Response Paper: Messianic Jewish Divorce

divorceThis is the paper I just read at the Hashivenu Forum, a Messianic Jewish think tank. You can tell from my paper a lot about Dr. Vered Hillel’s paper on divorce. Dr. Hillel is the Provost of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute I believe her paper will be posted on I will let you know when I find out it is posted.


Response to Dr. Vered Hillel, “A Messianic Jewish View of Divorce.”

Presented at the Hashivenu Forum 2015.

By Derek Leman

In her paper, Vered Hillel presents a view of divorce that is based on justice for the injured party, sensitivity to the pain suffered by people in marital breakups, a strong belief in redemption for people who have broken a marriage covenant but want to remain married, and a belief in restoration and forgiveness. Her views are based largely on an exegesis and application of four crucial texts from the Bible, including an examination of the history of interpretation which has led to Jewish and Christian tradition about marriage and divorce.

The first of the four passages is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which protected women from an Ancient Near Eastern custom in which wives who had been put away were barred from remarrying and subject to recall at any time by the husbands who had sent them away. The second is Exodus 21:9-11, a case law in which a man who takes a slave wife must provide for her materially, emotionally, and sexually. The third is Matthew 19:3-12, a passage in which Yeshua engages in a debate with some Pharisees concerning the meaning of marriage and the theory of the school of Hillel that divorce may be for “Any Cause.” Finally, she considers some of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 about marriage and particularly his clarification that abandonment is a valid ground for divorce.

Dr. Hillel’s conclusions about divorce are worth listing as they provide specific and useful guidance for Messianic Jewish individuals and congregations. The following is my own summary which is not identical to her list, but which includes her major conclusions:

  • It is always a sin to break up a marriage by failing to keep covenant with a spouse.
  • A marriage covenant includes a fourfold promise not to abandon the marriage partner, to provide materially, to provide emotionally, and to be faithful in keeping the marriage partner as one’s only lover.
  • It is not a sin for a person to divorce a spouse who is breaking any of these four promises of marriage, provided they are unrepentant or unchanging in their faithlessness.
  • Divorce is not compulsory when a partner violates a marriage vow, but it is allowed.
  • An injured spouse has a responsibility to forgive a repentant spouse when this is possible rather than divorcing them — and to this I would add, when there is not a danger of physical harm from abuse.
  • An offending spouse has a responsibility to repent and attempt reconciliation, submitting themselves to their injured partner.
  • Remarriage is pure and holy for the injured party in a divorce that occurred for valid reasons.
  • Remarriage by the offending party is pure and holy if they make restitution with their ex-spouse first.
  • Remarriage is adultery in cases of invalid divorce.
  • A person who has remarried improperly should not get another divorce to rectify their sin, but should pursue reconciliation with the ex-spouse they have wronged.
  • Messianic Jewish clergy should require reconciliation attempts before performing a remarriage.

In reaching these conclusions, Dr. Hillel has engaged in an extensive examination of scripture, history of interpretation, the debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, Jewish and Christian traditions concerning divorce, and the work of David Instone-Brewer. In response to her excellent paper I want to clarify and expand her treatment of Matthew 19:3-9 in light of Instone-Brewer’s exegesis and then comment on issues of justice and forgiveness and how they may be applied in our Messianic Jewish synagogues.

Matthew 19:3-9 and David Instone-Brewer

It was not easy for me to follow in Dr. Hillel’s paper what underlying interpretation of Yeshua’s teaching she drew her conclusions from. Since she referred to the work of David Instone-Brewer, I consulted his Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and found a fuller explanation (pgs. 65-67, Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003). Matthew 19:3-9 is in some ways similar to texts of early rabbinic literature, in which an ancient discussion is reproduced in a very compact text. Short bits of text stand for full thoughts not completely expressed in the words but understood in the context of thought current at that time. The meaning needs to be unpacked with a sensitivity to the context of discussions about marriage and divorce in that day.

Thus, we should understand what the Pharisees were asking Yeshua and realize the issues was the “Any Cause” theory of divorce. As Instone-Brewer says, the way we punctuate the text really matters. The Greek text was passed down to us in scripto continua, no spaces between words and no punctuation. So the common translations render the Pharisees’ question in Matthew 19:3, “Is it lawful for divorce one’s wife for any cause?” How different that meaning is from Instone-Brewer’s rendering, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for ‘Any Cause’?”

