Rabbis that sold their torture services were busted by federal authorities in New Jersey this week. The Orthodox Jewish rabbis were hired by wives who wished to obtain a divorce, which, in the Orthodox Jewish culture, you cannot do without the consent of the husband to obtain a "get."
|Divorce certificate from 71 CE Masada: |
"... You are free to become the wife of
any Jewish man you may wish"
Turning to Rome (as I am wont to do), divorce was not always an option, it seems. Among others, Aulus Gellius notes that there was no divorce in the early Republic, prior to Carvilius Ruga divorcing his wife for being barren circa 233 BCE. From there, it seems to have caught on. Divorce came in two basic flavors: divortium (bilateral divorce) and repudium (unilateral divorce). Divorce within Roman cultures was something widely accepted and within the power of both husband and wife. Even pacts taken beforehand so as to bar a future divorce were seen as invalid (CJ 8.38.2, 3). There is little evidence for widespread domestic violence against women at this time (Treggiari 1991, 430). Moreover, as Treggiari has argued, divorce seems less widespread in Roman society than previously thought.
As many pivotal scholars such as Treggiari, Nathan, and Cooper have pointed to, attitudes toward divorce shifted in the Roman Mediterranean only as Christianity became the predominant religion. As Cooper puts it, "The promotion of the conjugal bond was yet another means by which Christian teaching sought to undermine the Roman emphasis on consanguinity" (Cooper 2007, 160). A pivotal argument here is that the strength of the family and the conjugal bond provided consistency and strength during a period of turmoil.
|Follis of Fausta, notably the 2nd wife of Constantine.|
At that time the methods for obtaining a divorce fell predominantly under the umbrella of the Church of England and were generally quite unfavorable for the women involved. Norton fought hard and her efforts eventually led to the Custody of Infants Act 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women's Property Act 1870. Although she later claimed women were not the equals of men, she did a heck of a lot to give women more power both in terms of their children and their marriages.
I guess what I have to say is this: historically, when you don't grant women the power to obtain a divorce--particularly to escape life threatening and abusive relationships--and in fact make them beholden to men in order to achieve one, actions are often taken that at first appear out of the ordinary and absurd. I am not claiming that these orthodox women were justified in hiring rabbis to torture their husbands for money, far from it. I am rather saying that it should never even have to come to this. It is one thing to say that divorce is forbidden, it is quite another to say that only a man can grant one.
Further Reading and Resources
Kate Cooper, The Fall of the Roman Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
D. Instone-Brewer, Database of Marriage and Divorce Papyri (2000). [4th c. BCE-4th c. CE]
Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage. Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).