By TOVA MIRVIS
I stood before the panel of rabbis, waiting to have a religious divorce conferred upon me. I was dressed as the Orthodox Jewish woman I was supposed to be, modestly, in a below-the-knee navy skirt and buttoned cardigan. But I felt exposed. What kind of shameful woman, I imagined the rabbis thinking, leaves her marriage; what kind of mother uproots her life?
It felt impossible that any of them could understand why, a month shy of my 40th birthday, after almost 17 years of marriage and three children, I had upended the foundations of my life. I was barely able to believe it myself.
The rabbis huddled together to examine the get — the divorce document. It was black ink hand-scribed on beige parchment, written on my husband’s behalf the week before, because no matter who initiates a divorce, religious law dictates that only the husband has the authority to send the wife from his house.
I had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, had lived my life as an Orthodox Jew. I was supposed to believe that, regardless of how I felt about this ceremony, I was required to follow its minute laws. I was supposed to believe that all the religious laws were just and true and binding upon me, that God lived inside the most seemingly insignificant details.
But even from a young age, I had wondered: Is this all true? In the women’s section of the synagogue I looked at the women in their hats and asked myself, did they believe in the laws with all their hearts, all their souls, as they were commanded to? Did they ever wonder, as I did, if too much thinking could unravel the world?
It was best not to speak of such things. Amid the vast number of religious rules, there were other ones, enforced not by God but by the community. I learned to swallow dissent. To observe the rules was to be good, and to be good was to be loved. It was what let you stay inside a community, surrounded by family so that, if the world’s spinning were halted for one moment, and a finger placed on one small spot, you could say: I belong here.
I stayed inside. I followed the rules. I got engaged at the age of 22, after a blind date and a dozen weeks of dating. I was a senior in college, he in law school. We were of the same world, and fell quickly, easily in love. Nowhere was there room to say, I don’t yet know myself, let alone you.
At our wedding, he sat in one room flanked by rabbis, I in another room, in a white wicker chair, in full bridal array. After the betrothal documents were signed, he was danced to me by the men, approaching underneath their tented, outstretched arms. Before lowering the tulle veil over my face, he checked, in the biblical tradition of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, to ensure that he had the right girl.
But there was no guarantee, as life moved forward, that we would remain the same as we were then.
Years later, the people who had shouted “mazel tov” at our wedding asked “What happened?” They wanted to hear the black and white explanation, not about the myriad shades of experience that move people apart. To get divorced was to shatter the wishful belief that to be Orthodox was to shield yourself from the discontent and disappointment that invaded marriages in the outside world. But it was hard, impossible really, to explain what went wrong, how in my marriage I eventually felt like the street performers I’d once seen, who fold themselves inside impossibly small boxes, contorting arms over legs, so that a body occupies such little space.
As I stood before the rabbis, the divorce document was deemed correct, and read aloud, in Aramaic, dated the year 5772 from the creation of the world, in the city of Boston, by the Ocean Atlantic. I, Tova Aliza, the daughter of Dovid Moshe, was released from the house of my husband, to have authority over myself.
As instructed, I cupped my hands. The room was silent. The elderly, white-bearded rabbi who had been appointed my husband’s emissary didn’t say a word. With a sharp deliberate movement, he dropped the folded paper into my hands. As the ritual required, I clasped the document with exaggerated motions, then turned and ceremoniously walked from the room.
At the sound of the door closing behind me, the divorce took effect. So did something new inside me. One separation made way for another. The divorce, I realized, was from more than my husband — it was also a break with a way of life with which I had long wrestled, in which I did not sufficiently believe.
When I was summoned back inside, I was apprised of my new status in Jewish law as a divorcée. I was told I couldn’t be alone in a room with my former husband. I couldn’t drive alone in a car with him between cities or live in the same apartment building. I couldn’t remarry for 90 days. I couldn’t marry a man of the ancient priestly caste.
I listened politely, but looked at the rabbis differently now, not as men who stood in authority over me, but as people I once knew. I had no illusions about the path before me: I was leaving a world in which so much is predetermined, leaving a marriage that I entered into when I was newly an adult. I was like an astronaut severed from his ship, floating in space. And yet, after years of wrestling, doubting, justifying and chafing, I was ready to discover for myself a life in which I could fully believe.
Before I left, the head of the rabbinical court looked me in the eye. I met his gaze, steeling myself for judgment and rebuke. Instead, he told me a story:
The temple altar, the Talmud says, weeps when a man divorces his wife. When a revered rabbi got divorced, his students came to him and asked: “How can this be? Does our tradition not teach that the altar weeps over a divorce?”
The rabbi looked at his students. “Better the altar should weep than should I.”
All these rigid rules, all these unyielding laws. Yet here, too, was the recognition of human pain, here, too, was acceptance of human experience. It was this wisdom from my tradition that I wanted to hold onto, even as I left so much behind.
“It’s a new beginning,” the rabbi told me, kindly. “Don’t look back. Go forth, become the person you need to be.”
I smiled, nodded. Before I left, as they did at the end of my wedding, as they did at the conclusion of divorce ceremonies hundreds of years ago, the rabbis wished me a mazel tov.
Tova Mirvis is the author of the forthcoming novel “Visible City.”