Rabbi Pini Dunner

Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills

In the late eighteenth century, a seemingly innocuous divorce in a provincial German town evolved into one of the most bitterly fought Jewish legal controversies of the era, involving the most famous rabbis of the day. The story of the ‘Get of Cleves’ is an extraordinary tale of intrigue, ego and hubris. At the center of it all was a young couple whose personal lives were humiliatingly discussed and debated, as one of Europe’s most distinguished rabbinic courts refused to reverse their ruling that the husband had been legally insane at the time of the divorce, a ruling which had invalidated the divorce, leaving the couple still married. Rabbis everywhere erupted in indignation at this intransigence. But what is the ‘Get of Cleves’ backstory? How was it possible that the esteemed rabbis of Frankfurt, who had never met the young man in question, felt compelled to deliver a retroactive ruling of insanity against him? In a three-part article we will delve into the tragic events leading up to and surrounding this titanic legal battle.

Many years ago I was involved in a tragic situation, trying to help an estranged wife obtain her Get* from her recalcitrant husband. He had been very abusive towards her during their time together, and the marriage had irretrievably broken down. The husband was now trying to extort a large sum of money from the wife’s family in exchange for the Get, and the wife’s family were simply not able to come up with the exorbitant sums that were being demanded by the husband. Even if they were able to come up with the money, I felt it would be outrageous to give in to his demands. After consulting with the distinguished Dayanim of the London Beth Din, I let the husband and his family know that I would be conducting a public campaign against him, and anyone associated with him – his family, his business associates, his supporters – until he gave his wife her Get and ceased his unreasonable demands. We would organize demonstrations outside homes and businesses, publish adverts in the newspapers, and write to every synagogue and institution he was associated with to explain how he was a “mesaref le-dinna”, the Jewish legal phrase for someone who is in contempt of court.

I was quite confident with this strategy, as I knew that the family was terrified of negative publicity, and would certainly not want such a situation to erupt around them. Then, out of the blue I got a phone call from a close friend of the husband’s family. He informed me that a few years earlier the husband had been diagnosed with a chronic mental condition, and if I went through with my threatened action, the family would use his history of mental problems as proof that he was legally incompetent, which would mean he would not be able to give the Get. The man on the phone was well versed in halacha, and quoted me numerous sources to unequivocally prove that someone who is insane or legally incompetent cannot give his wife a Get.

I put the phone down and sat for a while in contemplation, not sure what to do. Before receiving that phone call it had all seemed so simple. I had been convinced that the matter would be resolved quickly. Now it appeared as if I had been outsmarted by this devilish plan. I decided to call my late mother’s brother, a humble man whose knowledge in Talmud and halacha is unsurpassed, and whose devoted attention to my Torah studies as my rebbe had been the incredible springboard that had ensured my enthusiasm for Torah knowledge – and in fact, all knowledge. I explained what had happened, and asked him if I should call it a day. After chastising me for my hubristic overconfidence, and for being so adversarial, he asked me if I had ever heard of the ‘Get of Cleves’.

“No,” I said, “although I have heard of Anne of Cleves,” the name of one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives. “Did Henry VIII give her a Get when they divorced?”

My uncle chuckled. “Just look into the story of the ‘Get of Cleves’ and you will see how this threat to thwart the Get by claiming that the man is insane and legally incompetent is an empty threat. These people have no idea what they are talking about, and have no concept of the halachot surrounding insanity and incompetence when it comes to giving a Get. After the ‘Get of Cleves’ case, being insane enough so that you would not be able to give a Get became pretty difficult.”

Modern secular law defines insanity as “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct his or her affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.” Insanity is normally used as a defense in criminal cases. The most common variation is cognitive insanity, which means that the alleged criminal was so impaired by insanity when committing a crime that he or she did not know that the crime committed was wrong.

Another form of the insanity is volitional insanity, or ‘irresistible impulse’, which refers to someone who is able to distinguish right from wrong, but has a temporary mental breakdown making them incapable of controlling their actions. This defense is commonly used in crimes of vengeance.

There is another condition that can affect a legal transaction, called ‘incompetency’. Civil law requires a person to be legally competent in order to enter into a contract, or sign a will, or make any type of binding legal commitment. In contract law a person who agrees to a transaction becomes liable for duties under the contract unless they are legally incompetent at the time the contract was entered into. If someone does not comprehend the nature and consequences of a contract, they are regarded as having mental incapacity.

