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Jewish Grounds Of Divorce

One of the great problems of Jewish divorce lies within the Mosaic enactment. That enactment states that a man may divorce his wife, "if she finds no favour in his eyes, because he has found some indecency in her." The question is--how is the phrase some indecency to be interpreted?

On this point the Jewish Rabbis were violently divided, and it was here that Jesus' questioners wished to involve him. The school of Shammai were quite clear that a matter of indecency meant fornication, and fornication alone, and that for no other cause could a wife by put away. Let a woman be as mischievous as Jezebel, so long as she did not commit adultery she could not be put away. On the other hand, the school of Hillel interpreted this matter of indecency in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, if she spun, or went with unbound hair, or spoke to men in the streets, if she spoke disrespectfully of his parents in his presence, if she was a brawling woman whose voice could be heard in the next house. Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that the phrase if she finds no favour in his eyes meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered more beautiful.

The tragedy was that, as was to be expected, it was the school of Hillel whose teachings prevailed; the marriage bond was often lightly held, and divorce on the most trivial ground was sadly common.

To complete the picture certain further facts must be added. It is relevant to note that under Rabbinic law divorce was compulsory for two reasons. It was compulsory for adultery. "A woman who has committed adultery must be divorced." Second, divorce was compulsory for sterility. The object of marriage was the procreation of children; and if after ten years a couple were still childless divorce was compulsory. In this case the woman might remarry, but the same regulation governed the second marriage.

Two further interesting Jewish regulations in regard to divorce must be added. First, desertion was never a cause for divorce. If there was desertion, death must be proved. The only relaxation was that, whereas all other facts needed the corroboration of two witnesses in Jewish law, one witness was enough to prove the death of a partner in marriage who had vanished and not come back.

Secondly, strangely enough, insanity was not a ground of divorce. If the wife became insane, the husband could not divorce her, for, if she was divorced, she would have no protector in her helplessness. There is a certain poignant mercy in that regulation. If the husband became insane, divorce was impossible, for in that case he was incapable of writing a bill of divorcement, and without such a bill, initiated by him, there could be no divorce.

When Jesus was asked this question, at the back of it was a situation which was vexed and troubled. He was to answer it in a way which came as a staggering surprise to both parties in the dispute, and which suggested a radical change in the whole situation.

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