June 22, 2024
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Jewish Soldiers and the War Divorce

Soldiers go out to war and do not know if they will return. If the worst happens and they do not return, their wives cannot remarry without proof of death. To avoid the possibility of widespread agunah problems, for centuries if not longer, Jewish soldiers have divorced their wives before leaving. The exact nature of this divorce is a matter of debate but we know this was done through World War II. This is particularly helpful when a soldier is known to have been killed in battle but there is insufficient proof of his death to allow his wife to remarry. It frees women who are ready to move on with their lives but are stuck in a dead marriage. Today, these divorces are not done. We will briefly discuss here the different options available and when and why they ceased being used.

 

I. Soldiers Divorcing Their Wives

The Gemara (Shabbat 26a, Ketubot 9b) says that the soldiers in King David’s army would divorce their wives before going out to war. Rashi (Ketubot 9a s.v. get) says that the divorce is conditional on the husband dying in war. If he dies, his wife is retroactively divorced and therefore, if they have no children, she is not subject to yibum or chalitzah, having to marry her deceased’s husband’s brother or formally separate from him. Otherwise, if the deceased’s brother is uncooperative or living in another part of the world, the widow is stuck in permanent singlehood. Because this simple reading of Rashi’s approach solves very few problems for soldiers, Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. kol) suggest that Rashi meant that every soldier divorces his wife on condition that he does not return from war. Therefore, if a soldier does not return, his wife does not need proof of death in order to remarry. Tosafos also quotes Rabbeinu Tam who says that the soldiers divorce their wives with no condition at all and remarry them when and if they return from war.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin (20th cen., Israel; Le-Or Ha-Halachah, part 1 ch. 8) quotes a number of responsa from the late 19th century and early 20th century that discuss these types of divorces as done by actual soldiers. For example, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 19th cen., Russia; Responsa Meishiv Davar 4:51) discusses the case of a kohen who was sent out to fight in a Russian war. With the guidance of his city rabbi, he gave his wife a divorce in 1879 on condition that he returns to the city within two years. The war ended but he was sent by the army straight to Moscow for administrative duties and was not allowed to return home. Because he was a kohen, if the divorce took effect, he would not be able to remarry his wife. Netziv reluctantly concludes that the wife can forgive the condition of his return and then the divorce is nullified because it is as if the husband returned.

 

II. World War II Changes

Rav Zevin (ibid.) describes how Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, was concerned during World War II that soldiers from Israel in the British army might appoint a specific scribe or specific witnesses to give a divorce in the future who might not be alive at the time the war finished. Instead, he arranged for the printing of appointment (harsha’ah) cards which a soldier signed, appointing anyone in Jerusalem to write, sign and give a divorce to his wife. The cards added a condition that a divorce should only be given if one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel is informed that the soldier is missing and only at least one year after the enemy releases the prisoners of war.

Rav Herzog noted the issue of soldiers returning home briefly to visit his family and then going back to the frontlines. This was not possible during European wars, where men did not return home for brief visits. If a man lives with his wife after appointing a messenger to divorce her, he undermines the entire procedure (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-Ezer 149:7). Therefore, Rav Herzog also printed forms for soldiers in Israel to sign and send to the Rabbanut after every home visit.

In late 1939, a few months after World War II began, the London Beth Din published a booklet written by Rav Yechezkel Abramsky examining the issues and offering an alternative text for Jewish soldiers in the British army fighting in World War II. Men refused to give their wives divorces, even conditional divorces, because of the emotional pain. Rav Abramsky recommends that soldiers appoint two scribes and no witnesses to write, sign and give his wife a divorce if he does not return within five years. He should appoint two scribes in case one dies or leaves the country. He should appoint no witnesses in case those he selects die. A divorce with no witnesses appointed for the writing is acceptable but if it has witnesses appointed and they die, the divorce will be invalid on a biblical level. For a man with no children, Rav Abramsky encourages the giving of a conditional divorce. But if the soldier refuses, he can appoint two scribes like other men. Regarding soldiers who return to visit home briefly and then go back to war, Rav Abramsky argues that this only happens in a normal case when a couple has split and then reunites. Clearly, at least for a brief time, they want to remain together and not get divorced. In the case of a soldier, the time together never negates the appointment for divorce so it remains valid.

 

III. Israel

During Israel’s Independence War, the two Chief Rabbis of Israel—Rav Yitzchak Herzog and Rav Ben Tzion Meir Chai Uziel—strongly encouraged soldiers to appoint scribes and witnesses to divorce their wives if they would not return from war. As mentioned above, they printed cards to make it easy for soldiers. Rav Shlomo Goren, in an article about the freeing of agunos from Israel’s Independence War (in the memorial volume for Rav Herzog, p. 164), describes the difficulties implementing this. Even though the IDF made it easy to appoint a scribe to divorce a wife if the husband does not return from the war, thereby resolving potential agunah problems, soldiers refused to sign. At some point, for a short time, the IDF required married soldiers to sign the appointment cards, but they did so unwillingly. That raises the problem of a coerced divorce, a get me’useh, which is invalid. In addition to these problems, some IDF commanders refused to ask soldiers going out to battle to sign the appointment card because of concerns for troop morale.

Rav Herzog writes likewise, in his response to Rav Shlomo Goren’s initial analysis of the widows of Kfar Etzion (Heichal Yitzchak, Even Ha-Ezer, vol. 2 no. 1). Rav Herzog says that the rabbis did all they could to help the soldiers solve the problem in advance but the soldiers refused. After all this effort, the Chief Rabbinate gave up on the pre-war divorce-appointments and instead had to undergo the difficult process of case-by-case analysis of the circumstances of each soldier’s death. In his 1953 book, Hilchot Medinah (vol. 2, section 7 ch. 2), the Jerusalem-based scholar, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, includes the exact language of the Chief Rabbinate’s appointment card as well as similar language based on Rav Abramsky’s views published by Agudas Ha-Rabbonim of America.

Over the past decades of Israel’s wars, we have seen that soldiers can be captured and held for years, even decades. In other times, when a war ended, the enemy would return all the war prisoners. A divorce or appointment could be conditional on a husband returning with, or not long after, the general release of captives. Israel’s enemies do not work like that. Any conditional divorce or appointment would have to be worded carefully in order take into account this complication. Captive soldiers, known to be alive, should return to their intact family even after many years. To my knowledge, these various solutions are not done today, even by religious soldiers. Instead, as R. Aharon Rakeffet describes in detail (Rakafot Aharon, vol. 4, pp. 114-124), leading rabbis spend significant time examining the circumstances of soldiers’ deaths in an attempt to free their wives from being lifelong agunohs.


Rabbi Gil Student is the editor of TorahMusings.com

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