In defiance of Israeli law, polygamy sanctioned by top rabbis

With apparent backing from Jerusalem chief rabbi, organization helps religious Jewish men marry a second wife, claiming this helps single women have families, counters demographic trends

"Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds" by Joseph von Führich, 1836 (Public domain, Wikimedia commons)
"Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds" by Joseph von Führich, 1836 (Public domain, Wikimedia commons)

Each year, a number of Israeli rabbis affiliated with the rabbinate give permission for dozens of Orthodox Jewish men to take a second wife, despite the fact that polygamy is illegal under state law, an expose by Channel 10 television revealed on Monday.

An organization catering primarily to the Jewish Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities actively encourages and facilitates polygamy, claiming the practice will help reduce the number of single women within their communities and at the same time give Jews an edge in the demographic race against Arabs in Israel.

On its Hebrew website, the group, called “The Complete Jewish Home” has collated responsa from rabbis over the past 800 years, which discuss whether or not polygamy is permitted in practice under Jewish law.

The organization also holds regular parlor meetings for couples looking for an extra wife to join the family, Channel 10 found. Reportedly the majority of these second wives are women who did not grow up in the Orthodox community but joined it later in life and are struggling to find a spouse.

One rabbi, who serves a community in the central city of Hod Hasharon and has been married for 26 years, was filmed by an undercover reporter who infiltrated the organization as he attempted to persuade her to become his second wife. “If your parents ask you why you don’t marry like everyone else,” he told her, “tell them that it is a mitzvah and I want to do a mitzvah.”

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. (screen capture: Ynet)
Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar speaks at the mixed gender Western Wall plaza on June 14, 2016. (screen capture: Ynet)

The rabbi showed the reporter a letter — written on official government stationery and signed by the Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar — permitting him to marry a second wife. He claimed that it took him over a year to receive the authorization, after first requesting permission from the local religious court before gaining authorization from the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Although Jewish law forbids a woman to marry more than one husband, a practice known as polyandry, it does permit a man to marry more than one wife. There are several instances of polygamy in the Bible, including two of the three patriarchs (Abraham and Jacob) and many of the kings. Jewish law gives guidelines as to the circumstances under which polygamy is permitted.

Yet already by the fourth or fifth century of the common era, the practice was discouraged or banned, and none of the rabbis named in the Talmud had polygamous relationships. Furthermore, a ruling by 10th century Rabbi Gershom ben Yehuda banned the practice completely for Ashkenazi Jews. That ruling was subsequently also accepted by most Sephardic communities.

In exceptional circumstances, where a wife is physically or mentally incapable of accepting a bill of divorce (known in Judaism as a get) from her husband, the rabbinate occasionally permits the man to remarry. The rabbinate invokes what is known as “permission from 100 rabbis,” which abrogates the 10th century decree. This rule is also very occasionally used in cases in which a wife refuses to accept a get from her estranged husband in order to end the marriage. In the words of the rabbinate, bigamy is permitted “in extremely rare and exceptional circumstances.”

There are also cases outside of Israel, primarily within Sephardic communities that did not fully embrace the 10th century decree, where a husband who refuses to divorce his wife is granted permission to remarry by a rabbi. This leaves the first wife as an aguna (chained woman), who is forbidden by Jewish law from remarrying.

But the rabbinic permit seen by Channel 10 applied even though the wife was healthy and the couple had no intention of divorcing.

In response, a spokesperson for The Complete Jewish Home told Channel 10 that since the law banning multiple marriage for men was not enforced within Arab communities it was discriminatory against Jews.

“In practice the state allows polygamy within the Arab sector, and due to this their natural population growth is greater than that of Jews,” the spokesperson said.

“We are dealing with men and women who are responsible, and this is a solution to the problem of having more single women than men seeking marriage. It also ensures the Jewish demographic majority in the country, and guarantees the right of religious women to become mothers.”

Illustrative photo of a bride and groom prior to their wedding, November 4, 2015. (Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a bride and groom prior to their wedding, November 4, 2015. (Flash90)

Amar refused to respond to Channel 10’s report. The Chief Rabbinate did not respond to a written request from The Times of Israel for comment.

Polygamy has been illegal in Israel since 1977, when a law made the practice punishable by up to five years in prison and a monetary fine. Jews who arrived from North Africa in the 1950s and 60s, especially from Yemen, practiced polygamy, but stringent enforcement quickly ended the practice.

The authorities do largely turn a blind eye to polygamy within the Bedouin sector, even though it often leads to domestic violence, sexual assault, and inescapable poverty. According to a 2013 Knesset report on polygamy in the Bedouin communities, approximately 30 percent of Negev Bedouins are involved in a polygamous relationship.

In 2013, 361 Arab men were registered with the Population Authority as having more than one wife. In 2012, the National Insurance Institute gave benefits to 968 women who had the position of “additional wife” in an “enlarged family.” These figures only include those who officially registered their marriages.

Bedouin MK Taleb Abu Arar of the Joint (Arab) List has two wives.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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