LONDON — Sitting at his dark wooden kitchen table in shorts, sporting a flashy gold bracelet, Philip Sharp, 48, does not look or sound like Britain’s most infamous rabbi. And technically, he isn’t. His 1993 rabbinic ordination, from the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, was revoked after he became too controversial even for Jews for Jesus.
“They ordered me to send back the certificate, but I didn’t, and they denied I was ever ordained,” says Sharp. “For me, their god is puny. I don’t want to serve a god like that. I told God himself — if you’re like that, [expletive] off.”
That has not stopped Britain’s tabloids from naughtily dubbing him the Rampant Rabbi, and following his every move. Sharp is the patriarch of the country’s only openly polygamous family. In addition to his legal wife, Hadass — from whom he has separated, but never divorced, after 17 years of marriage — he lives with five other women between the ages of 34 and 69 who changed their last name to Sharp. He considers them his wives once they have consummated their relationship. Two other wives recently left, taking with them several of his 18 children.
Sharp claims his polygamy is part of a divine plan, revealed to him by God, in which the End of Days judgement will start in his own house. Whether he genuinely believes this is impossible to say.
Until July, the family lived in a four-bedroom house on an idyllic farm in southeast England, rearing racehorses and running a removals business. But due to financial pressure, the family has sold its property and is taking a three-month hiatus in Crete before deciding on its next step.
Just before moving day, several wives were packing boxes as farm staff members burned manure outside two run-down caravans the family had used as additional accommodation. Sharp himself lived in a small apartment opposite the vast horse stables, giving him — and, presumably, his visiting wives — a measure of privacy.
He met most of the women through the network of messianic synagogues he used to run, and claims the aim of his unusual lifestyle is to protect them.
“There were a lot of women in my congregation, some of them single mothers who were needy of a man,” he says. “As a papa [of the congregation], I asked how I could look after them, and began to get in touch with my responsibility as a man to women.
“The more it came to me, the more Jewish it [seemed]. The Torah states that to be truly religious is to look after widows and orphans. The deeper I got into it, the more I could see the halachah [Jewish law] is clear: a woman is never outside of covering by her father, brother, kinsmen. I began to say, how do we implement this? I could see I needed to take on more than one wife.”
The arrangement succeeds, he says, because of the family’s religious framework.
“It doesn’t work without the Torah,” he says. “It would be just sleaze. It would be ugly.”
That is exactly what two of his ex-wives claim about life with him. Tracey Sharp, who moved out in 2010, has told the media she was “vulnerable, insecure and lonely” when they met, and that she was manipulated by his claims of religious prophecy. She claims he expected obedience from his wives, that he slapped her twice following arguments and that the atmosphere in the house was “toxic” as the wives jostled for his favor.
Hadass has claimed he was “fixated by sex,” and that he had “a terrible, violent and aggressive side,” which included beating her when pregnant and carrying out an exorcism on their 4-year-old.
According to Sharp, “Both Tracey and Hadass are very good at passing blame so they don’t look bad.” He admits that he twice slapped Tracey — whom he calls “a disruptive influence” — and says he was wrong to do so, but has never beaten anyone.
He denies a sexual obsession, saying that his first wife rarely wanted to have relations, and while he cannot recall the exorcism incident, “exorcism is something we practice, and many have been helped greatly by this Torah-based practice. If it happened, then fine.”
Judith, the only wife who agreed to an interview before the Crete trip, says that Tracey had never fully committed to the family, and that when she left the final time, “it was a bit of a relief. I felt betrayed by her behavior when she left — how the media portrayed us was appalling. I was so angry.”
She says she has chosen her lifestyle willingly, because she believes in “the vision we have as a family and community. Polygamy is one aspect of that, but it’s not so Phil can have lots of sex. Biblically, there were tribes of families. I think of us as a tribe.
“I don’t mind if people misunderstand or disagree,” she adds, “but I do mind being judged.”
The family has undergone some soul-searching following the departure of two wives
Sharp grew up in a Jewish family in the well-to-do London suburb of Stanmore, attending a cheder and singing in his Reform synagogue choir. After his mother died when he was 16, he fell out with his father, whom he calls “a self-centered man… I had no parents, in that respect.”
He became a successful DJ on the Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah circuit, but continued to feel “isolated.” In his early 20s, Sharp went to find himself in Greece — “I got involved with too many women,” he says, with no apparent irony — and instead found Jesus.
“The beauty of what I heard got a hold of my heart,” he says.
Eventually, he married Hadass, an Israeli who was messianic before they met, in an Orthodox ceremony, and even lived in Israel for short periods. But Sharp says that the marriage floundered because he was more interested than Hadass in Jewish tradition, and because “she wanted to be the macher,” or big shot.
“I don’t do women being the macher.”
In 1982, Sharp began receiving visions he believes came from God. In the late 1990s, they became stronger, with God addressing him as if he were “a king, as I understand it — someone who overcomes the wiles and trickery of Satan.”
“I fell into a well of revelation that I knew was ancient,” he says. “It was like the Prophet Yirmiyahu [Jeremiah] and I were brothers.
