Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tetze 5770/ August 21, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

The Controversy of the Cleves Get

 

Dr. Dov Levitan

 

Inter-Disciplinary Department of Social Sciences

 

Among the many issues dealt with in Parashat Ki-Tetze are marrying a woman taken captive in war (referred to in Jewish texts as “a beautiful woman”) and polygamy, which, while legal in Torah law, creates problems in the realm of inheritance.  Further on the weekly reading mentions the issue of unsuccessful marriages and, in their wake, the way in which dissolution of marriage is to be accomplished.   The Torah mentions the obligation placed on the man who wishes to divorce his wife to write her a “bill of divorcement,” and forbids him to remarry the woman he has divorced if in the interim she had married another man (Deut. 24:1-4).  In the time of the Mishnah and Talmud it was possible to divorce a woman against her will, but following the Ban (herem) of Rabbenu Gershom, [1] enacted about a millenium ago, a woman could not be divorced against her will.   But if a woman demands a divorce and her husband refuses, only a court can force him to divorce her, [2] as stated in the gemara, Tractate Yevamot (106b):   “Pressure is put on him until he says he is willing [to divorce his wife].”  All this is conditional on the man being sound of mind. [3]

What happens when there is a difference of opinion as to the sanity of the husband giving the divorce?  What happens if during the period prior to the act of divorce he was considered insane? [4]   The incident which we present below, known as the Cleves Get, deals with such a case, the main question being whether the husband was in possession of his faculties when he divorced his wife.

The Cleves Get – the facts of the case [5]

The case took place in Germany, about two and half centuries ago.  In 1766, Isaac, son of Eliezer Neiburg of Mannheim, was betrothed to Leah, daughter of Jacob Guenzhausen of Bonn.   The wedding was scheduled to take place in the groom’s home town on the 8th of Elul 5526 (August 14, 1766).  Several days before the wedding, the bride’s family observed that the destined groom seemed extremely preoccupied.  When asked why he seemed so troubled, he explained that his father had promised to put at his disposal living quarters in his house, but that these quarters were still inhabited by his brother-in-law, a physician, and the latter had not yet vacated them.   The father of the bride and another relation turned to the father of the groom in order to clarify the matter, and the groom’s father assured them that all would be in order.   The wedding took place as scheduled, and at the Friday evening meal of the week of sheva berakhot (week-long wedding festivities) the young groom delivered words of Torah, and all seemed to bode well.

A week later, on Saturday night, after they had spent several days in Bonn, Isaac Neiburg requested to see Rabbi Simeon Copenhagen and told him that his life was in danger and that he must leave Bonn and quit the country immediately, but in order not to leave his young wife agunah, he wished to give her a divorce.  He did admit that he had not found the bride to his liking, but noted that he was not divorcing her for this reason, rather because of the mortal danger threatening him.  Rabbi Copenhagen’s attempts to dissuade him were to no avail, and therefore it was agreed by both sides that Isaac Neiburg would divorce his wife.  Financial matters were agreed to, including payment of expenses by the husband, and Isaac consented to everything.  Since there was not a recognized rabbinical court in Bonn, and since the husband insisted on leaving Bonn immediately and heading westward to England, it was decided to turn to the rabbinical court in Cleves, a city in Westphalia, on the border between Germany and Holland.   The rabbi of Cleves, Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz, met with both parties in his home, and having been impressed that the husband was firmly resolved to give his wife a divorce, and that if it were not done on the spot his wife might be left an agunah, sanctioned the divorce and also a written monetary agreement.   It should be noted that Rabbi Lipschuetz had not been informed of the husband’s strange behavior after the wedding.

The rabbinic controversy

Several weeks later it became known to the father of the groom that his son had divorced his wife and left the country.   The father was incensed both because in his opinion his son had been forced to give a bill of divorce despite his delicate emotional state, and because the financial arrangements were to his disadvantage.  He turned to Rabbi Tevele Hess, leader of the Mannheim community, and the latter invalidated the get on the grounds that the groom had been not sound of mind when he delivered the get.   Rabbi Hess also turned to the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, a large and highly esteemed community, headed by Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau, requesting that court as well to invalidate the get.  

