What is a “get”?
A get is a divorce under halacha, or Jewish law. The word can also refer to the document that grants the get, though its technical name is sefer k’ritot, or scroll of severance. The sefer k’ritot is a no-fault document, not citing any specific reasons for the divorce, though a sofer or scribe writes it out specifically for the couple involved.
A literal interpretation of the law states clearly that only a man may initiate divorce proceedings. Some Orthodox authorities still hold strictly to this law but Conservative, Reform, and even many Orthodox authorities agree that although the Talmud says it is the husband who must have the sefer k’ritot written, the wife may begin the process of the get by convening a beit din (rabbinical court).
Jewish law allows for divorce under many circumstances, including what civil law calls “irreconcilable differences.” Because Jewish law values marriage so highly, it looks unkindly on any abuse of the marital bond by either partner.
In halacha, marriage is a sacred commitment between husband and wife, so a get is considered the solution of last resort when there are marital difficulties. Most rabbis will suggest that a couple seek counseling before pursuing a get, unless the rabbi understands that one spouse has been abusive to the other.
The writing of the sefer k’ritot, the delivery of it to the woman, and her acceptance of it constitutes a get. Once she has received the document, a woman is considered divorced, and can, if she chooses, remarry under Jewish law. If she does not get a get, a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law, including in the State of Israel.
In the United States, a get does not constitute a civil divorce and is not recognized by the states. Likewise, a civil divorce dissolves a civil union, but is not considered to dissolve a Jewish marriage in the Orthodox and Conservative movements. (Reform rabbis generally accept a civil divorce as sufficient to dissolve a Jewish marriage.) If a Jewish woman wants to be free of her former husband both legally and under the strictest interpretation of halacha, she needs both a civil divorce and a get, and must initiate proceedings for each individually.
Why does a person need a “get”?
If a person was married under Jewish law, that person cannot technically remarry under Jewish law without a get. Many Reform rabbis are willing to perform a wedding for a person who has previously only received a civil divorce from his or her former spouse, but it is necessary to get a get in the Orthodox and Conservative communities. Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews may still feel they need a get in order to conform to the strictist interpretation of the law.
Many non-religious Jews choose to marry under a chuppah (wedding canopy), sign a ketubah (marriage contract), and have a Jewish wedding performed by a rabbi or cantor, yet remain unaware that in order to be able to remarry under Jewish law they need to obtain a halachic divorce under Jewish law. If you are a non-religious, unaffiliated, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jew who married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, you may wish to get a get so that you can remarry under Jewish law and have that marriage recognized by all streams of Judaism. However, if this is not important to you, you may decide you do not need to pursue a get.
Orthodox authorities hold that Jews who were married in civil ceremonies must also receive a get in order to be able to remarry under Jewish law. So if you were married under civil law, you may still want to get a get to conform with a strict interpretation of the law.
What are “mamzerim”?
It can be important to get a get for the sake of any offspring of a second marriage. If a Jewish woman remarries without having received a get, even if she has received a civil divorce, the children of her second marriage are technically considered mamzerim (illegitimate) and will not be accepted into many Jewish communities, Orthodox and otherwise. This means a mamzer cannot participate in a synagogue or marry a Jew either in an Orthodox community or in the State of Israel. If a man remarries without a get, his children are not considered mamzerim.
The Reform movement rejects the entire concept of mamzerim, and accepts any child of any Jewish parent as a Jew, able to marry into the community and participate in services. The Conservative movement holds the position that a congregation should not dig into a member’s background, which basically implies that a Conservative synagogue can turn a blind eye to the acceptance of mamzerim. In Orthodox circles, mamzerim are not permitted to participate in the religious life of the community in any way.
The status of a mamzer is inherited for ten generations. For this reason, even Reform, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews may want to get a get for the sake of their future children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, whose affiliation they cannot foresee. Though the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept a civil divorce as sufficient to constitute a Jewish divorce, many liberal rabbis will counsel divorcing couples to get a get if possible in order to conform with a stricter interpretation of Jewish law. This is for the sake of any offspring of a second marriage.
Who is eligible to receive a “get”?
Any Jewish person who has been married to another Jew is eligible to receive a get. If you are a Jewish person who was married under civil law (by a justice of the peace) or by a clergyperson of another religion (for example, in a Unitarian, Episcopal, Methodist, Baha’i, Buddhist, or Hindu ceremony) you are still eligible to receive a get if your former spouse was Jewish by birth. This is because halacha accepts a marriage as valid once it has been performed, even if it was made without signing a ketubah.
If you are a Jewish woman whose former husband was not Jewish, you are not eligible to receive a get and do not need one to be considered divorced.
For the purposes of getting a “get”, who is considered Jewish?
The question of who is Jewish is still hotly contested between and within the various streams of Judaism; to answer it would be beyond the scope of this page.
It is helpful to note, however, that the Reform movement holds that any person with one Jewish parent is a Jew; thus, a person whose father was Jewish is Jewish. The Reform movement also accepts any convert, regardless of what kind of rabbi converted him, as a Jew.
The Orthodox rabbinate naturally hold more closely to halacha, and argues that only a person whose mother was Jewish is a Jew. A patrilineal Jew ("a person whose father only in Jewish"), in Orthodox eyes, is not a Jew at all. Orthodox rabbis may also refuse to accept as Jewish someone who was converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
So the question of who is considered Jewish for the purposes of getting a get is quite sticky. If you are a Reform Jewish woman married to a patrilineal Jew, there is some question if the Orthodox rabbinate would even accept your marriage as halachic; so you may not need a get to be considered divorced. If you are unsure if you need a get to be considered divorced under a strict interpretation of Jewish law, consult your rabbi.
Are there any proactive measures a woman can take to avoid becoming an “agunah” in the event of her marriage’s dissolution?
One of the best ways to prevent the possibility of becoming an agunah is either to sign a prenuptial agreement or to write a statement into your ketbuah indicating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. The Orthodox rabbinate argues that writing such a clause (called the Lieberman Clause, in honor of the Reform rabbi who first introduced it) into the ketubah is non-halachic (invalid under Jewish law), but the Conservative rabbinate supports this measure. Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, support the signing of a prenuptial agreement. This can be entirely separate from a secular (nonreligious) prenuptial agreement, and can refer exclusively to the responsibility of both parties to give and accept a get should the need arise.
Few who are about to get married really want to think about divorce because no one thinks it will happen to them. However, the problem of the agunah is a serious one, and it is wise to protect yourself against such a situation. Jewish couples already sign a ketubah, detailing their obligations to each other, so signing a prenuptial agreement is only one more step.
Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, suggest that couples who are already married sign a postnuptial agreement stating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. This, too, may seem like an awkward step for a married couple to take, but it just another way to safeguard both parties’ rights in the event of the marriage’s end.
Jewish people of all traditions should also educate their children about the problem of agunot, the necessity of respect in marriage, the qualities that define a healthy relationship, and the kinds of behaviors that are considered to be abuse. This education can help to prevent the problems of agunot and domestic abuse in the next generation.