Quantity vs. Quality

The Ramban, also known as Nachmanides (1194-1270), renowned medieval commentator of Torah and Talmud, famously remarks on the verse in Parshat Kedoshim – You shall be holy (Leviticus 19:2) – that one may technically fulfill the letter of Torah law, and still be what he refers to as a “Navel b’reshut haTorah” a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.

What it means is someone who technically fulfills mitzvot, but does it in such a way that it takes him or her away from holiness and developing true spiritual sensitivities.

The Ramban sprang to mind when I read an article in the Jerusalem Post about a group of so-called rabbis who are pushing for polygamy.

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.

One of the things I love about this idea, floated about from time to time by various individuals, is that it’s never for the sake of the men, but always to help out women by solving the problem of not enough men to marry, and to increase the birthrate of the Jewish People. So nice of these men to have the interests of women at heart, while not considering for a moment the price women pay in polygamous cultures, and the possibly devastating social impact of such a move.

“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.

The argument didn’t hold much weight with the rabbinic establishment, who called it for what it is:

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, noting that in the Even Ha’ezer, the relevant section from the Sephardi equivalent of the Shulhan Aruch, the Tur, it is noted that such a ban on marrying a second woman is desirable.
“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.

Here’s another article on the subject someone sent me from KiKar HaShabat, a popular Hebrew blog which brings news from the observant world.

This article has as it’s headline a statement of one of the proponents of polygamy, Dov Stein, saying that “A man is not the exclusive property of his wife.”

I must confess I had to read the headline twice, since before I knew what the article was about I thought that it must really have said “A woman is not the exclusive property of her husband”, assuming it was an article about treating one’s wife with dignity and respect.

Talk about my own cognitive dissonance.

Little did I know until I was privileged to learn from Stein, that as we all know, one of the big problems in the world today is that so many women treat their husbands as mere chattel.

All I have to say is that apparently Stein is on a self-appointed Sanhedrin which is headed by Rav Adin Steinsaltz. Given Rav Steinsaltz’s integrity and commitment to truth in Torah study, I would hope to see Stein taken off of this august body, and not a moment too soon.

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5 Responses to Quantity vs. Quality

  1. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Are there any women behind this?

    • shaananlaw says:

      I don’t know the answer to that question, but it would not surprise me to find men who would co-opt women into promoting the idea.
      However, if you take a look at literature from cultures with polygamy, I think that you’ll find that women are generally at best disgruntled with the arrangement, and at worst, subject to ongoing emotional abuse from both the husband and women higher up the marital totem pole.
      For a particularly horrific description of the impact of polygamy on idiosyncratic Mormon groups, I recommend Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.

  2. Nice try but you skip of many of the points. Those who love to quote Rabbeinu Gershom usually omit the exemptions that he gave where having more than one wife was permitted by his Takanah.
    Check my blog where I going over th JPost article point by point.
    Yitzchak
    http://polygamyinisrael.blogspot.com/

  3. After reading the last comment, i didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Mr. Yitzhak Michael’s discussion is so disjointed as to be risible.

    Let’s take things one thing at a time.
    Regarding R. Gershom: 1) The edict attributed to Rabbenu Gershom was, in fact, a meta-communal ordinance accepted by all of the communities of Ashkenaz in the early eleventh century.
    2) Careful analysis of the manuscript tradition of the ordinance has proven that there were no exceptions made to the ban. In addition, there is no credible evidence that Ashkenazim were polygamists before the ban’s promulgation. This has led Historians to assume that the Rhenish communities were prompted to act in order to prevent travelling merchants from establishing second families, without their wives’ knowledge, in Islamic lands to which they travelled on business. This contention is confirmed by none other than Maimonides, who forbade Ashkenazi merchants from marrying local women until they divorced any other wives they had. IOW, Rambam demanded monogamy in twelfth century Muslim Egypt.
    3) One possible exception, that was raised outside of the formal enactment, concerned the propriety of marrying a widowed sister-in-law as part of a Levirite marriage. This exception was rendered moot a century later when Levirite Marriage (Yibbum) was banned across the boards by Ashkenazic authorities.
    4) There is absolutely no authoritative tradition limiting the effectiveness of the ban on Polygamy, from Ashkenazic sources. There is a persistent rumor to that effect that is cited by halakhic authorities. It was, however, not accepted by the legal consensus.
    5) Even if, originally, there had been a terminus ad quem for this edict, it was rendered irrelevant by the acceptance thereof by halakhic tradition (sugya de-alma).

    Regarding non-Ashkenazim:
    1) Even though Polygamy may have been technically licit, it was a very rare exception in Muslim countries. This says much about the profoundly monogamous character of Jewish marriage.
    2) Polygamy was, albeit, fairly common in Yemen. The reason was that Muslims kidnapped young, unmarried Jewish girls who came of age and forced them to convert to Islam and marry Arabs. As a result, Jews married child brides in order to protect them.

    Regarding the claim that the Torah allows it, so why stop it…well, if you look at Guide for the Perplexed III, 41 and Hil. Mamrim II, you understand that there are tons of things that were originally licit but, in changing circumstances (or as a result of spiritual growth on the part of the Jews) were no longer allowed. That is where Ms. Shaanan’s mention of נבל ברשות התורה comes in, and I sign off.

  4. Pingback: Footnote | The Missing Peace

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