The next step in the passage is to understand that Yeshua does not answer their question directly. He begins by schooling them on some preliminary errors behind their assumptions:

Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

In this initial statement, Instone-Brewer says Yeshua offered two correctives to thought about marriage at the time. First, monogamy was God’s intention despite the fact that polygamy had been allowed. Matthew even has Yeshua adding the word “two” to Genesis 2:24 so that it reads “the two shall become one flesh,” though the Hebrew text says “they shall become one flesh.” The number two further clarifies that monogamy is the intention.

Second, Yeshua is emphasizing that it is a sin to break up a marriage. He says, “Let not man separate,” meaning “man should not separate.” Dr. Hillel discussed this in her paper as being a third person imperative, noting that it is somewhat different in form from an absolute command. Yeshua did not say, “You shall not separate,” as in an apodictic law. The “Any Cause” divorce theory took a low view of the seriousness of separation whereas in Yeshua’s view sundering is a terrible thing. But sundering does happen and does not violate an absolute law.

In the next part of Instone-Brewer’s exegesis I found some of my own longtime understandings of this passage overturned. I found that I had not paid sufficient attention to the exact wording of the Pharisees’ next question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” What they were implying with their wording is that Deuteronomy 24:4 requires a man to send his wife away if he finds something fault in her. Yeshua does not share this belief that sending the wife away is compulsory and does not read Deuteronomy the way they are insinuating it should be interpreted.

Rather, his answer reveals a different presupposition, one that better fits the wording of Deuteronomy: that the man has a choice and is thus allowed to divorce her, but not required. Thus he says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Two key terms in Yeshua’s response are “allowed” and “hardness of heart.” The difference in halakhah between something permitted and something required is obvious and these Pharisees were guilty of reading their own ideas into Moses (eisegesis).

As far as “hardness of heart” is concerned, it might seem as if Yeshua means the person actively divorcing is hard of heart. This does not follow, Instone-Brewer says, because both the “you” and “your” in the sentence are plural. He paraphrases the sentence for clarity’s sake as follows: “Because of hardheartedness, which is found in some of you, Moses allowed some of you to divorce” (footnote 5, pg. 210). He interprets Yeshua’s intent here as indicating that people should only divorce a person who is hardhearted, meaning unrepentant or repeat offenders whose repentance is doubtful.

Finally, in Yeshua’s statement about remarriage being adultery in vs. 9, the context must govern his meaning. Yeshua is not saying that all remarriage is adultery, but that remarriage for invalid divorces is such. So when he says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery,” Yeshua is condemning the practice of “Any Cause” divorce. The Pharisees who disagree with Yeshua, and perhaps some of them were divorced, are thus condemned by his words.

Several of the key elements of Dr. Hillel’s view come from this interpretation of Matthew 19:3-9:

  • There are valid grounds for divorce.
  • People should not separate except where there is hardheartedness and violation of the marriage covenant.
  • People should not remarry unless a divorce was valid.
  • An injured party in a marriage should forgive a spouse unless they are hardhearted.
  • Divorce is not required in cases of infidelity but it is allowed.

Issues of Just Practice for Messianic Jewish Congregations

Dr. Hillel’s paper has as its result a number of ramifications for practice in Messianic Jewish congregations. Five specific needs occur to me as I apply the principles set forth by Dr. Hillel:

  • A prescribed process for the leadership of Messianic Jewish synagogues to issue a get (divorce document) on an egalitarian basis.
  • A sense of mipnei tikkun olam, which in this case means an understanding that Messianic Jewish practices of marriage, divorce, and remarriage reflect on our character to the world and the Jewish world, so that we should become known for a high standard of ethics and reconciliation.
  • This sense of mipnei tikkun olam cannot come about unless there is education in our synagogues about marriage and divorce as well as a generally agreed upon halakhah for Messianic synagogues.
  • A process in our synagogues for reconciliation for endangered marriages, for ex-partners, and especially in cases where remarriage is being considered.
  • A wide agreement between Messianic synagogue leaders not to practice invalid remarriages.

Regarding the procedures for issuing a get (divorce document), it seems widely recognized among us that a divorce may be initiated by either the male of female partner. Therefore, the issuing of a get must be egalitarian, which is a corollary to the understanding of Torah law as case law. The case in Deuteronomy 24 should not be limited to the male partner finding sexual indecency in the female partner. Furthermore, the halakhah for gittin must include attempted reconciliation where the offending partner is repentant. And in cases of violence, our halakhah must protect everyone in the family as a first priority rather than keeping the injured partner and/or children in harm’s way.

