A few weeks ago, I was asked (via email) why the Torah empowers men to initiate divorce, and does not assign the same power to women.
I replied, in part:
As framed by the Torah, marriage is fundamentally a financial transaction, in which a man accepts responsibility to feed, clothe, shelter and look after the general well-being of his wife. In exchange, she grants him rights to her income, and certain types of assets she owns. The marriage transaction is initiated by the man as he undertakes to fulfill those responsibilities. Because the man is the one to initiate the transaction, he is also the one who is empowered to end it.
This may be compared to an employment agreement (although the transactions have many differences as well, obviously, and I would not want a husband and wife to see themselves in these roles). An employee accepts responsibility to perform specific tasks for his employer. In exchange, the employer pledges to pay a certain sum. The employment agreement is within the employee's control, even though we usually think of the employer as having power; in halachah, the employee is the one empowered to break the contract, and the employer is not. The wife is the 'employer' in our case, and the husband is the 'employee'.
I should note, though, that the wife does have recourse, even though she does not initiate the divorce. In the event that she wants to be divorced, the Rambam notes that she has the ability to refuse to be with him intimately because of her distaste for marriage to him, and then the beit din will compel him to divorce her. She would forfeit her ketubah payment in that case, but this is logical, since the point of the ketubah payment is to keep husbands from divorcing their wives precipitously. [I should note that the Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer 77:2 is less clear on the topic of compelling him to divorce her.]
Tonight I received an email reply, pointing out that presenting marriage as a financial transaction is rather off-putting. I agree, but here is my thought in response:
As I understand it, within Judaism, holiness does not come from ritual, ceremony, and a moment in time. Rather, holiness comes from the way one lives, in an ongoing way. Witness the way the Jews met their Creator at Sinai, and then created a Golden Calf. The relationship with the Divine is a product of a life lived with deep spiritual sensitivity.
The same is true, within my understanding, for human relationships. Despite the "love at first sight" dream, for most people love is a product of shared experiences and growth over time, not a chance encounter or an individual date. Each moment deepens and strengthens the bond.
Combining those two points: The single act of a wedding should not be conflated with the lifetime of marriage. A wedding is, indeed, a transaction, which sets the stage for a shared life by defining the rules by which the couple will function. It is a formal contract, outlining roles and responsibilities. Once that has been laid out, the couple are then in a position to live their lives together, in love and in holiness.
To compare it to a different field: We register in school and we pay tuition in order to make it possible for us to learn. Learning and growth are our goals, but we need to engage in a contract in order to set up the relationships which will make the learning/growth experience possible.
Does this make sense to you? What would you have said, in response to either or both of the emails I received?