But how does Jewish law define insanity and incompetence, and what are the implications of an act carried out, or a contract entered into, by an insane or incompetent individual? The ‘Get of Cleves’ saga was a watershed divorce case that brought all these issues into sharp focus.

In the late Spring or early Summer of 1766, a young man called Isaac Neiberg from Mannheim, Germany, became engaged to Leah Gunzhausen of Bonn, which is also in Germany. During the engagement period Isaac visited his fiancée, and appeared to all to be perfectly normal and happy. On Friday, August 8, 1766, Leah and her parents arrived in Mannheim to join the groom and his family in anticipation of the wedding that was taking place the following Tuesday. Among the friends and family who joined them was their cousin, a rabbinic scholar called Rabbi Aron Shimon Copenhagen, who would later be crucial in providing the details of the strange story that unfolded over the next couple of weeks.

18th century wedding

18th century wedding

That Friday night passed without incident, but on Shabbat morning something was up. Without explanation Isaac became agitated and anxious. He paced up and down and muttered to himself, and no one seemed to be able to calm him down. His demeanor was so strange that Leah’s parents began to worry about his mental state. They sat him down with Leah, and asked him why he was so stressed out. After some prompting Isaac explained that he was upset over a new apartment his father had promised him for after the wedding, which his father had suddenly decided to give to his sister and her new husband instead. Although another apartment had been set aside for him, he claimed to be concerned that this smaller accommodation would not be sufficient for him and Leah once they were married and had children.

Leah’s parents were satisfied that this explained Isaac’s strange behavior, and immediately went to confront Isaac’s father, who, after a short negotiation, agreed to honor the original promise and allow Isaac and Leah to move into the larger accommodation.

With everything seemingly settled, the wedding took place as planned on the following Tuesday. Isaac addressed the wedding banquet, and acted in a composed and dignified way. But the following Shabbat morning – sheva brachot Shabbat – Isaac was nowhere to be found. After a comprehensive search involving the local gentile authorities, it was discovered that not only had he disappeared, but he had absconded with a large sum of money. To put it mildly, this was highly unorthodox behavior for an orthodox Jew on Shabbat, and particularly strange behavior for someone in the midst of his own sheva brachot celebrations.

Both families went into full panic mode and hired a search party to look for him in the surrounding villages. Isaac was eventually discovered hiding under some hay in a farmhouse belonging to a non-Jew, about four hours journey from Mannheim. He was brought back to Mannheim, but was very agitated, and kept on repeating that he needed to run away to escape government agents who were intent on killing him.

Simultaneously, and perhaps as a result of what was going on, the two families began to bicker over financial support for the couple. A mediator was called in and the dispute settled. As part of the settlement it was agreed that the couple would not stay in Mannheim as originally planned, but would instead move to Bonn with Leah’s family, at least for the immediate future. Everyone was happy with the new arrangement, especially Isaac, who was delighted to be leaving.

On 19 August 1766, exactly one week after the wedding, the young couple left Mannheim and began their journey to Bonn, together with Leah’s family and the friends from Bonn who had attended the celebrations. The following night, at a Jewish inn near Mainz, an innocent conversation involving the innkeeper that touched on the story of the groom who had run away the previous Shabbat resulted in Isaac freaking out and becoming completely hysterical. The family eventually calmed him down, but once again his strange behavior had become cause for concern.

The journey towards Bonn continued, and the family arrived on Friday just before Shabbat. The following morning Isaac attended prayers and was called up to say the blessing over the Torah. Notwithstanding the outburst in Mainz his demeanor throughout Shabbat was serene and relaxed.

But beneath the surface it seems that Isaac was in total turmoil. On Saturday night straight after Shabbat he sent for Rabbi Copenhagen and begged for his help to arrange a divorce. Rabbi Copenhagen was totally dumbstruck. “What are you talking about? Why do you want to divorce Leah?” he inquired incredulously. Isaac responded that he felt Leah disliked him, and he couldn’t live with someone who didn’t like him. He also claimed that his life was in grave danger, and he need to leave Germany immediately. This meant Leah would be unable to remarry, particularly if his enemies caught up with him and killed him without anyone knowing. He therefore wanted to divorce her while he still could, rather than cause her and her family the anguish associated with a missing husband unable to write a Get.

