In this series of posts, I am addressing questions from a reader who asked if it were possible to quantify the amount of sexual refusal needed to justify labeling it as a violation of the marital covenant and therefore a just reason for divorce.
My first post stated that I accept as a given that there are four valid reasons for divorce, and not just the one, adultery, as most Christians believe. My last post pointed out that (in OT times and up to the time of Christ) refusal was stated by Jewish leaders as a reason for divorce, and I presented the view that refusal is a deliberate violation of the marriage vow of fidelity to your spouse.
As well, I included a quote from the Talmud containing a rabbinic pronouncement on the frequency of sexual intimacy a husband owed to his wife as his duty and responsibility. As far back as the giving of the Ten Commandments, a wife’s rights included sexual intimacy, and according to Ex. 21:10-11, if her husband curtailed her conjugal rights, she could divorce him. (How ‘bout dat? Refusal condemned at Sinai!)
But Why Accept “Rabbinic Teaching”?
“After all, Jesus condemned the Pharisees, the lawyers, teachers and scribes, right? Not only that, He also set up a completely new religion, the Church, that is separate from Judaism, right?”
I can’t even begin to tell you how much I disagree with that statement. With our 21st-century lenses on and our thoroughly churched mindset, it is almost impossible for us to wrap our heads around the fact that Jesus was a devout Jew living and teaching in a Jewish land. As I said in the first post in this series,
Jesus was not a Baptist or Methodist; He was an observant Jew who went to Temple and synagogue, who recited the Shema twice a day and prayed the Amidah two or three times a day.
After all, it was Jesus the Jew who told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22, ESV) “Salvation is from the Jews!” Didn’t quite torch Judaism, is He?
In the famous divorce confrontation of Matt. 19, in which Pharisees tried to trap Jesus—misinterpretation of which has engendered a complete bolloxing of divorce by the Church—Jesus plumped down on one side of a debate that divided Pharisees in the first century and was as heated as the abortion debate is today. (For a summary of the debate, read my first Scarlet Letter post.)
So why should we, as Christians, consult rabbinic teaching for insight into what Christians should accept as valid in matters of divorce? Because Jesus, an observant Jew accepted them as valid. Yes, Jesus scorched the rules and regulations that had nothing to do with truly living in accordance with God’s Law, but He didn’t rescind many of the teachings of the OT or of the rulings of the rabbis. In fact, as we see in Matt. 19, He went so far as to specifically support one area of rabbinic teaching.
“Rabbi, How Much Refusal Is Refusal?”
The ancient Jewish rabbis and teachers shared the same concern today’s Christians: how to save a marriage rather than how to break it up. I understand that it a commonly-held belief that Jewish teachers were into nit-picky details in trying to interpret the Law and how to live as a Jew separate from the world. But in actuality, when it comes to marriage and divorce, the consensus was to try to save a marriage, not to come up with guidelines for how to get rid of your wife.
So when it came to sexual refusal,
The Rabbis were reluctant to allow a divorce on the ground of refusing conjugal activity and in such situations they tried to resolve the issue by talking to the offender, or by applying gradually increasing fines. Therefore if a woman continuously refused her husband, a Rabbinic court could fine her by reducing her ketubah (her marriage inheritance) a little each week, and if a man refused his wife then her ketubah could be increased a little each week.”
~ Divorce and Remarriage In The Church, David Instone-Brewer
(An aside: I have discussed the Ketubah before, in one of my earliest posts; it is the Jewish marriage contract which contains the husband’s promise to provide food, clothing and conjugal love (Ex. 21:10-11). It also specified the penalty a divorcing husband would have to pay his wife for breaking covenant with her.)
In speaking of fining either partner in the marriage over the matter of refusal, Instone-Brewer is referring to the rabbinic decision recorded in the Ketubbah Tractate of the Talmud; the significant portion, below, can be found at The Jewish Encyclopedia (I’ve broken it up into segments in order to insert comments):
The Rabbinic Fines:
In a case where the husband refused the wife her conjugal rights, the amount of the ketubah was increased by the court thirty-six grains of silver every week during the time of his default. If the wife spitefully refused her husband conjugal rights, the court sent her warning that if she persisted in her spitefulness she would lose her ketubah;
The Instone-Brewer quote, higher up, refers to the ketubah as the bride’s inheritance. It was not a bride-price paid to family, as the woman was not seen as property. Rather, it might be thought of as a pre-nup agreement or alimony, support that a husband agreed to pay IF he did divorce his wife. And the amount of the ketubah could be raised or lowered, depending on which party was the offending party.
The Rabbinic Warnings:
… and if she still remained obdurate, the fact was announced in the synagogue for four successive Sabbaths. Another warning was then administered, and if she still persisted, the husband was relieved from his duty to support her, and after twelve months he might divorce her.
If a husband or wife was accused of violating the marriage covenant by refusing the other’s conjugal rights, the rabbinic courts tried to move the offender back into the relationship. And it’s worth noting that, according to the Talmud, one month of refusal was enough for the court to say that a husband no longer owed his wife support, which was part of the marriage covenant. The Talmud indicates that just one month of sexual refusal was enough of a violation of the marriage covenant that it justified separation. And according to rabbinic decision,
The Rabbinic Decree
Here is the salient point: the rabbis, the religious leaders of Israel, believed that sex was a duty, a responsibility, a joy and a right in marriage. Because of this, the rabbis believed that sexual refusal was a special case, and decreed that one year of refusal was a valid reason to divorce. As you might suspect, there was a special term that was applied to a refusing spouse; a refusing husband was a mored, and a refusing wife was a moredet. The Hebrew word mored means rebellious.
From the Husbands and Wives article at Jewish Virtual Library:
Moredet (“rebellious” wife). The wife is similarly regarded as a moredet only when she persistently refuses to cohabit with her husband…. The moredet falls into two categories: firstly, that of a wife who refuses to cohabit with her husband because of anger or a quarrel or for other reasons offering no legal justification; secondly, that of a wife who refuses to cohabit with her husband because she cannot bring herself to have sexual relations with him and can satisfy the court that this is for genuine reasons, which impel her to seek a divorce – even with forfeiture of her ketubbah. In both cases the moredet immediately loses her right to maintenance….
After trying to work with a mored/moredet, after fines and warnings, if the refusing spouse could not/would not restore relations in the marriage, the rabbis decreed that the refused spouse was free to divorce, as the marital covenant was broken.
This was the accepted religious rulings and teachings that were in place by the time of Christ, and that He never addressed in order to correct it.
Next post: comparing our times with that of ancient Israel, and (it is to be hoped) some final comments on coming to grips with how much refusal is enough.