Polygamy's Practice Stirs Debate in Israel

WASHINGTON -- Polygamy may be banned by the state constitution and abolished by the predominant religion, but it is still practiced by ultra-orthodox followers of the faith, some who want it made lawful to avoid sticky legal and moral questions.

Sounds like Utah, but it's Israel.

Political pressure to loosen the prohibition on polygamy for Sephardi Jews who came to Israel from Muslim countries is growing, a researcher told the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting, which concluded Sunday in the nation's capital.

But the push in Israel for legalized "polygyny," the alternative term for having more than one wife at one time, stems not from a shortage of marriage-age men, an abundance of single women or an upswing in demand for multiple brides. Anthropologist S. Zev Kalifon of Bar-Ilan University in Israel said the call by former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph to legalize polygyny is part of a political movement to restore conservative traditions and lash out against popular notions of social equality.

"They feel that the secular world which they met in Israel when they immigrated in the 1950s destroyed the patriarchal Sephardi family and its values," said Kalifon. "The ban on polygyny is seen as something modern, an expression of western or European values."

Stories in the Old Testament indicate polygamy was an accepted part of the social order and is technically legal under Jewish law. But the practice has been banned for Jews in Europe since the 11th century, when rabbinate leaders sought to ease tensions between Jews and their Christian neighbors, who considered polygamy barbaric. Kalifon said the view of polygamy for the Jewish people differed significantly from that of early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced the practice by the turn of the 20th century.

"What Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did was make polygyny an ideal, with an ideal man having more than one wife," he said. "In Judaism, it is permitted but definitely not encouraged, [and] was never considered an ideal."

While European or "Ashkenazi" Jews adopted the rabbinical adjustment to ban

polygamy as a binding tradition, the Sephardi Jews outside of Europe continued to take second wives. Two wives is the "unspoken cap" for Sephardi Jews, said Kalifon. Polygamy among Jews is not limited to Sephardim. Jews living in the predominantly Arab country of Yemen still practice polygamy under the belief that Israel's rabbis are wrong in their prohibition of plural marriage. Yemeni Jews have an "unspoken cap" of four wives, rather than two.

"If a man can satisfy four women at the same time, then good for him," the Yemeni chief rabbi in Raydah, Yemen, told the Associated Press last year. Another group of polygamists associating with Judaism are the "Black Hebrews," some 2,000 African-Americans who emigrated illegally from urban Chicago to Israel in the early 1970s, claiming to be descendants of "one of the lost tribes of Israel." Besides practicing polygamy, the members are strict vegetarians and eat only raw food for four weeks each year.

When Israel became a state in 1949, the ban on polygamy became legally binding on all Jewish residents. Yet some Sephardi Jews in Israel continue to take second wives in "underground" marriages performed by rabbis who oppose the legal ban. Kalifon said these plural marriages by Sephardi Jews have created a mire of legal problems.

Kalifon doubts any groundswell of would-be polygamist Sephardim is the motivation behind Rabbi Yoseph's campaign, given that most of his congregants are poor immigrants who are unable to support multiple wives.

"Polygyny, if done right, is a good way to go bankrupt," said Kalifon. He contends the pro-polygamy movement is spurred more by moral issues than legal, financial or demographic concerns.

"Advocating polygyny reminds these [Ashkenazim] rabbis that they 'gave in' to outside pressures, changed tradition to fit in to the European world and strayed from the way of our forefathers," said Kalifon. "Polygyny says that Sephardi Jews are closer to the tradition, purer in their observation of Judaism and less assimilated into the modern world. The desire to reinstate polygyny can be seen as a symbol of the uniqueness of the Sephardi religious worldview and a test of their growing political strength."