Discover more from Kvetch
Polygamy in Judaism (or, Love in the Time of Gomorrah)
Part IV of Wife Economics and the Domestication of Man
This is Part IV of this series — the final part. The preamble of Part I is the best summation of the series. It has everything we’ve discussed before — polygamy, slavery, incest — but if I’m honest it’s mainly an expression of my love of Genesis, its great loves, lessons, comedies and tragedies. I gave a drosh (sermon) at my Orthodox synagogue on some of the below and the nature of the marriage covenant. A little spicy, but well received by the chabadniks!
Man is born polygamous
The Church destroyed polygamy and spurred innovation
When Christian men go native
Slavery and polygamy: collapse of twin institutions
White Squaws and life under the stars
Bride inflation, Tinder and the derangements of modern dating
Part IV (this Kvetch):
Polygamy in Judaism
9. Polygamy in Judaism
Jews and the edict of Rabbeinu Gershom
Ashkenazi Judaism banished polygamy with Gershom’s edict around a thousand years ago. There is some confusion about the nature of the edict, and it’s not clear to me exactly how it was issued (in writing? Verbally?). My rabbi told me it was a thousand year edict and expired in the last decade (which would be a fun experiment!). The Beth Din in Sydney told me that no, it was an edict until the end of the (Jewish) millennium in 5000, about 700 years ago and was ruled to continue indefinitely by the rabbinate at the time. From Adin Steinsaltz's The Essential Talmud:
This ban, which was accepted by the majority of the Jewish people, gave legal substantiation to the existing situation, since even in talmudic times it was most uncommon to take two wives. Among the mishnaic and talmudic sages, of whom so much is known, we know of only one who had two wives.
When I first asked my rabbi why polygamy had been banned, he just said it had been too much trouble. I don’t think this is historic view, but rather a cultural posture. And it goes surprisingly deep:
Anyway, the halachic view is that polygamy had always been frowned upon: Adam and Eve were created as the ideal pair, the Platonic conception of marriage in paradise (before Eve blew it up). The counter-argument that the forefathers practiced polygamy is refuted by their mixed experiences. This is a great retort. The examples of the forefather is indeed almost comically painful with regard to their wives.
Abraham, Sarah and Hagar
Take Abraham, the first Jew. His wife Sarah was barren1 so she gifted him a slave girl, Hagar, to bear him a son, Ishmael. Conflict ensued. God promises to grant Sarah a child (a miraculous conception at her age, if not virginal). This is comic in a few ways, as I noted previously. As soon as her son is born, Sarah immediately demands Abraham cast out Hagar and his first born Ishmael:
9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry.
10 And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac."
11 But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son.
12 And God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed.
13 But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed."
I mean, come on! Sarah’s vindictiveness oozes through the text. It is the exact kind of intra-sex competition you’d expect from a mother looking to maximise the inheritance of her son.2 You can almost feel Abraham’s eye-roll and mutter beneath his breath: for f**k’s sake.3 God literally has to take him aside and ask him to cop it on the chin — Sarah is the true wife, and a wife is a wife.
Incredibly, and always overlooked, as soon as Sarah dies, Abraham re-marries Hagar — now under the name Keturah (incense, so named, according to Rashi, because she remained chaste since her separation from Abraham). With her he had 6 more kids! They beget a bunch more grandkids.
What does this sound like to you? The Sages insist (too much?) that Sarah lived a full life of good deeds and she died sinless. She is the first Jewish Matriarch. And yet, on a plain reading of the text,4 Sarah is an extraordinary pain-in-the-ass wife, who as soon as she begets a son, casts out the concubine she had gifted Abraham along with his eldest son. As soon as she dies, Abraham returns to his ill-treated, long-suffering, still-chaste Hagar.
I read this as a monogamous marriage as covenant story. It's a hint to the future ban of polygamy by Gershom (and neatly fits in with the Midrashic description of Sarah as a Prophetess). Abraham and Sarah were the mother and father of the Jewish people. That was their calling, it was expressed in their exclusive relationship. Ishmael and Abraham’s other sons fathered other nations. It pained Abraham to rise to that covenant. Yet just as he circumcised himself in old age, so did he acquiesce to leave his beloved Hagar and her son. He put the covenant (of marriage, of the Jews with God) first. And as soon as he could, in the moments before passing into history,5 he was granted the all-to-human, all-to-manly wish of returning to his lover. The covenant of marriage takes primacy, and we elevate ourselves when we elevate it. Yet in the end — we are but men.
Jacob, Leah and Rachel
The story of Jacob and his wives is equally complex and wavers between the sublimely beautiful and the deeply tragic, imbued with the same strange ironic twist that permeates all of Genesis. Jacob goes out in search of a wife, comes by a well — the traditional wife hunting ground of the Hebrew Bible — and falls in love at first sight with his doe-eyed cousin Rachel. Her father, the conniving Laban, makes Jacob work 7 years for her hand in marriage. At the altar, he switches her out: he marries him to Rachel’s less dainty older sister Leah. In order to marry Rachel he must work another 7 years. The story is clear: twice the wives, twice the work.
