Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An overview of polygamy in Judaism, and an answer to the call of radicals

I’m going to write on a subject I used to previously consider as a joke – the call to bring polygamous marriage back into Jewish consensus. Recently I heard several voices propose it with the utmost seriousness, as a solution to the phenomenon of late singlehood and reduced fertility in the Orthodox Jewish community. Therefore, I am going to give my personal take on it.

To start with some essential points:

Polygamy is not Biblically prohibited. It was a reality of those times, and many fathers of our nation had more than one wife, such as Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon. There are also laws in the Bible meant to regulate the fairness and establish relative peace in a polygamous marriage, such as stating a man must treat all his wives just the same even if he prefers one of them to the other, or the law saying that a man cannot take a second wife unless he can continue to give his first wife the same degree of financial comfort she has been used to hitherto.

Polygamy was never considered as ideal. G-d created Male and Female, not Male and Females. A man is called to cling to his wife, not his wives. Polygamy, on the whole, used to exist under specific circumstances, such as the wife’s infertility (Abraham), deception on the side of the bride’s family (Jacob), or political matches of power and affluence (Solomon). It was also a necessary measure taken in a society where many men engaged in warfare and other dangerous pursuits, and therefore the number of men was significantly lower than a number of women, and therefore, unless some men took more than one wife, many women would be doomed to the fate of loneliness and childlessness.

We have more than enough Biblical examples of polygamy, although allowed, causing friction, strife and sin. Abraham eventually has to turn Hagar out. Rachel and Leah aren’t exactly on terms of sisterly affection. Solomon is driven into sin by taking numerous wives of dubious origin. Elkana (the father of Samuel the prophet) is unable to divide his attentions fairly between his two wives, and expresses his preference for Hannah.

While it used to be considered a necessary solution in some cases, polygamy reduced the state of marriage from a soul-deep, very intimate, one-on-one partnership, to a state of protection, provision and respectable establishment – not something to be dismissed, especially in times of hardship and poverty, but certainly not something women were willing to settle for, had anything else been possible. In the cases of very powerful, affluent men (and never was keeping more than one family supposed to be practiced by those who couldn’t afford it), the promise of wealth and stability was perhaps enough for women to settle for.

Polygamy was prohibited by rabbinical decree for European Jews about a thousand years ago. This decree was never accepted by Jews who resided in Muslim countries where polygamy was prevalent, such as the countries of the Maghreb, Iraq and Yemen. Polygamy wasn’t very common unless the man was wealthy enough, but it existed, and when the State of Israel was founded, some polygamous families came here. However, here this practice ceased. For the record, polygamy is illegal in Israel, though widely practiced among Muslims – a case of the state shooting itself in the foot and giving second, third and fourth wives the undeserved benefits of single mothers, instead of recognizing the real state of affairs within the Muslim communities.

The supporters of polygamy claim that giving its legal status back will solve the problem of singleness for many women. However, I can hardly fathom how that will come to pass, when we have so many single men. Certainly, I can allow there being a slight discrepancy between the numbers of men and women, as Israel does engage in warfare and some young men are lost, but it surely isn’t enough to call for polygamy on a global scale. Had we married off all our many single men, their arguments could perhaps hold water.

It is true that even today, rabbinical authorities have authorized a man to take more than one wife under exceptional circumstances, but this isn’t what will solve our problems of late singleness. As far as I see, those who truly and deeply desire marriage should take the trivial measure of not being picky, and allowing for wider difference of age, education and social status than they previously pictured to themselves.

Some radicals go as far as to admonish wives to “stop being selfish” and encourage their husbands to take another wife, in order to “increase fertility in the Jewish population”. This is the most demeaning and insulting notion I ever heard in relation to Jewish marriage. I cannot imagine any normal woman ever willingly allowing the slightest possibility of her husband as much as looking in the direction of another woman – not if the husband is really a beloved friend, and not a mere figure of convenience and financial and social stability in her life.


Bonnie said...

As a Muslim woman polygamy is something that although I am not personally affected by however I do have friends who have co wives with their husbands.

In Islam polygamy is actually not the ideal either but in some cases it does become a necessity. We should not throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak.

