Intimations of Divorce

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If a man takes a wife and cohabits with her, and it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her a promiscuous matter – he should write her a writ of divorce and give it into her hands, and send her away from his house

Deuteronomy 24:1

It was a vanquishing reply that the community of Israel gave to the prophet: … “If a wife is divorced by her husband, do they have any further claim on each other?”

Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a

While the Torah sanctions divorce, it also expresses how negative and undesirable is the dissolution of a marriage. The Torah calls for divorce only in the case of “a promiscuous matter” – an act of unfaithfulness or other moral offense. Indeed, there is an opinion – held by the School of Shammai – that this constitutes the sole grounds for divorce. But also the sages of the School of Hillel, who allow divorce on other grounds as well, agree that “When a person divorces his first wife, even the Altar [in the Holy Temple] sheds tears on his account.”[1]

In light of this, a certain curiosity of Torah law is even more astonishing. The Torah devotes a full section (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) to detail the procedures of divorce. The laws of marriage, however, are derived from hints and allusions inserted within the very verses which specify the laws of divorce![2] Could not the Torah have chosen a more appropriate way to convey its conception of marriage?

Mirror Realities

“The Torah speaks of the physical reality,” writes Nachmanides, “and alludes to the supernal reality.”[3] The Torah speaks of the physical reality—it recounts the history of the physical world, mankind and the people of Israel, and legislates the laws of physical life. But each of its stories and laws is also a description of a supernal reality—of a particular aspect of the relationship between the Creator and His creation.

The Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano takes this a step further. “The Torah speaks of the supernal reality,” he writes, “and alludes to the physical reality.”[4] The physical reality dimension of Torah might be the one to which we most readily relate: when reading the Book of Genesis, we assume that the Torah is speaking primarily of the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who lived in the Holy Land 4000 years ago, and only “alluding” to the divine attributes of Chessed, Gevurah and Tiferet[5] which are their supernal counterparts. But in truth – says Rabbi Menachem Azariah – the reverse is the case: the Torah’s primary subject is the supernal reality, and it also alludes to our world.

Chassidic teaching explains that the most basic law of existence is that “There is none else besides Him”[6]; whatever we might perceive as existing “besides Him” is nothing more than the expression of His desire that it exist. So the supernal reality is not just a “mirror” of the physical reality – it is the source from which the physical reality derives everything that it is and has.

In other words, nothing exists in our world that does not first exist within the supernal reality. If earthly time is divided between night and day, this is the result of there being a “night” and “day” within the dynamics of G-d’s relationship with His creation. If the physical reality possesses qualities such as “winter,” “summer,” “land,” “sea,” “male,” “female” – these are, in origin and essence, qualities of the spiritual forces that G-d emanated from Himself to set the form and character of His relationship with His creation.[7] The physical forms of the objects, forces and phenomena that comprise our world are but pale, limited reflections (“allusions”) of their spiritual originals.[8]

The same is true of marriage and divorce. If “marriage” did not describe a certain aspect of G-d’s relationship with us, there would not exist the possibility for marriage in our own inter-human relations. And the fact that divorce is possible within human marriages is the result of the existence of the concept of “divorce” in the marriage relationship between G-d and man.

The Banishment

Galut – the word that describes the state of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Holy Temple and our banishment from the Land of Israel – means “exile.” But galut is much more than a people’s displacement from their homeland.

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was where G-d’s love for us and His providence over our lives, and our love for G-d and our commitment to serve Him, attained their highest expression. The Temple was the “marital home” of  the marriage of G-d and Israel.[9]

When we betrayed our special relationship with G-d, the prophets rebuked us for behaving like an errant wife; and the galut itself is described by G-d as the time “when I saw that faithless Israel had committed adultery, I sent her away and gave her a writ of divorce.”[10]

Thus, the Talmud says that when the prophets called upon the Jewish people to repent of their sins, the community of Israel countered: “If a woman is divorced by her husband, do they have any further claim on each other?”

Dream World

The Talmud calls Israel’s rejoinder “a vanquishing reply.” But then it cites G-d’s response to it: “Where is the writ of divorce … with which I [supposedly] sent her away?”[11] There was never a true divorce, G-d is saying. An estrangement, perhaps, in which the faithless wife has been “banished for her sins”;[12] but the marriage remains intact. Soon will come the day when the marital home will be rebuilt and the banished wife will be brought back home.

But did not G-d  Himself say to Jeremiah, “I sent her away and gave her a writ of divorce”? Was there, or was there not, a divorce?

On a certain level, the marriage-bond had been dissolved. From the perspective of the galut reality, the wife had been found guilty of “a promiscuous matter” and had been “sent away from His home.” From this perspective, her argument, “If a woman is divorced by her husband, do they have any further claim on each other?,” is indeed “a vanquishing reply.”

But the galut reality is a superficial, superimposed reality. “When G-d returns the exiles of Zion,” sings the Psalmist, “we shall have been as dreamers.”[13] Like a sleeping person waking from a dream, we will recognize that what we have experienced as vivid and real has been but an illusion. We will wake to a reality in which no writ of divorce has ever been delivered—a reality in which the marriage-bond between G-d and Israel is, and always was, inviolable.

