The permissibility of divorce in Judaism and the laws that guide the process of divorce are rooted in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The passage details a case in which a man’s wife “does not find favor in his eyes, because he has found in her some unseemly thing,” and he thus writes for her a “deed of divorcement.” If she subsequently marries another man and then is widowed or divorced, the original husband may not remarry her. Rabbinic tradition derives from this passage that divorce is effected by means of a document and that document is given from the husband to the wife because divorce is a unilateral act of the husband who relinquishes his exclusive right to sexual contact with his wife.
The core statement of the divorce document, known as a get, is “Behold, you are now permitted to any man” (Mishnah Gittin 9:3). There are certain grounds on which a man should divorce his wife—notably, he is required to do so if she commits adultery against him (the “unseemly thing” of Deuteronomy) —but sources also discuss the rights of a husband to divorce his wife simply because “she spoils his soup” or “he finds another more attractive than her” (Mishnah Gittin 9:10).
Similarly, there are grounds on which a woman may petition for a divorce—for example, if the husband places excessive restrictions on her activities, or works in a particularly unpleasant profession, such as tanning, or suffers from skin disease (Mishnah Ketubot 7:1-5; 10)—but a court cannot issue a divorce without the husband’s explicit permission. Classical rabbinic literature suggested that the court may “force him until he says ‘I am willing’” (Mishnah Arakhin 5:6), but the trend over time in Jewish law has been to cast increasing suspicion on any hint that the divorce was issued under coercion, and to declare divorces invalid accordingly. In the modern period, this has led to the phenomenon of the agunah, the “chained woman,” who is unable to remarry under Jewish law—even after civil divorce—because her husband refuses to grant a get or uses the get to coerce money, custody, or a more favorable divorce settlement from her. In Orthodoxy in particular, Jewish courts have often been reluctant to apply significant pressure to the husband— some Orthodox rabbis have begun using various prenuptial agreements meant to protect the wife in such situations.
In Israel, where marriage and divorce for Jewish citizens are controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, religious courts have sometimes imprisoned recalcitrant husbands. The Conservative Movement also uses prenuptial agreements, and has further ruled that in extreme cases, the court may exercise the power of annulling marriages. The Reform and Recon-structionist Movements are not bound by traditional law, and therefore do not require the unilateral transmission of a get from the husband to the wife.
Divorce also appears in Jewish culture as part of a larger metaphor in which the relationship between God and the people of Israel is analogized to that of husband and wife. Starting with the Bible and throughout Jewish literature, authors contemplate the possibility that removal of Divine favor—as evidenced by oppression, national subjugation, and/or exile —is equivalent to God’s permanent divorce and banishment of His “wife,” Israel, and the abrogation of the covenant between them. In Isaiah’s prophecy (50:1), God asks of Israel, “Where is the deed of divorcement of your mother,” while in Jeremiah 3:8, God states that He has certainly “divorced” the Kingdom of Israel. In the exegetical work of late antiquity, Lamentations Rabbah (to Lamentations 1:1), the tension is unresolved: “It is like a king who became angry at his consort. He wrote her a divorce document, then stood and snatched it back from her.” When the wife (Israel) seeks to remarry (worship other gods), she is confronted with the verse from Isaiah and she is not released from her current husband. But when she seeks support (a miracle) from her husband (God), then Jeremiah is invoked—she is divorced and has no claim on him (Him).