"When did you get married?," a lawyer asks a lesbian whose spouse has requested a divorce. "We married in 2008 at the first opportunity available to us." That date, however, does not begin to testify to the length of this couple's relationship, a relationship that began 17 years before they were able to marry civilly and that embodied, for all of those years, every aspect of marriage except for civil recognition. Their civil divorce may be complicated and costly, and may take a few years to settle yet, even when the decree of divorce is issued, it will represent the end of only a fraction of their years together as partners and co-parents.
How does one mark the end of a decades-long same-sex relationship? How does one honor the depth of a same-sex couple's life together prior to their relatively brief civil marriage?
According to a non-sexist and non-heterosexist reinterpretation of traditional Jewish law: From the time a two people become sexually intimate (biah), signs documents (shtar) and intertwines their lives together financially (kinyan), they are considered to be married in God's eyes, even if they will never stand beneath a marriage canopy, never break a glass beneath their feet, and are unable to obtain a marriage license for years to come. Many same-sex couples met all of those criteria long before civil marriage was available to them. Many called themselves "life-partners" and made promises of "forever" to one another long before any official pronounced them "married." Promises, alas, can be broken. One can lose a spouse to divorce. A funeral and a burial and other rituals of mourning mark the loss of a spouse to death. How does one mark the loss of a spouse to promises that can no longer be honored by one or both parties?
Jewish tradition permits divorce. But we say that God weeps when a couple parts. Of course, some divorces are necessary to save a life. But, otherwise, if two people once loved one another deeply, if they raised children together, if their relationship once radiated joy and held great hope for growth and healing, God is not alone in mourning the rending of their bond. Civil divorce is not enough to mark the severing of such a sacred covenant.
Jewish law permits one person to petition another for release from a vow she has made (hattarat nedarim), and permits a person to release another from the bonds of marriage (by giving a gett). Rites like these are performed before a gathering of three people, a religious court (bet din).
But what words might a same-sex couple use for such a rite of release?
I prepared this document for one woman to give to her partner. (Her partner would give a parallel document to her.) It combines words they themselves had used, for decades, to describe their relationship to one another, with words they spoke at the time of their civil marriage, along with words from traditional Jewish rites of release:
On the ____ day of the week, the ___ day of the month of ______ in the year 577_, since the creation of the world, according to the calculations of the Jewish people, in the city of_____________, by the ________River, with profound regret, deep sadness and a sense of incalculable loss, I, Mollie, daughter of Martha and Harold, seek release from my religious and spiritual bonds to you, Rose, daughter of Judith and Morris, who was "my lover," "my co-parent," "my one and only," "the love of my life," "my partner," "my Rose" and my civilly married spouse.
In recognition of irreconcilable differences between us, I ask to be released from my vows and promises to you to be "your one woman girl," "your Mollie," "to give you 50 years," "to grow old along with you," "to love only you," "to love and comfort you, to honor and keep you, in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity and, forsaking all others, be faithful to you as long as we both shall live."
And I, Mollie, for my part, release you, Rose, from your vows to me to give me "50 years," to "grow old along with" me, to be my "Rose," "forever," to "love and comfort" me, "to honor and keep" me, in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity and forsaking all others, be faithful to" me "as long as we both shall live."
Being under no duress, I sadly but willingly consent to divorce, release and set you free to live your own life and to love and marry whom you choose.
This shall be for you an annulment of vows, a bill of divorce, a letter of release, and a decree of absolution according to the traditions of the Jewish people and in the eyes of God.
As I, Mollie, ask you, Rose, for release from my vows to you, and as I release you from your vows to me, I also ask for your forgiveness for all the hurt I have caused you and I offer you my forgiveness for all the hurt you have caused me.
Knowing and loving you has enriched my life more than words can say. I will never forget all that you have given to me and all that you have meant to me.
As this earthly court grants us release from our bonds to one another, so may the Heavenly Court grant to the two of us release from our burdens of guilt and grief, and grant to our family relief from the conflict that has torn it apart.
It is my sincerest hope that this decree may set us free to embrace life anew.
Witness____________ Witness ____________