At the beginning of quarantine, one way to get a quick, cheap laugh was to predict a coming uptick in divorces. Couples spending an inordinate amount of time together, the jokester would say, might find their new situation intolerable.
For Rabbi Yitzchok Leizerowski and other rabbis who sit on batei din, or Jewish courts of law, across Philadelphia, the punchline to March’s joke had real-world implications for the way they carried about their most important duty: issuing gittin, the document required in a Jewish divorce that allows a woman to freely pursue a new relationship without running afoul of Jewish law.
Though the halacha remains the same, according to Leizerwoski and other rabbis, procedural changes to the adjudication of a case before the beit din has been a necessary condition of the pandemic.
“You have to go with the flow, as they say,” Leizerowski said.
Leizerowski is a rabbi at Congregation Bais Medrash Harav B’nai Jacob in Rhawnhurst and also serves on the Philadelphia Beit Din. In ordinary times, in addition to its function as an issuer of gittin, the beit din will hear cases relating to monetary disputes, serving as either a mediator or a final arbiter. Since the pandemic began, cases of the financial sort have been far less frequent. The issue of a get has been a bit more complicated.
For the first few months, according to Leizerowski, March’s joke wasn’t borne out by reality; there were hardly any cases relating to Jewish divorce.
“The opposite happened,” said Leizerowski, who added that he has issued around 6,000 gittin over the course of his career. “On the contrary, because of the crisis, people … did not come right away then for the get.”
The Philadelphia Beit Din never stopped hearing cases in person and, from the beginning, participants have been required to sit a greater distance than usual, masked and sanitized. One wrinkle: The get, handwritten by scribes like Leizerowski, must be handed from a husband to a wife, bare hand to bare hand. Even in normal times, a woman would be asked to remove her rings, so that the get would meet only palm. Gloves, then, are out of the question.
Such is the stringency of the “weightiest Jewish ceremony procedure that you can do,” Leizerowski said.
Rabbi Charles Kraus, who has sat on a Conservative beit din in Philadelphia for nearly 40 years, reported a similar slowdown in divorce cases heard by him and the other beit din members. With the offices of Congregation Beth Sholom closed to him and his fellow rabbis, Kraus said, they’ve been hearing cases outdoors. Taking the weather into consideration, certainly, is a new phenomenon for Kraus.
“It’s changed quite a bit,” Kraus said. “It’s much harder. It’s more complicated than it used to be.”
Philadelphia is not alone in such experiences.
Rabbi Shlomo Weissman is the director of the Beth Din of America, a New York-based beit din that hears cases from across the country. Locally, there has been a pronounced slowdown in commercial disputes, he said, along with venue changes that occasionally took his beit din to a New Jersey backyard (they’re back to socially distanced indoor hearings now). At the same time, an early dip in divorce cases has gradually subsided.
“My sense, just speaking anecdotally to colleagues across the country,” Weissman said, “is they’ve been engaged in similar practices.”