Monday, June 12, 2006

Divorce as Unveiling the Headstone

A Jewish friend is getting divorced. He and his wife are both content with what his happening. They are not happy, but the marriage died many years ago.

Their divorce is not killing the marriage. The divorce is not even the burial. Rather, for them it is like the Jewish custom of returning to the grave one year after the burial for the "unveiling of the headstone" -- a short ceremony that helps bring closure to the past year of mourning and grief.

In the first century, most divorces happened suddenly. If a wife was no longer pleasing to her husband, he would divorce her simply by delcaring them divorced. The Talmud mentions this declaration would be repeated three times, and could be about an issue as minor as bad cooking. Divorce rates at that time in the Roman Empire were incredibly high, and a divorced woman would often be finding herself in sudden financial trouble.

In Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9, Yeshua teaches two things about divorce.

First, he says that God need not recognize the legitimacy of people's divorces. Speaking in the context of hyperbole, he says that a divorce which a husband declares is merely words. Thus it may be that a husband is promoting his wife's adultery by telling her to find another man, and another man she marries is also causing her to be adulterous since God has not legitimized her divorce.

Second, he clarifies (moving from hyperbole to practical rules) that sometimes God does agree with divorces. The basic rule put forth here and in later scripture is that a victimized spouse of either gender can blamelessly do a divorce. Yeshua mentions the case of an unfaithful spouse. Paul mentions the case of a spouse who leaves. It would be sensible to generalize these explicit cases to other abusive behaviors.

In other words, if your spouse kills the marriage, you can officially end the marriage with a divorce. God is interested in two people becoming a healthy "one flesh". This does not mean he is a sadist who refuses to acknowledge that a killed marriage is dead.

Yeshua's strong words were appropriate in a culture where most divorces happened suddenly, in rash moments, and killed the marriage. That culture needed to hear hard words about how much God valued marriages, so that husbands would be hesitant to declare divorces and would put more effort into having a happy marriage.

Perhaps our culture is approaching that condition. But this was not the case in my friend's marriage. Neither he nor his wife claim the other is primarily to blame that their marriage died years ago. In ways that even retrospect does not illuminate, together they did not do what was needed to keep the marriage alive. They regret that it died. But they recognize that it is not healthy to pretend a dead thing is alive.

In a way, they are looking forward to the divorce. Like the "unveiling of the headstone" it will help establish a boundary. Now they are mouring for their marriage, as is appropriate. As they prepare to separate they are becoming increasingly aware of what they lost. But their mourning needs to transition to life. The past few weeks have emotionally been much like sitting shiva. The divorce, like the "unveiling of the headstone" ceremony, will be an official statement saying, "You will always have some of this grief and regret and mourning, but it is time to get back into life again full-swing."

Second marriages are not literally adulterous. No branch of Judaism or Christian denomination tries to break up re-marriages. Even Yeshua recognized valid re-marriages.

All marriages are valued by God. I have known couples who even recovered from infidelity with help and grace from the Holy Spirt.

But not all divorce is sad. Sometimes it is just putting the headstone on a past sad event. Then the people in the divorce need support as ex-mourners, not condemnation as marriage killers.

If you know this couple, or a similar one, please be supportive in deed and in prayer. We all know the practical matters that need care and blessing (how children are affected, future parent-child interactions, that spouses initially divorcing peacefully do not bitter over time, etc.).