The rabbis of Frankfurt took up the position of Rabbi Hess.  They turned to Rabbi Lipschuetz of Cleves and told him that he himself must publicly proclaim the get which he executed invalid. [6]   Rabbi Lipschuetz, however, refused to accept their opinion and responded that the get was altogether proper and that the woman was free to remarry.  He admitted that he had not known about the groom’s strange behavior in Mannheim, but in his opinion that was irrelevant, since Isaac Neiburg was sane and sound of mind when the get was given.  Moreover, he took testimony from members of his community who were present when the bill of divorce was drawn up and handed over, and they supported his testimony that the groom was sane and in possession of his faculties.  

On the other side, the rabbis of Frankfurt collected testimony from Rabbi Simeon Copenhagen and members of the Bonn community, and on the basis of this testimony they determined that the husband had not been sound of mind when the get was drafted and delivered, and therefore the get was invalid.  Accordingly, initially they ruled that the woman’s status was “possibly married,” and later they claimed that she was “certainly married.”  The family of the divorcee/agunah/bride appealed to the great rabbis of the times to support the position taken by the Cleves Rabbi and determine that the get was valid.

At this point a vehement halakhic dispute of indescribable magnitude broke out.  The judges of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt refused the request made by prominent rabbis from various communities that they list in detail the reasons and halakhic considerations on the basis of which they invalidated the get, nor were they willing to publicize the court record or the evidence which they collected.   They simply announced that it was within their jurisdiction as a rabbinical court to invalidate the get, and that they did not have to give any justification for their decision. [7]   The controversy grew more acrimonious and came to involve many of the great rabbinical figures of the times, including rabbis from Poland.   Among the rabbis who supported Rabbi Lipschuetz and maintained that the get was valid were many well-known figures, included Rabbi Saul Loewenstamm of Amsterdam, Rabbi Jacob Emden, [8] Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg of Metz, and Rabbi Ezekiel Landau. [9]   The rabbis disseminated circulars setting forth their opinions and halakhic justifications, and a fierce controversy ensued, accompanied by accusations, insults and name-calling.   It did not subside until over two years later, with the death of the head of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, Rabbi Abraham Abusch.

The halakhic implications of the Cleves Get

The main subject of discussion among the rabbis of the time was whether the husband had been sound of mind when the get was drafted and delivered.  The issues concerned the halakhic definition of “not sound of mind” on the one hand, and the fear of leaving a young woman agunah, on the other.   The one who drafted the bill of divorce and all those who were present when the divorce was effected testified that Isaac Neiburg had been sound of mind at the time, and this, in their eyes, was what determined the validity of the get, even if his behavior prior to then had been strange.  In their opinion, he was responsible for his actions, his person and his property, even if he did have certain fears.

Opposing this position, the rabbis of Frankfurt argued that it was patently clear the young groom had gone crazy, and therefore it was inconceivable that at the time of delivery of the get, only nine days after he had left his home on the holy Sabbath, taking with him the money from his wife’s dowry, he could have recovered and become sound of mind.   In their opinion, it sufficed for the husband to be suffering paranoia and wanting to leave the country immediately to indicate that even if his condition had improved, he had only partially recovered. [10]

The halakhic consequences of the case were that henceforth the rabbis became stricter in their approach to all that concerned marriage of people who might be suspected of mental illness, in order to prevent the eventuality of divorce cases which might revolve around the question of the husband’s sanity.

Historical implications

The rabbinical court in Frankfurt, which undoubtedly enjoyed great prestige, brought its full weight to bear in order to impose its position and invalidate the divorce, even though the event did not take place within its area of jurisdiction and the Cleves rabbinical court was not subordinate to it.  In other words, the Frankfurt rabbinical court viewed itself like the High Rabbinical Court that used to sit in Jerusalem. [11]   Moreover, contrary to accepted practice, the court was unwilling to publicize the testimony it had taken, the court record taken, or the halakhic arguments for invalidating the get.

Historically the Cleves Get episode can be seen as expressing the momentous changes undergone by the Jews of Ashkenaz in general and Germany in particular since the mid-17th century.   These events began with the controversy raised by Rabbi Jacob Emden, who accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschuetz of being a Sabbatean (1751), [12] continued with the Cleves Get affair (1776), with the subsequent rabbinic controversy which crossed borders and led to a decline in the prestige of the Frankfurt rabbinical court, and went as far as the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the ghetto walls.  These events hurt traditional Jewish communities and made it more difficult for them to cope with the Enlightenment, Emancipation, and rise of the Reform Movement.