My friends are genuinely happy, their co wives are like sisters to them and while things don't run smoothly all the time, they always manage to work it out. One of them is a widow with three kids and it suited her well to marry a man who wouldn't demand 100 percent of her time and affection.

As for your comment about Muslim wives getting state benefits that is just not ok on any level, a man should NEVER marry unless he has the finacial means to take care of his wife. This is why both the Bible and Quran state rules around polygamy.

Rightthinker said...

As a Christian woman, I think really the essential point for Jews and Christians (and all the cults that claim to be so-as an offshoot and man-created false religion) is that God never condoned polygamy Plain and simple, He just didn't.

As you stated, when Sarai went outside her direct promise from God, and sought out Hagar to fulfill her own plans, she did not obey God, nor her husband and therefore sinned and it had huge implications! I wrote about it here:

Our worldly culture has perverted the Word of God from the very beginning. We cannot look at culture and say, "Well then, it's OK with the world, so it's OK with me (or the church)". Otherwise, why follow doctrine at all?

This is how we get the condoning of homosexuality, of pedophelia, of spousal abuse, etc. Man changing God's word to fit their own purpose. God never condones homosexuality, pedophelia, slave ownership, and spousal, the lessons of such in the Bible aren't there as a lesson to do so, but rather as a lesson as to what happens if you are snared by it!

I don't care if it's "convenient" or "feels fine" for the men and women involved in polygamy. The truth is, they've perverted God's commandments for marriage, plain and simple, and they do so to fulfill their flesh, no matter how you slice it.

The Gentle Mom said...

Politically, I'm all in favor of polygamy (and same-sex marriage) being legalized. I don't really think it's my business to decide whether consenting adults should be able to marry as they see fit.

However, I do feel that there is a HUGE potential for coercion and abuse in polygamous communities. I don't know if you're familiar with the fundamentalist Mormom compounds that exist in North America, but they are truly dangerous places. Young girls are forced into marrying much older men, and completely stripped of their rights. Young men are often "cast out" from their families because there aren't enough wives to go around. It's a truly terrible situation.

I actually think legalizing polygamy would help prevent these absues, because then polygamists wouldn't be forced to hide away in closed off communities. Bringing things "out into the open," so to speak, would save many people much heartache, in the long run.

Stephanie said...

I am a Christian and I have never thought that God condoned polygamy. I always thought of it as a cultural thing. Many non-religious people ask me how I can read the Bible because there are so many horrible things in it, I just say it doesn't mean God condoned any of it.

This is off-topic but I saw this website and I was wondering if you had seen it:
I think she is pretty fun and I learned a lot from her.

Alright have a nice day, Anna.

Jennifer said...

"Politically, I'm all in favor of polygamy (and same-sex marriage) being legalized. I don't really think it's my business to decide whether consenting adults should be able to marry as they see fit"

You apparently don't understand, then, how the altering of society's view of marriage alters society itself.

"I actually think legalizing polygamy would help prevent these absues, because then polygamists wouldn't be forced to hide away in closed off communities"

No, it's much better to shun this sin in shame for what it is. The reason young men are cast out of their families is because the older polygamous men want the women for themselves; only when those greedy tyrants decide they want twenty or so wives do the numbers become impossible to share with young men.

"In Islam polygamy is actually not the ideal either but in some cases it does become a necessity. We should not throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak"

Polygamy is potential harm for women, and definitely unfair to some men who may not get even one wife. Contrary to popular opinion, it does not even shallowly benefit men, only a few men at the top of the crust. Like animals in the wild, some top males get numerous females, while others are left without mates for possibly the rest of their lives. No wonder some young Muslim and Mormon men are left in despair.

Anna M said...


I am Jewish but I have a big respect for Islam, and I am well aware that the Quran forbids taking more than one wife unless you can provide for them.

But unfortunately some people here in Israel ignore this important "detail".

Anna T is right when she says that some Muslims here take more than one wife and then force them to seel governmental subsidies. I have seen in the Beduin community and it saddened me a lot

Mrs. Anna T said...

Jennifer, I don't know about Mormons, but Muslims certainly can and do marry women from outside their community. Many Jewish women here in Israel have married Muslims, more often than not to the great detriment of their personal well-being and safety. There are organizations here that are dedicated specifically to saving such women and their children from abuse in a hostile community.

