Divorce: Scartlet Letter or Valid Option?, pt. 3


In my two previous posts, I have presented information about the Hillel-Shammai divorce debate in Palestine, at the time of Christ. Both Hillel and Shammai were so venerated in their time that they had followers and disciples who came to them for teaching and instruction. The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were both physical (disciples) and ideological (interpretations of Torah). That these two men lived and debated at the same time in history had the result of reshaping Judaism.

For our contemporary world, and for the Church, their teachings have had and still has impact on marriage.

Why Is Hillel-Shammai Debate So Important?

In the first post, I did a summation of the Hillel-Shammai debate, showing that Rabbi Hillel introduced the idea that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. This teaching, within two-three generations, became the accepted belief and practice of Judah and revolutionized how marriage was treated in Judah by the time of Christ, and in Judaism for the next 2ooo years.

Prior to Hillel, there were four (count ‘em, FOUR) accepted, valid reasons for divorce: sexual immorality (Deut. 24:1), and failure to provide food, clothing or conjugal rights (Ex. 21:10-11). These four reasons couldn’t just be claimed and acted upon; to initiate divorce proceedings, you had to go to court (well, their version of court. It was a public accusation.) And note, under this application of Israel’s divorce laws, a woman could initiate divorce; it wasn’t the sole province of men, as it is now in orthodox Judaism. Rather, divorce could only be initiated by the injured spouse against the spouse that had broken faith with the marriage vow.

So what did Rabbi Hillel do that completely changed the Jewish approach to marriage and divorce? He applied Talmudic Reasoning.

Talmudic Reasoning? What’s That?

I found an excellent description of Talmudic reasoning:

In the Talmudic method of text study, the starting point is the principle that any text that is deemed worthy of serious study must be assumed to have been written with such care and precision that every term,expression, generalization or exception is significant not so much for what it states as for what it implies. The contents of ideas as well as the diction and phraseology in which they are clothed are to enter into the reasoning.
[my emphasis]

Please take note of the text in bold; that is crucial, as it epitomizes what happened to Judaism, and was the type of thinking that Jesus condemned when he accused the Pharisees of nullifying the word of God.

“…for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
(Matt. 15:6, Mk. 7:13)

In this post, I mentioned prayer shawls and tzitzit, the fringes at the corners of prayer shawls. According to conservative and orthodox Jewish tradition, prayer shawls can only be worn during daylight hours, not at night. Why? Because of Talmudic Reasoning.

The command for tzitzit is found in Num. 15:37-39

The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD….

A simple command, but where is the prohibition against wearing tzitzit at night? It’s in the phrase “… a tassel for you to look at….” Remember, this is in a time before electricity, right? Rabbis studied this text and concluded that a man had to be able to see the tassels, and he couldn’t do this at night, in the dark; ergo tzitzit were not to be worn at night.

Jesus’ frustration with this method of approaching Scripture and life boiled over at the end of His ministry, with His seven-fold Woes in Matt. 23, where He accuses them of, among other things, straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

Hillel: “Marriage, meet Talmudic Reasoning”

As I wrote in my last post, Rabbi Hillel looked at Deut 24:1 and decided that, through Talmudic Reasoning, he saw that men could divorce their wives for “Any Cause”. Here is that verse; you tell me where it says “Any Cause”:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, (ESV)

Do you see it? Believe it or not, it’s there according to Hillel. Here is the operative clause, according to him:

found      some      indecency

Just as this phrase is three words long in the ESV, there are three words in the Hebrew that comprise this phrase: makah dabar ervah.

Makah – found/find.
Dabar – thing/matter.
Ervah – indecency.

Inkstone-Brewer says that a more literal translation of this phrase is

… found a cause of sexual immorality ….

“What’s the problem?”, you may ask. “How does this description of divorce for sexual immorality morph into ‘Any Cause’? After all, this is specifically about sexual immorality!”

“Not so fast,” Hillel said. “Look at that phrase, again – makah dabar ervah. Why didn’t Moses just write ‘makah ervah’? “If a man finds indecency”? Why did he write makah DABAR ervah, “finds A MATTER of indecency”?

And it’s that one word, dabar, that became the basis for “Any Cause.” “That word must be there for a reason!”, Hillel proclaimed, and proceeded to say that its presence implied that this passage was saying that, “yes, sexual immorality IS a legitimate reason to divorce. BUT the fact that the word DABAR is included means that there are other reasons, other causes, for which a man may divorce his wife.” (Remember, Talmudic Reasoning looks for implied meaning, in addition to explicit meaning.)

And, according to Rabbi Hillel, these causes for divorce fall into two categories: sexual immorality (ervah) and non-sexual reasons (dabar). And, yes, since Deut. 24 says “if the wife has found no favor” in her husband’s eyes, then no matter what his complaint against his wife might be, it is a valid reason to divorce.

Jesus’ Response

I’m reading from the LIV** here:

And the Lord said unto them, “Are you out of your rock-pickin’ mind? The only reason that Moses wrote about in Deut. 24 is sexual immorality. Sheesh!”
(**Librarian’s Improvised Version – a spunky translation with a limited readership. Limited appeal, too.)