The Cleves get figures extensively in the responsa literature.   Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz wrote 37 responsa on it in his book, Or Yisrael (Cleves 1770), and Rabbi Simeon Copenhagen, a relative of Guenzhausen, who himself had played a part in the stormy events, wrote an extensive account of the episode in his book, Or ha-Yashar (Amsterdam 1769). [13]   Worthy of special note are the remarks of Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, author of Noda bi-Yehudah, who not only proclaimed that the divorce was valid but that he himself would perform the wedding for whoever might wish to marry the woman.  This remark infuriated the Frankfurt community. [14]

Thus the Cleves Get episode rocked the Jewish and rabbinic world of 18th-century Europe.   The patrons of the Frankfurt Jewish community, standing by the position of their rabbis without qualification, wrote into the community records that any rabbi who took exception to the ruling of the Frankfurt rabbinical court would not be employed in their community.  Of Ezekiel Landau in particular they wrote, “Neither the rabbi of Prague, nor his sons and grandsons, and likewise his sons-in-law, those who marry his daughters or granddaughters, shall receive an appointment in our community.”  Indeed, when Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau passed away two years later, there were only three candidates for the prestigious and highly desirable position of Rabbi and Av Bet Din (head of the rabbinical court), since all the other eminent rabbis had opposed the decision of the rabbis of Frankfurt. [15]

Thus the Cleves Get episode can be viewed as a seminal event both historically and halakhically.

                                                                                                                                         

 



[1] Rabbenu Gershom (960-1040), Ashkenazi Jewish leader, active mainly in Mainz.  His two best-known takkanot (regulations) prohibit polygamy and prohibit divorcing a woman against her will, even though the Halakhah originally did not forbid these two things.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Nashim, ch. 23, Hilkhot Gerushin, 20.   If a husband is forced to give a divorce against his will, then it is a “forced get” and is considered invalid.

[3] “If a person has an evil spirit disturbing his peace and says that the ailment already afflicts him, and he then writes his wife a bill of divorce, it is as if he had written nothing, for his mind is not clear and settled,” Mishneh Torah, loc. sit., 14.  Also cf. Bava Batra 153b.

[4] For the symptoms of a person considered insane, see Hagigah 3b.

[5] The Cleves Get was discussed in detail by Shlomo Tal, “Ha-Get mi-Cleves,” Sinai 24 (Tishre-Adar 5709 [Winter 1949]).  It is also described in Israel Ehrlich’s book, Atar ve-Atar, Tel Aviv 1994, pp. 294-306.

[6] Yet they did not comply with Rabbi Hess’ request that the divorce be proclaimed invalid at the fair held in the neighboring city.

[7] Shlomo Tal, loc. sit., p. 154.

[8] Rabbi Jacob Emden was an adversary of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz and accused him of being a Sabbatean.

[9] For some unknown reason, no opinion was voiced by the Vilna Gaon on this case.

[10] On the view that insanity or mental illness is not necessarily a constant condition and the meaning of partial recovery with regard to the Cleves get case, see the article of Rabbi M. Farbstein, Misphetei ha-Da`at, Hayyim Kahan Data Center on Medicine, Ethics and Halakhah, Summer 2009 (www.medethics.org.il/articles/MH/MH5.asp).

[11] Shlomo Tal, loc. sit., p. 222.

[12] This controversy aroused heated arguments between the rabbis of Germany, Poland, France, and other European countries.  Two of the important figures involved – Rabbi Jacob Emden and Rabbi Abusch of Lissau, who should have headed the mediating committee but withdrew from the matter, were also involved in the Cleves get dispute.

[13] One should also note the works of Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg, author of Shaagat Aryeh, and Rabbi David Naphtali Hirsch Frankel, author of Korban ha-`Edah,  as well as the books of Rabbi Isaac ha-Levi of Hamburg and Mahari Yaavetz.

[14] Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, author of Noda` bi-Yehudah, loudly protested the refusal of the Frankfurt rabbis to publicize the testimony they had taken and their halakhic justifications for their decision. 

[15] According to one account, some time later Isaac Neiburg returned from London to Germany and sought to remarry his divorcee Leah.  The usual wedding benedictions were not recited, for in the opinion of the Frankfurt rabbis the bride had not been truly divorced.  Instead, according to this version of the story, the groom said, “with this ring you are still married to me.”  This attempt to tag a happy end on to the Cleves get saga has no substantiation in the sources.