“I thought I’d gone mad,” he adds. “I knew people would hate me, and that I was being set up for persecution for the rest of my life. Was I prepared to stomach it? I was — my love for God is bigger than anything in my life.”
By then he had established 15 messianic synagogues around the world, including in the British seaside town of Hove, where he was based. Amid a crumbling marriage, he moved in with the synagogue secretary, Judith, who had grown up Reform in London, but learned about messianic Judaism while suffering from “a virtual nervous breakdown” due to work stress. She was attracted to Sharp’s synagogue because of his preaching.
With what she calls curly “Jewish” hair and a straightforward manner, Judith insists she was “at the center of the discussion” about Sharp’s move to polygamy.
“The whole synagogue went on a caravan holiday and discussed it into the night,” she says as two Labradors slumber under the table. “We saw in the Bible how the patriarchs and kings took on extra wives, widows and orphans. It seemed to make sense.”
‘Biblically, there were tribes of families. I think of us as a tribe’
Sharp’s next wife, Shoshana, only lasted a couple of months. But she was soon followed by Hannah, a congregant from Sharp’s Austrian synagogue, and Tracey, from his group in Bournemouth, England; a New Zealander, Margo; Vreni, from Switzerland; and Chava, a widow who met Sharp when he officiated at her husband’s funeral. (Like Judith, she was born Jewish; the rest are gentiles.)
The youngest wife, Karyn, was the daughter of another congregant, Maureen. Although Karyn left this year, her mother still lives with the family, and part-owned the farmhouse.
At first, everyone living together was “a nightmare. I won’t underplay it,” says Judith. Not only were there cultural issues, “we didn’t know each other that well when we started. We had to get to know each other as people, let alone as the wife of your husband. We had fights — we probably still do, like any other family — but it’s evolved. Now we are all really close.”
When it comes to marital relations, there is no schedule governing time with Philip.
“It naturally happens,” says Judith. “He suggests who, or a wife asks. It can be for coffee or the day — not just the night.”
And while she does admit “jealousies” among the wives, she says, “In the same way a parent doesn’t have a favorite child, Phil has an enormous capacity to love. It’s not diluted because there is more than one wife. Each of us has an individual relationship with him.”
Her own family disowned her when she switched faiths, although her brother came to check out Sharp “and didn’t kidnap me back. I’m much closer to my siblings now.”
She herself raised Margo’s daughters almost from birth, a decision made by Sharp. In a recent Channel 5 documentary, “The Girl With Seven Mums,” which focused on one of them, 10-year-old Ellie, he explained: “Margo had a very strong anti-men attitude, and it was so strong that it was in Ellie. Ellie did not like me, and rejected me. The witchcraft of women annihilates children’s love and respect for their fathers.”
When it comes to marital relations, there is no schedule governing time with Philip
In the program, Ellie comes across as bright, articulate and sociable.
The family denies that the children, who are home-schooled by Maureen, a former teacher, are sheltered from reality, noting that they all do after-school clubs and have friends outside the family (although in one scene in the documentary, the mother of one friend is visibly uncomfortable as Judith tells her about the family’s lifestyle).
“They all know that everyone has two parents, but it’s not where they come from,” says Judith. “There’s nothing to deal with — it is what it is. They know no different.”
As to whether they will marry into polygamous families, Sharp says he doesn’t mind, as long as they are happy.
One constant in Sharp family life is religion, starting every morning when everyone gets together to discuss problems (although Sharp admits he has the final say on decisions) and worship.
While Sharp shuns the “legalistic” practice of Judaism, he does not work on Shabbat, and the family eats Friday night dinner together and makes kiddush over the wine. Sharp says he normally wears tzitzit, ritual fringes seen as reminders of religious obligation — “not that I need reminding, as it’s all in my heart” — but sees no need for tefillin, for the same reason. Tracy complained to the media that the wives are forced to cover their hair, but none did so during the Times of Israel interview, and Sharp says they can wear what they like.
In recent months, the family has undergone some soul-searching, prompted by the departure of Tracey and, in particular, the far more popular Karyn. Judith says they came to realize they were working so hard that they had lost sight of what was really important in life. She denies press reports that the family was reliant on the wives’ state benefits to survive, saying that only one wife claimed a working tax credit.
“The opposite — we do whatever we can to earn money,” she says. “We have lots of businesses going. We’re so busy trying to get our heads above water, we’ve neglected ourselves.”
According to Judith, the family’s horse-breeding business was hit hard by the recession, and the group has been “in debt up to our eyeballs.” Their break in Crete — where their removals business is partially based — will allow them to work less and spend more time with the children.
Beyond that, the future is unclear. But two things are certain. Wherever it ends up, this unconventional family will continue to attract media attention — much to the consternation of the local Jewish community, which has in the past felt forced to distance itself from Philip Sharp.
And the family has not yet taken its final shape.
“If, God forbid, any of [the current wives] should leave, it would kill us. I couldn’t see it happening — it’s too deep now,” Sharp says. “But I could see other wives coming in. I could take another wife or two.”