Okay, so maybe the LIV won’t be a big seller, but I’m pretty sure that I’m nearer to the actual tense(ness) than many a more accepted text. Jesus not only “picked a side,” He explained what God intended when He created man and woman and marriage. And then, when they tried to spring their trap (remember, this had all been to ‘test’ Jesus, to catch Him in a trap), He took them back to the original text of Deut. 24:1, absent any and all Talmudic teaching and tradition:

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

And He reiterated the original, plain teaching of scripture, that Deuteronomy only gave one cause for divorce. On top of that, He disarmed their trap, the “command to divorce”, but moves the discussion to hard-heartedness.

Which I want to discuss in my next post.



Filed under Marriage & Sexuality

9 responses to “Divorce: Scartlet Letter or Valid Option?, pt. 3

  1. Phil

    CSL, as you’re really stirring things up here I’d love to learn about your thoughts on what actually constitutes “sexual immorality” in the context of divorce?

    One thing that also jumps out at me in what Jesus said…….
    ” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
    ……. Is that the emphasis appears to be that divorce is okay for any reason as long as you don’t then re-marry and you are only allowed to re-marry if you suffered sexual immorality in the previous marriage!

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1- My next post deals with “hardness of heart.” That was His response to the ‘trap’ they tried to spring.

      2-I’m not sure what you mean by immorality in relation to divorce. Could you be more specific?


    • Hi, Phil,

      I wanted to address your last point, which was that ‘Any Cause” divorce is okay, as long as you don’t get married. I see you are exercizing your Talmudic Reasoning gift.

      However, given that Jesus is addressing a specific OT Law (Deut. 24:1), and that there is no “Any Cause” clause in Deut. 24:1, you have to find justification for it somewhere else. The LIV version clearly shows that there is no “Any Cause” clause.🙂

      As well, you are handicapped by Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7:10-11. I will provide the caveat that those words are only applicable in cases in which there is no breaking of the covenantal vows. As I said, my next post will have more on hard-heartedness and the breaking of marriage vows.

      Stay tuned.


  2. The case of adultery (and even suspected adultery) was actually dealt with by Moses’ law with death, not divorce. So, there must be something more going on here. If the jealous husband brought his wife to the temple to go through the test, and she passed, I don’t believe he was allowed to divorce her or test here ever again thereafter.

    By the time Jesus came on the scene, the Jews were not autonomous and had no authority to execute anyone. Divorce was the only legal recourse they had for dealing with an adulterous wife.

    I wonder if Moses saw a husband’s right to divorce in the same light as the woman who was allowed to go out for no money. Clearly they are similar, but they aren’t described in identical terms, and the issue of remarriage doesn’t come up in that passage, IIRC.


    • I /should/ have looked it up /before/ that last comment… The law about the jealous husband is in Numbers 5. I read over it quickly and didn’t see any mention of restrictions on the husband, whether she passed the test or not.


      • Yeah, I understand what you are saying, and yes, in Num. 5, the penalty for adultery was stoning. And yet, David wasn’t. From what I’m reading, ancient writers say that divorce was the norm, not stoning. And then you have Jesus, in Matt. 19, not saying stone someone for sexual immorality (porneia), but saying that divorce is acceptable in that case. Well, twice, if you count the woman taken in adultery, in John 8.


      • Actually, I wasn’t focussing on adulterers deserving death. What I meant to point out is that, when Moses gave the law for divorce, adultery was not the focus. Listening to Christians’ opinions on divorce over the years, I had learned that God gave divorce specifically for dealing with the adulterous spouse — *and*nothing*else* ! Divorce was a kind of nuclear option for that one-of-a-kind, most heinous of all possible sins: adultery. Anything else was just a problem, or indicated that the husband had been a poor leader… etc..

        But, if Moses gives laws saying adultery is worthy of death, what kind of sins/problems is he trying to deal with in the law of divorce? If he is trying to tell us that there is a better/other way of dealing with adultery, why not say it outright? I think the exercise of mercy and patience of God was as clear and obvious to the OT saints as it is to us… ever since He made a way for Adam and Eve, and didn’t execute Cain. It’s all over the scriptures. I think this could be why, having lost their authority and autonomy, Jews decided that divorce was an acceptable response and could be applied in a case of adultery.

        The question remains, though… If Moses had already dealt with the lawful consequences of adultery, then what was the original intent of divorce? What was the specific sin/problem for which divorce was the lawful consequence? I think we can deduce that the sin was not worthy of death, because God didn’t proscribe execution. It follows then, that when Jesus mentions “divorce, except in the case of adultery,” He is describing the “usual” divorce situation, plus accounting for the added improvised use of divorce for adultery. Jesus taught that remarriage after divorce for adultery doesn’t introduce adultery. I think this is because this is the only case where adultery was already present, and not because it was specially sanctioned.

        I think Jesus was simply describing the outcome of divorce and remarriage… which He obviously knew about when He gave laws explicitly allowing divorce and subsequent remarriage. No wonder the disciples were astonished and asked why Moses gave those laws in the first place.


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