Pleas of Israeli women lead group to call for polygamy's return

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Advocates for lifting a 1,000-year-old ban on polygamy say it's an issue of national survival and a way to handle a surplus of single women.

The call for lifting the ban came in the form of an ad in last weekend's Shabbat Beshabato, a weekly religious guide widely distributed in Israeli synagogues. The Jerusalem Post reports that the small ad, placed by a group called Habayit Hayehudi Hashalem (The Complete Jewish Household), advocates polygamy as the Jewish solution to the Arab demographic threat, a surplus of single women and male infidelity.

Noting that polygamy was common in Biblical times, the ad goes on to note that nothing in the Torah forbids the practice. The ban dates to the 11th century CE, or the middle of the fifth millennium on the Jewish calendar, when Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz, Germany, issued a list of sweeping reforms of Jewish life to be followed under pain of social excommunication. Among them was a ban on the taking of more than one wife at a time by a man.

Rabbi Yehezkel Sopher, who placed the ad on behalf of the group, says the call for lifting the ban poses no legal problem. “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 Post.

Furthermore, he added, the excommunication penalty became null and void some 700 years ago.

When it was pointed out that the Israeli rabbinate is against polygamy, Sopher said, “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.”

Polygamy is also outlawed in the Israeli civil code, but Sopher noted that the law is not enforced on Bedouin Arabs, who he said freely take multiple wives.

Rabbi Dov Stein of Jerusalem, a member of the rabbinical court that is examining the issue, backed up Sopher's assertions about both the morality and legality of Jewish polygamy. “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.” (Rabbeinu Gershom was Ashkenazi, and some Sephardic rabbis have said that his rules do not apply to Sephardic Jews.)

Both rabbis say their move to reinstate polygamy is a way to counter the rising tide of Arab births that threatens the survival of Israel as a Jewish state and a way to enable the large number of unmarried single Jewish women of childbearing age to marry and raise families. In fact, Stein said, the call for lifting the ban came from those women.

“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.”

Members of the Chief Rabbinate contacted by the Post denounced the ad and its sponsors, saying they perverted Judaism and Jewish law.

“No rabbi would permit such a thing. This is despicable villainy,” said Rabbi Ya’acov Bezalel Harrar, the head of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s office. “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.” Another rabbi who serves on the Chief Rabbinate's Marriage Committee told the Post that even before the ban was issued a millennium ago, few Jews actually practiced polygamy.

Image source of Israel: Wikipedia

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