Rabbi Copenhagen was a wise and worldly man, and he told Isaac to sleep on it while he conferred with the family. The rabbi ran to Leah’s father to report the conversation he had had with Isaac, and the two of them agonized all night trying to figure out what to do. The following morning Rabbi Copenhagen told Isaac that he had no solution to suggest as yet, but was happy to continue discussing options and ideas. Isaac responded that he was not interested in any solution, as he had decided overnight to divorce Leah without delay so that he could run for his life. He added that if Leah or her family would not agree, that was their choice to make, but meanwhile his bags were packed and he was ready to leave for London, where he felt he would be safe.

After an intense family conference everyone concluded it was best to just go ahead with the divorce and be done with it. Isaac was itching to leave, which meant that they could not execute the divorce in Bonn, so the family decided to accompany him on the first part of his journey and arrange for the Get to be given in Cleves, a small town on the German side of the border with Holland. The rabbi of Cleves was a respected scholar called Rabbi Yisrael Lipschuetz, whom everyone was satisfied would be helpful and correct in these unusual circumstances.

So, on Sunday morning, Isaac, Leah, Rabbi Copenhagen, Leah’s brother, and another cousin, all left Bonn and headed towards Cleves. The 100-mile journey took them a couple of days, and they arrived there on Tuesday, August 26 – exactly two weeks after the couple had got married. Rabbi Lipschuetz was rather surprised when this unexpected delegation arrived at his door, particularly when he heard what they wanted. Isaac explained what had happened and why he wanted the divorce, although he did not mention his weird Shabbat disappearance with the money. He was lucid and composed, and articulated perfectly why he felt the need to end his marriage. The rabbi explained the divorce process to him, and he seemed to completely understand every aspect, as well as the implications of the detailed asset separation that was hammered out between him and Leah’s relatives.

Isaac insisted that they press ahead with the divorce as quickly as possible. He also asked for the divorce not be publicized in Cleves, as he had heard that there were people there from Mannheim, and he did not want them to hear about it and for his parents to find out. As the divorce document was being written, Rabbi Lipschuetz took Isaac aside to tell him that he found what was happening extremely upsetting, and puzzling, and he added that he was quite concerned that Isaac’s parents would be worried and upset when they found out what he had done. Isaac replied that it was dangerous for him to go back to Mannheim, and if he returned there he would be executed on the spot, although he refused to elaborate.

The divorce proceedings went ahead and the Get was given to Leah in front of witnesses, as required by Jewish law. The following day Isaac and Leah parted ways. She returned to Bonn with her family, and he left for London. It was only a matter of time before Isaac’s parents discovered what had happened, and when they did they were livid, believing that Leah’s family had taken advantage of their vulnerable son. They were also upset that the asset separation had been decided very heavily in Leah’s favor. Isaac’s father arranged an emergency meeting with his local rabbi in Mannheim, Rabbi Tevele Hess – who knew Isaac well and had attended the wedding – and he insisted the rabbi find a way to annul the divorce.

Although Rabbi Hess was a distinguished rabbinic scholar in his own right, he did not feel himself to be sufficiently qualified to perform an annulment. So he did something that would prove to be a game-changer. He wrote a detailed letter that was co-signed by nine other rabbis to one of the most famous rabbinic courts in Europe – the illustrious Beit Din of Frankfurt. The Frankfurt beit din was headed by Rabbi Avraham Abish Feld, author of the authoritative halachic work Birkat Avraham. Rabbi Abish, as he was known, was one of the most eminent rabbinic authorities in Germany at that time, not only renowned as a massive expert in Jewish law, but also known for his piety and gentleness.

The letter from Rabbi Hess ended with a simple request – on the basis that Isaac had not been competent at the time of the divorce, Rabbi Abish and his colleagues should annul the Get of Cleves, which would mean that Isaac and Leah were still married. This request was nothing short of a bombshell, and the response of the Frankfurt beit din would reverberate around the Jewish world in a controversy that embroiled rabbis far and wide.

Frankfurt Jewish Ghetto

Frankfurt Jewish Ghetto

In Part Two discover how the Get of Cleves story escalated into an international scandal involving the leading rabbis of the era. What could have been sorted out in a single afternoon arbitration became a scandal that turned into a major debacle for everyone involved.

*A ‘Get’ is the official legal document that records the divorce between a man and his wife, and it is crucial that it is executed correctly, as the consequences of an invalid Get would be a disaster. If the non-divorced wife remarries, she and her new husband are guilty of adultery, while any children would be considered ‘mamzerim’ – halachic bastards. For this reason great care is taken by rabbis who preside over a Get, and the Talmud is extremely critical of those who retroactively question the validity of a Get.