A marriage under a Chupah involves the acceptance of all the conditions and requirements of Jewish Law and it follows that such a marriage cannot be dissolved other than in accordance with the requirements of Jewish Law. Accordingly, a Civil Divorce does not affect the status of a religious marriage.
However, there is a biblical law which allows for the possibility that a marriage may be dissolved, in the event of the unfortunate breakdown of that marriage (Deut XXIV.1).
The Hebrew term for a divorce is a Get and is given by the husband to the wife.
Although the wife does not have the power to divorce her husband, she may, if she has good reason, apply to the Beth Din and the husband may be ordered to concede.
The proceedings for a Get must be supervised by a Beth Din, i.e. a religious court comprising three Rabbis, a Sofer (scribe) and two witnesses.
The husband and wife usually attend a short hearing where they answer a few questions and the Get is written. In some circumstances, a messenger or proxy can appear in their place.
A woman who cannot obtain a Get is “chained” to her husband and cannot remarry under a Chupah and is thus known as an Aguna.
In this circumstance, any children of a subsequent union are decreed to be ‘Mamzerim’ (illegitimate in Jewish Law) and there may be insurmountable problems when these children wish to marry.
Following the Chief Rabbi’s Review on Women in the Community, there was much publicity about the plight of the Aguna and over the years this very tragic problem has been addressed by Rabbis, Dayanim (religious judges) and civil judges.
In effect, a Get can only be obtained where the husband is willing to give one and although in Israel recalcitrant husbands have been sanctioned by the Courts for withholding a Get, this option is not generally available in the Diaspora.
There are some communities where religious sanctions are imposed on the husband, by for example, refusing to call up such a person for Aliyah.
It may be possible to prevent the problem of Aguna from occurring if a pre-nuptial agreement (PNA) is signed by the young couple before the wedding takes place. Advice about a PNA may be sought, in the first instance, from the Rabbi.
Although in the past, some Rabbonim have felt unwilling to discuss the issue of divorce with engaged couples, in view of the reality of a high divorce rate, it would make sense and possibly prevent future unhappiness, if all couples getting married were to enter into a PNA.
Following the receipt of a Get, the woman should contact the Synagogue office to confirm her membership status arrangements.