By the way, this unfortunate phenomenon, of Jewish women marrying Muslims, renders the talk of Orthodox Jewish polygamy-supporters as an even bigger nonsense, because it means we actually have even fewer single women than we are naturally supposed to have (the opposite, of a Jewish man marrying a Muslim woman, almost never happens - the retribution from her family would be violent).

Gothelittle Rose said...

I believe that the level of government enforcement of monogamous marriage should be proportionate to the level of government-run social programs in the country.

If there are no State Benefits to being married, then the government need not have a say.

But as long as the government is spending money on these extra wives, or, as happens in the U.S., spending money on the unwed mothers as if they were widows, the government has a vested interest in seeing to it that as many people as possible are living in the optimally-inexpensive situation.

Though I personally prefer the law of the land to enforce heterosexual monogamy, for other reasons I would prefer that the government neither dictated our lifestyles nor supported them.

Lena Michalev said...

In some places in the world like China and India, men outnumber women.
In fact, in China it's about 100 women to 121 men... That's thousands of single men right there! Perhaps they should consider polygamy where the woman can take more than 1 husband (I believe they did that in Tibet for a while).

Analytical Adam said...

If women and their husbands don't do anything to help men unless they worship the male Rabbi what do they expect. The male Rabbis don't want competition from other men but the women don't see it that way. They enjoy Rabbis puting down other men and like the favoritism they get even though it is not for NOBLE REASONS and behind the womens back they brag how they could manipulate women.

YOur atitude towards men dying in war is very unbiblical. You want respect yet your attitude towards men dying in war is like no big deal. All the men in the bible mourned when any man died and called out to God when God let any man die in a military battle. They were true male leaders. Sadly though I don't think your husband has the same atittude from your writing that a man dying is no big deal. That is a death cult. This is not something that is Godly.

Mrs. A. How would you feel if the attitude towards woman dying in childbirth was the same as you have. The idea of endless war Mrs. Anna should bother you instead of making it out like no big deal although in my view that is one of my own concerns about polygomy is that men who should end other men to fight endless wars should not be rewarded. But Judaism gives no rights to men who are not Rabbis which is a very unbiblical position.

THis idea that every women should be treated fairly is not biblical either. That is unenforceable and sometimes one woman DOES DESERVE more respect then another woman.

Hagar was kicked out because she and her son Ismael was a bad influence on her son Issac and Sarah cared about her son having morality. Chana was the mother of Samuel which she was reward with her righteousness by having a righteous son. Furthermore, GOD DIDN"T TREAT THE WOMEN EQUALLY EITHER. His other wife had many children while Chana only had one but her son was a real special son unlike the other woman in this case.

Which the bible's idea of a righteous woman is one who raises a righteous son which also of course needs a righteous man to teach the boy to be a man. Every man who is righteous in the bible except for Abraham (why I don't know) the wife is mentioned and that includes Moses as well.

Leah Brand-Burks said...

Lena Michalev: The reason this is so in India and China is because of selective gender abortion. It is because girls end up costing more, and many mothers are pressured by their families to abort any girls they conceive.

Analytical Adam said...

I also wanted to add that actually the reason for polygamy actually is because woman have a biological clock and they could be forced to marry an evil man to have children which a man does not have a biological clock although of course he does age and that affects his ability to make a living.

What Solomon did was wrong as the torah does say for a king not to take TOO MANY WIVES which he did. What Abraham and other men did was not considered wrong and certainly they didn't do it as an ideal type of situation. ANd Moses are most humble righteous prophet who gave us the torah from God had only one wife who today some would take issue and claim his children aren't because she was not an Israelite.

Also the Rabbis can't play God. If the torah says it is ok who are we to say otherwise although the torah also requires a man to support the wife as well.

