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.