The Jewish world is abuzz because of an article written by a woman who has spent three years trying – unsuccessfully – to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) from a cold and controlling husband. In response to that article, there was a rejoinder from the husband’s camp, rebutting several of the wife’s points. It doesn’t surprise me that there are two sides to such a complicated story but the fact remains that the husband is using his position of power in this situation to extort the wife. As we say in Yiddish, that’s not cool.
The Torah happens to grant men pretty unilateral status when it comes to divorce. In certain situations they can be compelled by beis din (the Jewish court) to give their wives a get but that’s pretty extreme and they still don’t always comply.
The fact that men have this power is not inherently wrong. Lots of people yield power of one kind or another. Parents have power over their children. Teachers have it over their students. Bosses have it over employees. Rabbis have it. Politicians have it. Police and doctors have it. And, in this particular circumstance, husbands have it. Having power is not evil. Abusing it is.
Power is a trust. It’s given to people not to enrich themselves or for self-aggrandizement, but to protect others. Doctors should use their power to heal. Rabbis should use their power to teach and to counsel. Husbands should use their power to keep their wives and families safe; they should never be the ones from whom their families must seek shelter. When that becomes the case, they have failed as husbands, as fathers, and as human beings.
“But,” I hear you say, “withholding a get is his only leverage! You can’t expect him to give away his one bargaining chip!” Sure, I can.
Let’s say you have an item that I wish to purchase but you don’t want to sell it. There are many approaches I could take. I could say, “Sell it to me or I’ll beat you up.” I could say, “Sell it to me if you ever want to see your dog again.” I could say, “Sell it to me or I’ll trash your business online.” There are a thousand more scenarios. The fact that I can coerce you into selling me the object doesn’t make beating you up, kidnapping your dog or trashing your business a “bargaining chip.” It’s extortion, plain and simple.
Sadly, misusing power does not strip someone of it. Let’s say I’m a big, strong guy. My responsibility should be to protect those smaller and weaker than myself. If I misuse my physical might and use it to intimidate those I should be protecting, that makes me a jerk but I still have my physical strength. Similarly here, the recalcitrant husband is the source of the problem but his abuse of power does not magically turn that power off.
So how should one behave if he ever finds himself (G-d forbid) in such a situation? The Torah tells us “kedoshim tihiyu” – “you shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2). What’s a case of someone acting in a holy fashion? One good example would be Rav Yossi HaGlili, the great sage of the Talmud. Rav Yossi financially supported his ex-wife and her new husband. That’s pretty holy. But that may be above most of our levels at this point. How about we settle for just acting like decent human beings?
Would you break someone’s nose if they beat you to a seat on the train? Would you smash a car window if the driver parked funny? Would you trample a child who was blocking your way on the sidewalk? (Mr. Hyde did that last one.) If you say, “Of course not! What kind of person would that make me?” then why would you ever ruin a woman’s life out of spite? What kind of person does that make you? (Hint: not a very good one!)
The Mishna tells us, “in a place where there is no man, strive to be a man” (Avos 2:6). Sadly, not every marriage turns out to be a fairy-tale romance. In the unfortunate event that one ever finds himself in a crumbling union, he should take that one last opportunity to be a man. He should be the defender he signed on to be. The first step to being holy is being a mentsch. If one takes that step – difficult though it may be – he not only frees his wife in the marital sense, he’s well on the way to freeing himself in a spiritual sense.