This is why every marriage – as we say in the “Seven Benedictions” recited under the chuppah – is “an eternal edifice.” Since human marriages are the derivative and reflection of the divine marriage, they, too, possess something of its eternity and invincibility. It is only that we—finite and mortal beings that we are—do not always succeed in actualizing the eternal essence of the marriage bond. In certain instances, a marriage might even fail entirely and be dissolved by divorce—a phenomenon that derives from the “divorce” that can occur to the divine marriage within the pseudo-reality of galut.

The Altar’s Tears

But it’s not only that the “divorce” takes place solely within the galutreality, while in a higher reality there is no divorce. In a deeper sense, the divorce also takes place within the higher reality, but there it is not a severance of the marriage-bond, but rather is a proof of its strength and durability.

The Talmud says that “A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a Jew.”[14]The simple meaning of this statement is that a Jew is still a Jew despite his transgressions. But a deeper meaning is that he is a Jew because he has transgressed.

A non-Jew who does work on Shabbat or eats meat with milk has done nothing wrong. But for a Jew, the commandments of the Torah (mitzvot) are a component of his relationship with G-d: by observing them he is realizing this relationship and extending it to his daily life; in violating them, G-d forbid, he is transgressing—he is acting contrary to the commitment which defines his identity. In other words, a certain act is a “transgression” only because of the fact that even as the act is being carried out, its perpetrator remains bound by his commitment to G-d. So in a certain sense, the fact of a Jew’s transgression is no less an expression (albeit a negative expression) of his relationship with G-d than his fulfillment of a mitzvah.

Chassidic teaching goes even further: in a certain sense, a transgression is a greater expression of our bond with G-d than doing a mitzvah. The connection created by a mitzvah is exactly that—a connection createdbetween two separate entities. Taken on its own, this connection does not point to any intrinsic bond between the two. In fact, it implies that the natural state of the observer of the mitzvah is one of separateness and distinction from G-d—a state which is overcome by the act of the mitzvah, which bridges the gulf between the human and the divine. But when a Jew transgresses a divine command, a deeper bond with G-d comes to light. His inner equilibrium is disturbed; his soul finds no peace and is driven to compensate for its devastated identity with material excesses or profane spiritual quests. His transgressions highlight the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a soul estranged from her G-d.

What is true of our internal response to a transgression is also true of G-d’s response to our unfaithfulness. As long as the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and the people of Israel dwelled in the Holy Land, our marriage with G-d was expressed only on the level on which our “living together”created a bond between us. But with the “divorce” of galut, a deeper dimension of our marriage came to light. The pain that G-d experiences over our separation[15] expresses the inherent bond between us. The tears shed by the Altar confirm that the bond still exists even when the marital home has been destroyed and the unfaithful wife has been banished to the ends of the earth.

The Vanquishing Reply

This is why the Torah chooses to communicate the most basic laws of marriage by means of the verses that deal with divorce, thereby presenting to us two levels of meaning to these verses: explicitly, they spell out the laws of divorce; on a deeper, more implicit level, they define the nature of marriage. The Torah—speaking here in its “supernal reality” mode—is saying that what externally is a state of “divorce” is in essence the most profound expression of the marriage between G-d and His people.

This is also the deeper significance of the “vanquishing reply” offered by the community of Israel. Is it not the case that “if a woman is divorced by her husband, do they have any further claim on each other”? So why are we acting as if we’re still married to each other? Why is G-d still nudging us to repent? Why are we still struggling to come to terms with our relationship to Him? Indeed, our so-called “divorce” is the most powerful indicator of the depth and invincibility of the bond between us.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Av 20, 5719 (August 24, 1959)[16]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Talmud, Gittin 90a-b; see Rashi, s.v. im senuah.

[2]. See Talmud, Kiddushin 4b-5a, et al.

[3]. Nachmanides’ commentary on the opening verse of Genesis.

[4]. Assarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, part III, ch. 22.

[5]. Benevolence, Severity and Harmony; see The Inside Story (VHH, 1997), pp. 43-47.

[6]. Deuteronomy 4:35.

[7]. G-d could, of course, have created our physical world “directly,” rather than via these spiritual forces. But G-d wanted that the realities and experiences that comprise our world should be traceable to a spiritual “source,” thereby enabling us to relate to (some aspect) of His infinity (seeThe Evolution of Time, WIR, vol. IV, nos. 46-47).

[8]. On the other hand, the purpose of the entirety of creation, including the “supernal reality” that is its source, is that we “make a dwelling for G-d in the physical world” (Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, chs. 35-36). In this sense, it is the physical reality that is the primary focus of Torah (as per Nachmanides): the supernal reality may be the greater, purer and more original form of G-d’s creation, but it exists for the sake of the physical reality.

[9]. See The Intimate Estrangement, WIR, vol. IX, no. 42; Life in the Future, WIR, vol. VII, no. 34, and note 15 there.

[10]. Jeremiah 3:8.

[11]. Isaiah 50:1.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Psalms 126:1.

[14]. Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a.

[15]. Cf. Talmud, Berachot 3a: “Every day, three times a day … a Heavenly voice keens like a dove and cries: ‘Woe is to My children, that because of their sins I have destroyed My home, burned My Temple and exiled them amongst the nations….’”

[16]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IX, pp. 143-151.

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15 years ago

briliant!