Of course the Rabbis have not respected a mans property rights. Last week I studied the Parsha of Maasi the last bible reading in numbers and I never realized that an issue came up with the daughters of Zelapchad marrying from another tribe which would mean their fathers land would go to another tribe as they asked to inherit this land to preserve their fathers name and God agreed. BUt part of that was that they had to marry from their own tribe which was not a general rule just for women who inherited property because their father had no sons. Yet the Rabbis claim this was discontinued and claiming this was a good thing as it created "more unity". In the exile that is true as men couldn't own property in many cases. For Rabbis to celebrate this says a lot. To Rabbis a man owning land could lead to sexism so it is better if they can't own land. That is just terrible and classic socialism that some male leader doesn't want other men to be able to own land. So it is sad that on so many other biblical issues other then polygamy the community doesn't care about because taking away rights from men doesn't bother them and that is now part of Judaism that should never be looked at.

Analytical Adam said...

Last point. According to the bible as well in the census only men over 20 who owned land and can serve in the legion were counted. These men since they had to protect their property and would have to go to war if necessary were counted. Woman and children were not. Nor were the Levites since they did not get a part of the land as they were not part of the regular census even though they actually were serving a higher role but since they didn't have a land to protect they were not part of the regular census and in their case they were counted from a month old and up.

Certainly when the men who are affected by war decide when to go to war there will be less wars and only wars when appropriate and for real reasons both physical and spiritual that another nations is thrusting upon them. Furthermore since Rabbis don't want to give other men any other biblical rights then of course the idea of polygamy is absurd and would only benefit them since they are the ones that make other men powerless which causes women to not want men that seem like they are just slaves to some other man. Why then just not marry that other men instead these tangled web that exists.

SouthernBelle Rivky said...

I don't think polygamy even if the ban was lifed would be helping out older singles. Many single women would not want to be a man's second wife, interrupting an already establish couple/family. Talk about being the third wheel. I doubt a loving husband already in a good marriage would want to upset that by acquiring the additional responbilities of another wife even if the ban was lifted. So I doubt there would be much increase in marriages or fertility except in a few situations.

Though I must take issue with this statement "those who truly and deeply desire marriage should take the trivial measure of not being picky, and allowing for wider difference of age, education and social status than they previously pictured to themselves," has caused much heartache among older singles, both male and female. People who marry young don't fully realize the blessing they were given. Or how hurtful to it is imply older singles are being 'picky' for wanting a good spouse. The point is not to marry just anyone, but someone with same life goals and compatible.

Older singles should not be bullied and pressured into dating large age gaps they don't feel comfortable with (I've been redt men old enough to be my father, and looked like a grandfather!) because these gross old men want a young childbearing woman. The shadchan always being a woman married to someone near her age. I agree education and soical status are not as critical, but I've encountered quite a few older men who have little employable skills or the motivation to acquire, expected that an eager to marry woman should be willing to be the breadwinner. Not fair to expect a woman to take on this burden just for the sake of "being married." I'm sure men get pressured into considered very unsuitable matches as well. But not being a guy, I wouldn 't know (not purposely leaving men out, I don't really know the problems from the guy point of view).

That being said, I know there are plenty of good single men and women that would be great spouses, but are having problems finding each other due to dumb singles games that are wasting everyone's time.

Lena Michalev said...

Leah Brand-Burks , I know what has caused the situation in China and India. Boys were favored for a number of reasons, so girls were aborted or killed after birth. That does not eliminate the fact that as a result, they have millions of single men who are unlikely to find a mate. Now China is allowing more than 1 child up to the first boy because when the rule was "one only", they wanted the boy to be the "one" (again, for a number of reasons). So now that they are dealing with the consequences of those decisions, perhaps they should also consider polygamy, to reduce the amount of single men who are bound for a life of loneliness.

Anonymous said...

The mother of Samuel did eventually have other children, so the Lord did remember her -- with 3 more sons and 2 daughters.

But I digress --
I think the point is -- look at the Lord's design, his example. In the beginning, he created one man and one woman to be his help mate. Not help meets.

Look at the Amish -- they have no problem increasing their population year to year. They have a culture that encourages and loves children and families (families include singles living with them for those whose vocation is singlehood).

Sadly, most modern couples simply don't want children anymore.

The movie Children of Men was very good, if only for one scene - it is a world without children and after many years of a childless world and in the middle of a fierce battle -- a baby's cry is heard and everyone, everything -- stops, silent. It is very moving.

~ Zipporah