Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Keeper of the Scrolls – Get-hunter

December 31, 2013

Keeper of the Scrolls – Get-hunter

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings where the wizard Gandalf searches through ancient books, written in an ancient language, looking for details of the history of the men of Numenor. His painstaking research leads him to discover the fate of the Ring and how it could have reached our hero, Frodo Baggins.

Our children, blessed with Google and Wikipedia, probably cannot comprehend what physical book research is like. They don’t know what it’s like to go to the New York Public Library; to search through the card files; to order the books; to wait for the books and then to do your research and write your notes in the reading room interrupted only by the sound of hushed whispers. Today we find in seconds what once used to take hours.

I received a request from Israel today to track down a divorce proceeding (a get) from many years ago. Marriage records are simple. We have beautiful, large, leather-bound books where we’ve inscribed every single Uruguayan Jewish wedding conducted under our auspices since the 1950s. With a date and a name we can find the marriage record in a few minutes (we are slowly working on computerizing the records).

Divorce records, perhaps reflecting real life, are a messier business. I’m not bemoaning the pros or merits of divorce when warranted, but rather the sadness of the end of a relationship that couldn’t work out.

The ‘get’ records reflect the changing circumstances and solutions that each previous Chief Rabbi used for divorces. Some used divorce courts in Israel, others used American ones. Most of the records are in binders, many are in large plastic folders. There is no index or order. Some are loose sheets of paper in the binder; many are subdivided in plastic sheaves. A significant number were printed on thermal fax paper, now barely legible. The ones on real paper are yellowed and the really old ones are crumbling. Each Rabbi had a distinct and often hard to read Hebrew handwriting. I realized I was the only person in the building who still could read and understand these documents – the only one who would have a chance of finding the buried vital information. I felt like Gandalf trying to decipher the meaning of the scribbles on the faded, worn papers.

Then I realized something else – I was viewing a history of the community. Each divorce record was accompanied by either the original or a copy of the Ketuba – the elegant Aramaic marriage contract, many still in their original velvet-covered folders that were in popular use here, once upon a time. It was a memento of a celebration. A union of two people, of two families. A binding, a growth and a future for the community. There were names and families I recognized.

And then there were the messy divorce papers. The papers determining the proper Hebrew spelling of secular names. The papers assigning official “messengers” to facilitate the writing and delivery of the ‘get’. The confirmation by the Jewish court that the divorce was effected properly, and perhaps most symbolically heart-wrenching of all – the destroyed ‘get’.

The ‘get’ is custom-written by an expert scribe with the flowing letters similar to those used in Torah scrolls. After the ‘get’ has been written under the explicit orders of the husband, it is given to the husband to hand to the wife. The wife accepts the ‘get’, receives, holds and walks with the ‘get’ in a particular fashion to demonstrate full acceptance and ownership of the divorce document.

The Rabbi then takes the biblical-looking ‘get’ back and cuts into it with scissors in an obviously destructive manner. I held one of these violently assaulted papers and it represented to me the trauma of divorce. The couple that a second ago I witnessed their joyous union on paper, I was now witnessing the dissolution of their matrimony. I celebrated and mourned for the same people in the space of a heartbeat. I recognized names and families as well. I realized the impact it had not only on these individuals, their children, their families, but on the overall community.

Like Gandalf, I found the document, the information I was looking for. It solved a problem, it answered a question. And like him, I was also filled with dread at the hard tasks ahead that it signified.

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