Sheryl Friedman shattered centuries of Jewish tradition today by becoming the first woman in the world, according to rabbis here, to initiate a traditional religious Jewish divorce.

The unprecedented step -- endorsed today by the Reconstruction Rabbinical Association in Philadelphia, representing rabbis of the new Reconstructionist branch of Judiasm -- is certain to cause controversy and debate among Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

Ancient tradition allows only the husband to seek a Jewish divorce. After obtaining a civil divorce, the man issues his wife the "Get," the bill of divorcement. If a recalcitrant husband refuses to give his wife the Get, there is little a woman can do.

But it was different today as Friedman, 35, sat before a Jewish tribunal in the chapel of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and asked for the right to remarry on the ground that her husband denied her a religious divorce.

In a solemn ritualistic ceremony that lasted about 20 minutes, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein pronounced the ancient Hebrew words "Sh-tar-Peturin," and moments later the three-member rabbinical court, including one woman rabbi, granted what they believe is the first "egalitarian" Jewish divorce, allowing a woman to divorce a husband who will not divorce her.

"If the law does not measure up to our ideals, then it is incumbent upon us to modify the law," stated Eisenstein, who presided over the ceremony. "We feel as Reconstructionists that our ideals as Jews are sometimes of a higher nature than the laws which are intended to implement those ideals."