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Have a question about Jewish customs, practice or prayer? No question is too grand or too trivial.  Just ask the Rabbi — David Fine, spiritual leader of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee.Rabbi David Fine

Rabbi David Fine graduated cum laude with high honors from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, received an MA in Jewish history from the graduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained at the Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary of Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat, Israel.   

Rabbi Fine will select representative questions for this feature.  Questions not answered here will not receive personal responses.

Banning polygamy embodies original intent for marriage

By Rabbi David Fine

Why is polygamy not accepted practice when our patriarchs were polygamous and there is no specific halacha against it? Also, from the opposite perspective, why was polygamy practiced by our patriarchs when the Torah clearly says that Eve was made for Adam as his wife, and the wording for woman and wife were in the singular and not the plural?

Ivan M. Lang
Glendale

The following summary is partly based on a class by Rabbi Menachem Schrader at Yeshivat Hamivtar on Sept. 5, 1996. Thanks to my friend Rabbi Uri Cohen of Israel for the help.

The verse about the creation of the first woman, “I will make a helper opposite him” (Genesis 2:18), tells us that G-d intended marriage to be monogamous — one woman and one man should be partners for each other. However, because G-d gave humans free will, the world does not always develop the way G-d would like.
The first recorded polygamy is that of Lemekh (Genesis 4:19). Why did he do it? A midrash suggests he wanted one wife for procreation and another for sex; the first wife would bear children and then become a living widow because her husband would ignore her, and the second wife would sterilize herself and dress up like a prostitute (Genesis Rabbah 33:2).

This midrash is complaining that polygamy objectifies women. If a wife is not a partner but just someone to use, it’s more efficient to use two of them.

It is true that both Abraham and Jacob married more than one wife. However, neither one planned to do so, but was pressured into it, Abraham by Sarah’s desperation, and Jacob by Laban’s deception.

Furthermore, the additional wives were not concubines (second-class wives for sex), but rather full-privilege wives (Genesis 16:3; Nachmanides on 25:6; 30:4 and 9; Radak on 35:22). Finally, both Abraham and Jacob suffered as a result of having more than one wife. (Interestingly, the Hebrew word for co-wives is “tzara” — enemies!) Accordingly, we understand polygamy as something to be avoided.

If polygamy is against G-d’s design for marriage, and can objectify women and lead to problems, why was it permitted at all? Rabbi Reuven Bulka suggests that in biblical times, having the option of polygamy was sometimes in women’s best interest: “Some women may have preferred only one husband, of meager means, and a life of struggle. Others may have preferred sharing a husband if that meant fewer financial worries. This free choice was to the woman’s advantage” (“Jewish Marriage,” pp. 192-193).

However, eventually times changed and the negatives of polygamy far outweighed the positives for women. So around the year 1000 C.E., Rabbenu Gershom prohibited polygamy once and for all.

Almost all Jewish groups accepted this ban. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the ban became completely unanimous, after a decree of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. But now all Jewish marriage is monogamous, as G-d had originally intended.

Rabbi David Fine is spiritual leader of Lake Park Synagogue. His column is found regularly on our web site at www.jewishchronicle.org.

 

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