Regarding the task of improving our character as a movement, so that we repair the world by exhibiting a righteous view of marriage and divorce, we need a document which is publicly recognized as a statement of Messianic Jewish principles on this matter. The congregational organizations of Messianic Judaism and/or rabbinical councils need to be heard on this matter. As the UMJC and IAMCS are the two largest such organizations, it would be for tikkun olam if there was a joint statement. And as the MJRC is one of the most recognized rabbinical councils, it too must be heard.

There are two sorts of documents that are needed. The first is one in which the principles for marriage, the valid reasons for divorce, the procedures for reconciliation, and the requirements for remarriage are explained. The second is more technical, and includes halakhah for Beit Dins of our synagogues concerning the issuing of gittin, the performance of a remarriage, and principles of reconciliation that lie behind all rulings. The issue of violence and protection of the life of all family members must be central to all policies.

Finally, it would be a major step toward tikkun olam if a broad coalition of Messianic Jewish leaders, at least the UMJC and IAMCS, agreed not to perform invalid remarriages and had clear standards in this matter. If members of our synagogues knew they would have seek an officiant outside of Messianic Judaism in a case of invalid remarriage, it would have ann effect on our circles of society.

These proposals may seem overly serious to some in our age of individualism and ethical relativism. Yet it is Yeshua who spoke about these matters and it is the same Yeshua who puts the name “Messianic” in Messianic Judaism. I wish to thank Dr. Hillel for her work in preparing this paper and Hashivenu for bringing this vital topic into discussion.


  1. I think the article was well researched and insightful, but would like to read more about what you understand is the Biblical directive in cases of divorce that are not so clear-cut. What is your understanding of the validity of divorce, where there is no adultery occurring, but emotional, mental and sporadic physical abuse are present? I know many people (especially women) who report these symptoms, but stay in extremely unhealthy marriages simply because the husband has not committed adultery, and they believe the Bible forbids divorce. However, this can have long term negative consequences on the emotional, physical and mental state of the spouse and children. Thank you.

    1. Judi:

      I feel terrible that I did not convey in this article clearly enough for you to get what I was saying. I listed four reasons for a valid divorce: unfaithfulness, abandonment, material neglect (this includes physical abuse), and emotional neglect (this includes emotional abuse and even lack of love). My intention was to clearly say divorce is not limited to two valid reasons.

  2. I have a few comments.

    1. As I understand forgiveness, it means not seeking revenge, but this does not necessarily mean a divorce should not happen. That is, one can forgive a covenant vow breaking spouse but still divorce them. A believer is to always forgive and not seek revenge, but divorce is a separate matter. As an analogy, one can forgive someone for breaking a plate, but that does not mean not recognizing that the plate has been broken.

    2. You may want to consider the idea that the laws in the Torah of Moses depend on all the others. That is, a covenant is a unity, and there is the Sinai covenant and the plains of Moab covenant in Deu. The conclusion I reach is that violations of Torah that resulted in the possibility of death are also possible reasons for divorce if death is not a penalty that either is applied by judicial decision or can be applied because of other laws, such as Rome taking away the death penalty.

    3. I caution others who want to get into dirty details of why a marriage is broken in order to see if it meets their criteria. My thoughts on this are to teach my best understanding to all parties willing to listen, but at the end of the day, if one party or both thinks it is over, then it is over. Yes, a divorce represents a failure of some kind to keep a marriage covenant, but the lack of granting a divorce when it is over is also not righteousness, in other words, there is a dynamic tension and while one may not want to make it too easy to divorce, one also does not want to make it too hard.

  3. I appreciate Mr. Johnson’s comments especially #3, and I am also pleased to see how the MJ leadership is bravely engaging these very tough halakhic issues. They have import within the community of congregations and among individual lives. Further, they affect the general witness of MJ to the world.

  4. Perhaps this has been addressed elsewhere, but Matthew 18:15-17 outlines a method for calling a person to repentance, and Paul comments on it in 1 Cor 5:1-2. I’ve seen marriages between “believers” break up when one leaves the marriage so they can marry a new person, and no one from the congregation confronts them. Do UMJC or IAMCS have a policy concerning this? I believe it might prevent some divorces.

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