Polygamy's Practice Stirs Debate in Israel
BY CHRISTOPHER SMITH
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
"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
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
"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
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