Response to Dr. Vered Hillel’s Paper: Rabbi Rich Nichol

By Rabbi Rich Nichol

Dr. Vered Hillel is one of my heroes. Rarely have I encountered a person with the demonstrated erudition, work ethic, heart for people, humility, passion for building the Kingdom of God, and sechel that I experience as we work together together at MJTI. So, it is a great joy for me to respond to her worthy paper on the sensitive subject of divorce in Messianic Jewish context.

As I read about the developing interpretive traditions extant in the ancient Jewish world, I learned a great deal.  I didn’t know that the Qumran community actually allowed divorce. It was a surprise to learn that in the Elephantine community in Egypt, both men and women could initiate divorce. No “get” was necessary. Either party could simply say they “hated” their spouse and the matter was done. I didn’t know that Hillel’s “any matter” divorce was based on the remez interpretation of davar (thing) in the Deuteronomy 24 passage.

It was fascinating to learn that Shammai allowed the get to be written at any time, whereas Hillel required that it be written only immediately before it was served to the displeasing wife. I imagined the insecurity many Jewish women must have felt, waiting for the ax to fall as Hillel’s approach became the norm. An angry husband whips out his quill and that afternoon serves his wife with papers and her whole world falls apart.

Beyond these revelations, I agree with the general thrust of Dr. Vered’s conclusions regarding both the tragedy and occasional necessity of ending a marriage among our Messianic Jewish community.  Below, I suggest three areas where Dr. Vered’s fine paper can be improved – one exegetical, one hermeneutical and one practical or pastoral.

The Exegetical Challenge

I fail to see how the texts under discussion always justified the conclusions reached. Mark 10:10:

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Yeshua about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’

Yeshua, when instructing his followers, did so, not as a halakhist or a posek, but as the One who called Israel back to God’s higher purposes. However, I am still left with the nagging feeling that Yeshua might not have been as rigorous and black-and-white in his teaching on divorce as the text suggests.

Perhaps Yeshua is speaking of theoretical ideals for Israel. Perhaps Dr. Vered is right that Yeshua “refocuses the debate away from Deuteronomy 24:1-3, to creation and to the dawning of an eschatological era that would restore Edenic conditions.” However, there is nothing in the text which suggest an eschatological overlay. I am reminded of the dispensationalist thinkers who, when reflecting on the rigors of the Sermon on the Mount, relegate the hard teachings to the future millennium. Dodging seemingly impracticable teachings can be a tempting strategy.

Yeshua sometimes made radical, unequivocal comments about cutting ones hand off to avoid the pains of Gehenna, and hating one’s parents as a precondition to discipleship. We sense an element of hyperbole in such comments. But, locating his hard teaching on divorce in Mark 10 into the Edenic past or future may not do the Master justice. That’s just half the problem. As leaders among our Messianic Jewish congregations we encounter many divorcees. I estimate that one-quarter of adults in our synagogue have experienced the trauma of divorce. At least two divorces have occurred this past year among our New England congregations. Such are the sad realities of modern life. But we are uncomfortable with Messiah’s severe judgment which would seem to place all these otherwise decent folks in the category of “adulterers.”

Again, Dr. Vered makes the point about Messiah’s intentions:

His teachings do not abolish the Torah and Prophets, but rather interprets them in light of the ideal established at creation, before sin, and the expected return in the eschaton. He reorders the priorities emphasizing the weightier measures that inform the foundational principles for this new community.”

We feel the destabilizing undertow of Messiah’s lofty expectations for his community. And we are left with the question, “how can this possibly work out in real life?” The answer just may be, “It can’t.” But, what else is new? Our inspired sources are filled with exhortations to the impossible. Try “love your neighbor as yourself.

The Hermeneutical Challenge

At various points Dr. Vered used terms such as “biblically-valid divorce” or similar phraseology. I wonder if this hermeneutical grid is really the best for guiding Messianic Jews as we consider the issue of divorce. Essentially, this is a Protestant conceptual framework. The advantage to an approach which makes its first question, “Is it biblical?” is that the primary source of revelation, the Bible, is taken with the utmost seriousness. However, the approach has its challenges.

