A gett must be given willingly, and for the past 1,100 years (among Ashkenazim, eventually reaching Sepharadim as well) received willingly as well. However, when a husband is obligated to dissolve the marriage, beis din is authorized to compel him using excommunication, economic sanctions, prison and even corporeal punishment as necessary. Today in Israel, the batei din for divorce are empowered to imprison people for this reason, and in a few more extreme cases, even to have the husband put in solitary confinement until he authorizes a gett for his wife.
Is this really willingly?
The Rambam explains it as follows (Hilkhos Geirushin 2:20):
מי שהדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש את אשתו, ולא רצה לגרש – בית דין של ישראל בכל מקום ובכל זמן, מכין אותו עד שיאמר, רוצה אני; ויכתוב הגט, והוא גט כשר. וכן אם הכוהו גויים ואמרו לו, עשה מה שישראל אומרין לך, ולחצו אותו ישראל ביד הגויים, עד שגירש – הרי זה כשר; ואם הגויים מעצמן אנסוהו עד שכתב – הואיל והדין נותן שיכתוב, הרי זה גט פסול.
ולמה לא בטיל גט זה – שהרי הוא אנוס, בין ביד גויים בין ביד ישראל: שאין אומרין אנוס, אלא למי שנלחץ ונדחק לעשות דבר שאינו חייב מן התורה לעשותו, כגון מי שהוכה עד שמכר, או נתן; אבל מי שתקפו יצרו הרע לבטל מצוה, או לעשות עבירה, והוכה עד שעשה דבר שחייב לעשותו, או עד שנתרחק מדבר שאסור לעשותו – אין זה אנוס ממנו, אלא הוא אנס עצמו בדעתו הרעה.
לפיכך מי שאינו רוצה לגרש – מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל, רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצוות ולהתרחק מן העבירות; ויצרו הוא שתקפו. וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר, רוצה אני – כבר גירש לרצונו.
לא היה הדין נותן שכופין אותו לגרש, וטעו בית דין של ישראל, או שהיו הדיוטות, ואנסוהו עד שגירש – הרי זה גט פסול: הואיל וישראל אנסוהו, יגמור ויגרש. ואם הגויים אנסוהו לגרש שלא כדין, אינו גט; אף על פי שאמר בגויים, רוצה אני, ואמר לישראל, וכתבו וחתמו – הואיל ואין הדין מחייבו להוציא והגויים אנסוהו, אינו גט.
Someone who by law must give [a gett], we force him to divorce his wife. And if he doesn’t wish to divorce [her], a beis din of Jews [i.e. not a secular court] anywhere and at any time [in history] beat him until he says “rotzeh ani — I want”. Then you write a gett and the gett is valid…. And why is this gett not nullified, for it is compelled… We only say “compelled” about someone who is forced to do something that he is not obligated by the Torah to do. Such as someone who is beaten until he sells or gives [something]. But someone whose yeitzer hara overtakes him to ignore a mitzvah or do an avreirah, and is beaten until he does that which he is obligated to do, or aandones something that is prohibited to do — this is not compulsion…
Therefore, someone who does not wish to divorce, since he wants to be among Israel, he wants to do all the mitzvos and avoid the aveiros and it’s his yeitzer [hara] which overtakes him. And since he was hit until he silences his yeitzer and says “rotzeh ani”, he divorced accorsding to his ratzon.
The husband wants to do the right thing, because every Jew on some level wants to do the right thing. The problem is, he has other wants which — on their own or together — distract him from that. Since he won’t act on that desire on his own, it isn’t actionable in court. The compulsion isn’t to create a desire — that’s already there — it’s to get him to express it to the judges so that there is grounds to act on it. (Human courts, unlike the heavenly one, aren’t capable of reading minds.)
The failure to give the gett is similar in dynamic to (although far more extreme than) the person who has a desire to diet, but lacks the will to actually follow through and lose the weight.
The word ratzon has two meanings, much the way the word “want” does: there is the desire to do something, which — like in this case of the reluctant divorce — may be counterbalanced by other desires. Then there is will, the coordination of many desires until it becomes a goal that the person actually works toward.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Bishvilei haRefu’ahvol. 5, Sivan 5742 , pp. 57-90) has this description of how to coordinate middos and desires. (I have a translation of the entire section of the article in question, here.)
Middos and Intellect
What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.
The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (C.f. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” – Niddah 13b)
Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.
In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.
For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shim’oni, Samuel I, 16:124):
When Samuel saw that David was “red,” he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!
In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.
Torah and Middos
Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good….
I would liken Rav Wolbe’s message to an orchestra. The intellect is the conductor, whose job it is to make sure that each instrument comes in at the right time and with the right tempo. Over in the back we can see temper, playing the tympani, on the left, empathy is on the first violin and sadness is over there on the left, among the oboes and bassoons. Joy is behind them on the trumpets. Each middah has its role, and through the intellect they are coordinated into a harmonious whole. One can make beautiful music with just one violin, but in a symphony it combines with all the other instruments to make something far richer.
The intellect is the conductor, the Torah — his sheet music. (Sadly, it is possible to have the sheet music, and never pick up the baton.) And while the Torah tells us what music should be played, the conductor has room within that for his own interpretation.
It take intellect and a measure of self-mastery to turn a set of conflicting desires into a will, a bunch of musicians playing their own tunes into a symphonic orchestra.
One desire among many can be acted upon or not, but when the soul is coordinated in the pursuit of a spiritual goal, one can see the true measure of human will.