. I was duly impressed. As we sat down, he immediately began, “Rabbi, in all due respect, do not ask me to settle this thing, because my client will get everything that she wants in court.”
I asked him point blank, “do you really believe that the husband mistreated her?” and he said “of course not.” “And do you really believe that the husband physically abused his young child?” and he responded, “absolutely not.” And then he continued, “But you’re missing the point, it’s not about what he did or didn’t do, it’s about making sure that my client gets what she wants and deserves.”
I was young, naïve and completely thunderstruck. And I asked, “how do you reconcile saying the bracha of “valamalshinim” with such kavanah, and then minutes later are able to falsely destroy someone’s reputation in the family and the community for the sake of winning a divorce proceeding?”
I received no reply then, and I have received no reply from this type of conduct in too many other cases that I and my colleagues have been involved with. This has got to stop! For the sake of the community, for the sake of the family, and most of all for the sake of the children, this has got to stop!
We need to join together as a community, to provide and support advocates who can help to mediate and bring divorces (if they truly need to happen) to a quick and fair resolve, without most hurtful accusations and hateful recriminations; because otherwise we are jeopardizing our next precious commodity, the very lives of their children.
And until that will happen, let’s remind them what Rav Pam zt”l said with a broken heart, “Just take another look at the wedding album.”
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