By Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld
On May 1, 2014, Matzav.com summarized the results of a study on divorce that concluded that divorce may be socially influenced (“New Study Says Divorce Can Be Contagious”). The theory runs something like this; the odds of a couple’s chances of divorce increase as more of their friends divorce. The theory has some rationale basis. In a society where few people divorce, there is a social taboo against divorce. In a society where many people divorce, there is little peer pressure that militates against divorce.
My personal opinion as one who serves as a divorce mediator is that the contagion of divorce does not pose much of a challenge to our way of life. We all have the ability as religious Jews to make decisions for ourselves. We know that it is inherently wrong to do something because “everybody is doing it”. This is the nature of the concept of Free Will (“Bechirah”) that we all possess. However, there is another type of contagion that does indeed threaten our communities. It is the contagious belief that while we may marry as Bnai Torah we need not divorce as Bnai Torah. We act as if we have every right to divorce in the most confrontational and divisive ways.
The concept of civility and decency in divorce is becoming an option we choose to ignore. We have fallen prey to the mores and ethics of society-at-large. This is the contagious (and most detrimental) aspect of divorce that threatens to engulf us. The ethics of Torah Jews who divorce must be of the highest order. I am not sure if we have met that challenge in the way we engage in the process of divorce.
In previous articles in this website, I have written of the challenges we face when we allow the universal standard of divorce to dictate how we conduct ourselves in divorce situations. (See e.g. http://matzav.com/divorce-the-communal-issue-that-lacks-mazel ). I have written of the dangers that bitter divorce battles exact from our children and our mental health. Our spiritual health suffers as well. As a community, with rising divorce rates and increases in Shalom Bayis issues, we need to meet the challenges head-on. At times, marriages need to be ended. But we have a choice; we can slam the door on our marriage or we can close it with a sense of dignity and propriety.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has explained the growing divorce rate with a reference to Noach. We are told that “Noach Ish Tzaddik”. If the Torah calls Noach a tzaddik we know much about his inner character. If he was so righteous, how did he fall prey to the intoxicating effect of wine, after the floodwaters subsided? The words of Rabbi Twerski are in need of no additional interpretation: “The commentaries say that Noach knew how much he could drink safely without the wine affecting him, but that was before the Flood. What Noach did not consider is that the world had undergone a radical change, and it was not the same world he had known. In a new world, old rules may not apply.”
We no longer live in a world, or community, where divorce is not known. The world has changed. The challenges are different. However, the behaviors that were unacceptable in the “old days” are still unacceptable. We must resist the temptation to treat divorce as battlegrounds for the mighty and showcases for nimble attorneys. To allow divorce to become mercenary and unduly confrontational is to allow the contagion to enter our communities and lives. We have to be vigilant to prevent such destructive tendencies from entering our personal and communal lives. If we divorce, we need to show the same commitment to Halacha as we do when we daven, study Torah, perform acts of Chessed, etc.
For several years, I have tried to persuade leaders of communal agencies into crafting a communal response to the challenges of growing rates of divorce and improper divorce “ethics”. While I have had polite discussions with some leaders, I have concluded, regretfully, that divorce-related issues do not rank high on the community agenda. The reasons for this are many but people prefer to talk about cheery and upbeat topics. Focusing on divorce is not a preferred agenda topic for a communal organization. Divorce does not even have the appeal of such varied topics as children-at-risk, special education, Agunah, etc. But yet the contagion is out there and we are not immunized against its effects. What can be done to safeguard our way of life?
I believe rabbanim need to devote more discussions about Shalom Bayis. Schools need to talk more about what to do when marriages are confronted by challenges and stressors. Batei Din need to spend more time before a Get is written in facilitating marital therapy and/or mediation. Most importantly, we need to find communal ways to convey the message that divorce, as tragic as it is, can be conducted with dignity and reasonableness. Our community must find ways to both get this message out and then to develop ways to meet the high standards we have set.
Years ago I attended a lecture given by Rabbi Zalman Posner A”H. Rabbi Posner said that every good speech must have a “therefore” (“U’Vachen”). Words are pleasant to digest, but what steps can be taken to provide some solution to what ails us? As a divorce mediator, I have been asked on occasion to consult with clients of the organization, Sister-to-Sister. I find that even in one session or two, a professional can give guidance that may ultimately lead to a positive resolution. I would like to encourage other mediators, attorneys, therapists, etc. to consider volunteering their time to work one or two sessions with couples who are contemplating divorce. Where marriages can be saved, the rewards will be apparent. Where divorce is contemplated, the professional can guide the couple towards making proper, dignified choices. In either event, the community needs to know that trained professionals care enough to save our Kehillas from the contagion that confronts us. The first step is always the most difficult one. Let us begin the challenging task that confronts us as we ensure that all our efforts, even those in the divorce arena, are imbued with Torah teachings and Torah values.
Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld is a divorce mediator and attorney in Fair Lawn, NJ. He may be contacted at: Rosenfeld@Juno.com.