New Jewish group wants to restore polygamy

A new organization is trying to reinstate polygamy into mainstream Orthodox Judaism, despite it being against the contemporary norm of Jewish law, and prohibited by the state.

The idea is the brainchild of Habayit Hayehudi Hashalem (The Complete Jewish Household).

It is being promoted as the Jewish solution for the abundance of single women, the Arab demographic threat and the male predicament of seeking extramarital relations.

A small advertisement over the weekend in the broadly circulated Shabbat Beshabato, a hand-out distributed in synagogues nationwide dealing with the weekly Torah portion and contemporary issues, quoted a paragraph from senior Sephardi adjudicator Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Yabi’a Omer treatise, in which he wrote that it is a mistake for non-Ashkenazim to follow Rabbeinu Gershom’s “stringency,” according to which it is prohibited for a man to marry more than one wife. Approximately 1,000 years ago, Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz, Germany, issued resonating reforms on a variety of subjects pertaining to Jewish life, and those who transgressed them were liable to be socially excommunicated. Perhaps the most well-known of these prohibitions is to not to be married to more than one woman at a time, despite the fact that this was common in biblical times.

The man behind the ad, Rabbi Yehezkel Sopher, saw no legal problem in his initiative.

“This is not about secular people who abide by the rules of the state, rather religious people. Whoever wants to take another wife – the Torah does not object to it,” Sopher told The Jerusalem Post. “We work according to the Shulhan Aruch, there are rules here.”

As for Rabbeinu Gershom’s excommunication ban, even for those who would as Ashkenazim have followed it – “that has been over for hundreds of years by now,” as its end date was the end of the fifth millennium according to the Jewish year count, i.e. some 700 years ago, he said.

As for the fact that the rabbinate is against bigamy and polygamy, Sopher, who identified himself as a resident of the Central region, explained that “the rabbis at the Chief Rabbinate receive their salaries from the state,” so publicly they have to object to polygamy. “But if you ask them behind closed doors, they will say it’s allowed.”

Sopher himself is married to only one woman, “but there is already consent to a second.”

Asked why they made this issue public now, and in a mainstream national-religious publication, he said that “we really wanted it to resonate.

We’ve been working on it for two years now, through our publications.

But we want it to get out to the larger public.

“This is a cry out to all God-fearing Jews. Instead of Arabs marrying Jewish women, Jews should,” he said.

“This is also a solution for women who never married, for widows, divorcees.”

The whole notion of monogamy is not an essentially Jewish one, Sopher stressed. “This [polygamy] is very acceptable in our religion, it’s religious coercion from the establishment under the influence of Catholicism that prevents about 15 percent of women in their fertile age from marrying,” he said.

“It’s cruel. And the Jewish nation is harmed by it. We think national fertility could rise by at least 10%. This is national discrimination, where the state turns a blind eye to Beduin, who freely take more wives. If Jews do, they are thrown into prison. And if a law is implemented in a discriminatory manner, it doesn’t have to be heeded,” he said.

In the ad, Sopher noted his group had a rabbinical court working with it on the issue. The head of that court is Rabbi Dov Stein of Jerusalem, who also serves as secretary for the nascent Sanhedrin project.

Stein said Habayit Hayehudi Hashalem’s initiative is not counter to the laws of the state.

“You can legally marry a second woman, the same way the secular public figured out how to marry in Cyprus and then have it approved here. Rabbis have found ways to enable such frameworks – otherwise we’d be inciting to a crime here,” he told the Post. “There are loopholes in the law we can find, Ashkenazim as well.”

The source of this move is not men, rather women, said Stein.

“This is an appeal of women to change the law, they are voicing their protest, they are not enabled to establish a family, have a future.

They are miserable.”

Stein said on Sunday afternoon that nearly 100 people had already telephoned to express interest in such an endeavor, following the weekend ad.

“There are women who agree, but can’t act on it. But even if a woman doesn’t agree, her husband is not her property, and by law he is not prohibited from having an affair with another woman.”

Senior members of the Chief Rabbinate slammed Habayit Hayehudi Hashalem and said it was a perversion of Judaism, motivated solely by “carnal lust.”

This is a distortion and madness,” said Rabbi Ya’acov Bezalel Harrar, the head of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s office.

As for Yosef’s adjudication quoted in the ad, “this was taken out of context.

The validity of Rabbeinu Gershom’s excommunication ban might have expired, but that doesn’t mean that polygamy is permitted,” Harrar said.

“No rabbi would permit such a thing,” he said. “This is despicable villainy,” Harrar continued. “I am even less bothered by homosexual relations than such an instance in which a man takes two wives. In a homosexual scenario there are two people who decide to live their life that way. Here a person is putting two women into a conflict.

“Besides carnal lust” of the men involved, “there is nothing here,” he said of the claim that this was being proposed in the name of women who otherwise wouldn’t be able to marry or bear children. Harrar also doubted the fact that this could be seen as a trend. But “if it is a trend, it deserves all possible condemnation,” he said.

Kiryat Ono Chief Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, head of the Chief Rabbinical Council’s Marriage Committee, said that “it is true that in the Torah a man is allowed to marry more than one woman. But it is wrong to think that besides Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban the phenomenon was widespread.”

Arusi noted as proof the fact that Yemenite Jews, who never accepted the ban, rarely took more than more wife, and even when they did it was only in extreme cases such as infertility.

But in modern Israel, a rabbinic court would not allow a Yemenite man to take another woman, even when his barren wife insisted that she wanted him to, he said.

“Don’t think rabbinic courts aren’t very careful about not letting one bring troubles into his home,” Arusi said. A rare case in which a second wife would be allowed would be if the first one were in a coma, and it would be impossible to divorce her according to Jewish law. “And even then, the rabbis would ensure that all the comatose woman’s rights were ensured, should she awake from her coma,” he said.

Arusi was concerned that such a phenomenon would increase the rates of unregulated marriages and divorces in Israel, which could lead to severe pedigree problems.

“Woe to all those who take the law into their own hands, and create facts on the ground, and seek ways around the rabbinate with private weddings, without getting permission from the rabbinate and the leading rabbis.

They are not solving problems, rather creating them. By registering marriage in Israel, we can monitor things and ensure there are no mamzerim [people forbidden to marry according to Halacha] marrying. Can we have that supervision with unregulated weddings? And how can one be sure that the divorce carried out for such a person who wed off the books would be entirely by Jewish law? This is narrowmindedness that should not be allowed,” Arusi said.

“There is an internal halachic debate on this, but these people should not deceive the public into thinking that without Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban any Jew can go and marry as many women as he wants,” he said.

Arusi said his committee would examine the issue in its next meeting.