The approach assumes an absolute coherence among the varied texts. The one God speaks with one voice in Scripture. But, in considering the passages discussed in Dr. Vered’s paper, the many differences among them become obvious. Did Yeshua allow for pornea as grounds for divorce or not?  Matthew and Mark differ here. What about abandonment as grounds for divorce as taught by Sha’ul? Scripture seems not to be uni-vocal on this or many other subjects. Perhaps “symphonic” would be a better metaphor, allowing for real dissonance as part of an ultimately coherent whole. Viewing biblical texts on divorce this way could help us stay  off the exegetical “bed of Procrustes” where rough parts are cut off and cast into the eschaton.

Thinking primarily in terms of a “biblically-valid divorce” can subtly limit the possibilities for Messianic Jewish leaders as we endeavor to make communal policy in a complex world. There is an important nuance here. We heartily applaud Dr. Vered’s painstaking efforts to open the meanings of several important texts for us. Our faith commitments as Messianic Jews require us to begin with Scripture. But, seeking to tie it all together by assuming a tight, coherent package of “biblical teaching” may not suit us best, especially in determining the particulars in our approach to divorce among our congregants.

Dr. Vered’s conclusions suggest this tension:

“12. The principles laid out above apply equally to both men and women.”

If anything, the biblical picture reflects something other than equality for both men and women. The biblical world was a man’s world. Thus, I am not sure biblical exegesis and comparing Scripture with Scripture will lead to the desired conclusion.

The Communal Challenge

In reading Dr. Vered’s catalogue of the concerns and interests of the First Century Jewish community regarding divorce, I came away with an overarching sense of how very different that world was from our own! In reality, our synagogue leaders have nothing more than moral suasion to promote godly life patterns among our congregants. Pre-modern rabbis called the shots for the community. This is not the case today. So, to speak of a “biblically valid divorce as permissible” and “remarriage after an invalid divorce is adultery” (point 9 of Dr. Vered’s summary) seems unrealistic at best. Who has the authority to “permit” these days? Clearly, Messianic Jewish leaders must not acquiesce to the moral free-for-all characteristic of Western culture.  But, our determinations must factor in such current realities lest Messianic Judaism, already hampered by our radical perspectives, finds itself utterly marginalized and irrelevant.  Again, we don’t challenge Dr. Vered’s synthesis and summary of ancient texts, just the extent of their applicability in a modern Messianic Jewish context.

With divorce at roughly 50% levels in the United States (30% in Israel) a significant number of our congregants, including rabbis and lay leaders, have experienced divorce. Clearly, the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC), should it take up the issue, would rely on the reflections of Church and Synagogue. But, the “on the ground” realities we face in an increasingly secular and distracted world will require deep thought on our part as to how to guide our congregants ethically and peacefully.

For example, at times, divorce which cannot be justified in terms of biblical or traditional teaching, can have very positive effects on the lives of people. The fighting in the house is over. Kids don’t have to cry themselves to sleep listening to the arguments downstairs anymore. Once apart, Mom and Dad can finally begin getting along. This is not a hypothetical example, but a living reality for a recently-divorced couple in our synagogue. The issue is just so complex. Here is another real-life situation from a Messianic Jewish synagogue: an emotionally toxic wife, a hard-working husband who just can’t take it any more, grown kids who are out of the house, no adultery on either  side. What about the husband divorcing and what about a remarriage? Who is prepared to cast the first stone? But, if “being biblical” settles the issue, Mark 10 and Matthew 19 seem to speak with stern finality.

Conclusion

Dr. Vered has provided a very worthy treatment of the subject of divorce from a historical perspective. Her insights into Tanakh and Besorah passages are enlightening. She mediates the compassion of God for the many people who once walked the aisle, filled with hope for a rich married life, only to have the dreams crushed in the divorce court. I wish that she had more opportunity to deal with the actual “on the ground” realities we Messianic Jewish leaders encounter. Let the discussion begin!

 
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