Don’t Get a Get

August 22, 2008

Our anniversary is coming up soon, the anniversary of the day that (among other things) we signed our ketubah. Traditionally in Judaism, the ketubah is a marriage contract, not unlike the modern-day prenup, listing the material goods that the husband vows to provide the wife, and the settlement that will occur in case of divorce. Relative to other practices a couple thousand years ago, it was very progressive in terms of offering rights to women, but at the same time, there was an overtone of the bride as property, something to be acquired.

Because DH and I are not traditional people, our ketubah says nothing about contractual obligations. Instead, we made beautiful promises such as cherishing each other’s uniqueness; creating a home filled with reverence for learning, loving, and generosity; and my favorite, doing everything within our power to permit each of us to become the persons we are yet to be. Surrounding these heartfelt words is a vibrant painting. It is a joy to look at our ketubah on the wall every day. It reminds me to help my husband to become the person he is yet to be, and to strive to develop myself. It reminds me of how much we loved each other on that day, and how much more we love each other now.

Recently, I had a different experience with a ketubah. DH and I were in a marvelous European city, in a Jewish museum attached to one of the most remarkable synagogues in the world, and the tour guide was showing us different artifacts. When we got to the ketubah section, the guide told us about the nature of the Jewish marriage contract. It was all information that we’ve heard dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Then she said something that neither DH nor I had ever heard before.

Even though the ketubah theoretically offered the option for divorce, it was very difficult to obtain a get, or rabbinically-approved divorce. The husband always had the advantage; he was the one to initiate the divorce, and he was the one with the choices. Unlike today, you couldn’t get divorced just because you were unhappy. It would have to be a situation like infidelity. Or a couple who hadn’t had any children after being married for a really long time, like 10 or 15 years.

Her matter-of-fact little piece of information knocked the wind out of me. DH later told me that he had a similar reaction.

We have been married for over 10 years, and obviously we have no children. According to ancient law, our marriage is a failure.

There are so many ways in which I place no stake in Jewish law, but this one really got to me.

After my initial visceral reaction to our own situation, I thought of all of the infertile couples over the millenia (and some of the highly observant Jews today). The expectation to have kids, and lots of them, right after the wedding. The questions, and looks, and disapproval when the kids kept not materializing. The blame (probably directed at the wife, regardless of the actual cause). The endless trips to the mikvah after every failed cycle. The desperate prayers. Finally, the official decree that the failure to produce children meant that the marriage must end. Maybe the husband could have a chance to try again with a new wife. After 10 or 15 years, the original wife’s clock might have run out (even if the original IF cause had been male factor). After 10 or 15 years, with future children unlikely, who else would want her? Being a divorced woman meant something different in that world than it does here. It meant that it was all over.

Not that this situation was fair for the men. Imagine spending 10 or 15 years with a woman, loving her very much, but being forced by your family, your community, your society, to divorce her because together you had failed to produce children. The men were able to remarry, but it might not have been so easy to find a second wife when people questioned your ability to do your duty and give her children.

I was pissed. Pissed at the religion, pissed at the power structure, pissed at the close-mindedness, pissed at the judgment, pissed at what these poor people had to endure.

And I’ve been pissed for months, right up until writing this post. Now, suddenly, I am grateful.

As much as IF has been incredibly awful for me, I am so grateful to have so many choices. I could opt not to have children for years after my wedding, and it was acceptable. I could choose to devote my life to something other than raising a family, so that during the years of IF I had purpose (and, sometimes, distraction). I could choose from an array of medical technologies to raise our odds. I could choose to step away from those technologies when it all became too much. I could choose several other avenues to bring a child into the family, if it comes to that. Though I hope I never have to, I could even choose to step away forever, and live without children but with my marvelous husband who treats me as an equal and shoulders these burdens equally. I would get plenty of flack for some of these choices (and I already have, sometimes), but I still have the power to choose.

Whoever would have imagined that a thoughtless tour guide and someone else’s ketubah could make me feel good about my infertility?