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Divorce can be ugly. We all know couples that have split and made life for their ex-partner, or almost ex-partner, horribly challenging.
Schechter Rabbinical Seminary (SRS) lecturer, Rabbi Diana Villa is one of a small group of Conservative rabbis who not only teaches the ‘Halakhot’ (Jewish Laws) of Jewish divorce but also prepares other rabbis to learn the Talmudic intricacies before they can become certified rabbinical divorce experts, ‘Mesadrei Gittin,’ in the practice of divorce cases.
For the first time in almost 15 years, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international body of Conservative and Masorti Rabbis, is offering a ‘Mesadrei Gittin’ course to its members. According to Villa, the lack of a certification course has left the movement over the past decade and a half with a dearth of rabbis able to serve in this capacity because only certified ‘mesadrei gittin’ can issue a Jewish writ of divorce or ‘get’.
The course is vital because, as the Talmud says in Tractate Kiddushin 6a:
כל שאינו יודע בטיב גיטין וקידושין לא יהא לו עסק עמהם
“He who does not know the peculiar nature of divorce and betrothal should have no business with them.”
Or as Rabbi Villa notes, “If the person arranging the get does not know all of the pertinent halakhic details, the get can be invalid.”
In Jewish divorce cases outside of Israel, there are two aspects: a civil divorce through the civil courts and a Jewish divorce, get through a rabbinical court. Often, though the former is agreed upon by the two sides, the second half of the divorce, via the rabbinical court, can be more problematic.
“The biggest problem we face is assisting women requiring a ‘get’ from recalcitrant husbands. Women without a get are considered ‘agunot’ or women chained to a marriage, unable to marry Jewishly again,” says Villa.
The RA’s ‘Mesadrei Gittin’ class is based on the Talmud’s Gittin Tractate, which serves as the foundation for Jewish divorce law. This class was almost entirely taught via Zoom due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Taught in Hebrew and English on alternating weeks by Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow, it was supplemented by an English study group for North American students and a Spanish study group for Spanish speakers taught by Rabbi Villa, herself a student in the course.
In January 2023, Rabbi Villa travelled to Buenos Aires, to join Spanish speaking rabbis in a practicum to become certified rabbinical divorce experts qualified to perform divorces.
Overall, the Rabbinical Assembly’s ‘Mesadrei Gittin‘ course is training 30 rabbis throughout the world in this program. Rabbi Ilana Garber, Director of Global Rabbinic Development at the Rabbinical Assembly, shares that these rabbis have spent an average of 4-6 hours weekly since January 2021 learning the Gittin Tractate, issues of practical law and finally sofrut, the art of scribing a divorce document. The program continues with an apprenticeship, a comprehensive exam and an interview with the Conservative movement’s Joint Beit Din.
Rabbi Ariel Stofenmacher, head of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Conservative Movement’s Latin American rabbinical seminary, commented, “The RA will hold the second in-person training session of the ‘Mesadrei Gittin‘ program. Ten rabbis will convene in Buenos Aires and study with Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, Rabbi Felipe Goodman and Rabbi Diana Villa. The program will allow Jewish communities from all over the world to have local specialists to serve their congregants.”
Most of those rabbis were Rabbi Villa’s students in the past as she lectured in Talmud and Jewish Law at the Seminario for over eleven years and has taught Seminario students at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary for many years.
Living in Israel, she also currently teaches Seminario’s rabbinical students online.
Rabbi Villa is acutely aware of all the difficulties involved in the halakhic divorce process, especially if a recalcitrant husband is involved, hence she teaches the sources and includes practical considerations wherever relevant.
Rabbi Villa was ordained at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 2000. She has been teaching Even Ha’ezer, (the Shulkhan Aruch volume dealing with issues including marriage and divorce) at Schechter since 2006, where she also lectures on other subjects in Talmud and Jewish Law. She was a senior researcher at the Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies for 11 years, specializing in the agunah issue, and writing books and booklets with her co-researcher, Rabbi Monique Süsskind Goldberg z’l, under the supervision of Rabbi Professor David Golinkin.
They published Zaakat Dalot in Hebrew in 2006, a 425-page survey of ten halakhic solutions to the Agunah dilemma. They also published seven Zaakat Dalot English booklets which can be accessed at www.responsafortoday.com
She has been representing the Schechter Institute at I.C.A.R. (International Center for Agunah Rights) for the last 21 years and is a member of Knesset Rabbanim’s Va’ad Halakhah, Committee on Jewish Law of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.