Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Allan Nadler
The history of extensive rabbinic legislation regarding these laws of divorce documents the introduction of significant protections of women from the abuse to which a literal application of this biblical system so clearly exposes them. To begin with, the rabbis required men to provide their wives with a marriage contract, known as a ketubah, in which they pledge to "sustain, respect, love, feed and protect (their wives)...." The ketubah, an Aramaic document that is handed to the bride under the chupah, or wedding canopy, additionally provides the woman with a substantial "pension" should her husband predecease or divorce her.
Another major challenge inheres in the fact that, according to the Bible, only a man can initiate divorce proceedings, as there is nothing in the Torah anticipating a woman divorcing her husband. Moreover, the treatment of divorce in Deuteronomy stipulates entirely subjective and exclusively male standards as constituting grounds for divorce. These problems were addressed through exacting rabbinical exegesis, which had the cumulative effect of narrowing the interpretation of "something unseemly" to sexual promiscuity or infidelity, and simultaneously widening the requirements for a valid "writ of separation" by creating elaborate scribal and juridical procedures governing the issuance of a legally binding divorce document, known in Hebrew as a get.
While rabbinic law was unable entirely to circumvent the biblical standard by which only the husband could initiate divorce proceedings, rabbinical courts since the early medieval period were provided with wide latitude to compel, even by physical coercion when all else failed, abusive or neglectful husbands to grant their wives a get. In the late 10th century, the leading rabbinical scholar of Franco-Germany, R. Gershom of Mainz, issued an ordinance against "throwing the divorce" at a woman against her will, which effectively required the wife's consent to accept the get in the presence of a rabbinical court. R. Gershom also issued a universal Jewish ban on polygamy that has remained in force ever since among all Ashkenazic Jews.
Judaism has, since biblical times, maintained a generally positive view of licit sexuality. Sexual relations within marriage are considered not only entirely natural, but obligatory and even holy. In striking contrast to the more ascetic classical Christian sexual ethos, rabbinical Judaism encouraged regular sexual relations, in particular on Shabbat. Unlike those who enter Christian priestly or monastic orders, Jewish clergy are not celibate; quite the contrary, both rabbis and cantors are expected to marry and have families like all other members of the Jewish community.