But the story goes deeper.
It contains some of the most beautiful as well as the most tragic moments of the Hebrew Bible. Whenever I read Genesis 29:11, I feel a sob in the spine:
11 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and wept.
Rachel is the sympathetic wife. She is the love of Jacob’s life, she is “shapely” and “beautiful”. Leah has weepy eyes. We may be forgiven for being suspicious and even contemptuous of Leah: yet in the end she is deeply tragic. Jacob does not love Leah and so God opens her womb to him. Can you read this and not weep for her?
31 And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.
32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, "Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me."
33 And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.
34 And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore, He named him Levi.
35 And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord!" Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.
Leah bears three sons for her husband so that he will love her. And he does not. So she bears one for God, and He closes her womb forever.
Leah is the wife Jacob is supposed to have, yet he loves Rachel. Just like Sarah was the wife Abraham was supposed to have, and as soon as she died he returned to Hagar.
This reaffirms the duty of marriage, the duty to the covenant of a people. Jacob did as he was required. He worked for 20 years (7 for Rachel, 7 again for Rachel, then 6 for himself) under the conniving Laban. He put up with Leah, though he did not love her. And she gave him four sons, becoming the dominant mother of the 12 tribes of Israel. It is she alone who is buried with Jacob. It is she who is the mother of Judah, who would ultimately be father of the Davidic line. And just as Rachel was beloved to Jacob, her son Joseph was most beloved to Jacob. And it was not the righteous and ultimately wise Joseph who becomes a great patriarch, but rather his older brother Judah, who betrayed Joseph and consorted with prostitutes. For, per Berachot 34b, the penitent stands where even the perfectly righteous cannot. As with Isaac and Ishmael and then Jacob and Esau, the younger rules over the older. The order of things is constantly inverted. Life is messy.6
Note how neatly this story lines up with Joseph Henrich’s story (see Parts I and II): it’s a world of cousin marriage, polygamy and slavey. This is the world Christianity broke. Also note how consistent this is with the wife economy of the Comanches and Lakotas. First, it was not uncommon for sisters to be married off to the same man (hence, sister-wives). Second, Laban the father is in many ways the beneficiary here: he latched on to the Great Jacob and harnessed him for his own needs. A warrior Lakota or Comanche would need to provide not just for his wives but also for his in-laws. Jacob was not a warrior but he did the pastoral equivalent: 20 years of work. And just like in the real world, in the blink of an eye, 20 years have passed and he must move on.
Underrated also is that Rachel gifts Jacob her slave girl to conceive on her behalf, and after Leah can no longer conceive she gifts one to Jacob also. So Bilhah and Zilpah make up wives #3 and #4.7 Between these four women are the 12 sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes of Israel born. Cousin marriage, slave girls and polygamy: all in one.
Lot and his daughters
You might look upon Lot and his daughters as a kind of degenerate proto-polygamy. Reminder: Lot was saved by the angels from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because he protected his angel guests. Very weirdly (and the Sages are equally weirded out), he even offered his own daughters to the lecherous crowds who were threatening to rape his guests (angels in disguise). After the destruction of the city (and Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt after she looked back on its destruction), he fled to the mountains where on two consecutive nights his daughters got him drunk and slept with him in order to conceive — for there were no other men around given the destruction of man. They were successful and the mothers of nations. According to the Sages, the eldest was so shameless as to name her son Moab, which is derived from a word that means from father. Whilst the Torah obviously injuncts against father-daughter incest, this story is another implicit rejection of polygamy.
What of King Solomon and his 1,000 wives? Or rather, his 300 wives and 700 concubines. It’s a strange tale: Solomon is Solomon the Wise, yet his is tale of folly. 8
Kings 11 kicks off with:
King Solomon loved many foreign women and the daughter of Pharaoh; Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. 9
He is seduced by the ways of these women and reverts to idolatry.
Note this is consistent with the picture Pekka Hämäläinen painted of the soft power of Lakota and Comanche women.
Deuteronomy 17:15-17 stipulates that the Jews shall appoint a king, one from themselves, and that the king shall collect neither wives nor horses. An direct invective against polygamy.
You can almost see exactly the rejection of the wild way of life of the first men. Thou shalt not conquer and slay and collect wives and treasures. It is an exact rejection of the ways of the successful horse peoples of Eurasia and north America.
It occurred to me one day as I was sitting in shul, surrounded by black hats who had married young and chaste to their wives, that modesty laws for men are grasping at the same thing as monogamy.
The social attempt to constrain the male id, to harness his chaotic energy to productive, civilisation building means.
A king who is not out to collect wives and treasures means a kingdom not perpetually at war.
It’s not straightforward — how do you defect from warring when that means you’re the one more likely to get slaughtered? But societies that divest from violence and invest elsewhere — for Jews perhaps it was the Word and studying God’s laws — reap their own rewards. This is directly borne out in the story of Solomon. Solomon is granted a gift from God. And because he asked for neither long life not treasures nor the death of his enemies, he is granted his request: wisdom.
Wisdom is the masterkey. Discernment to stray from the violent and lascivious id of man.
And so it is a cautionary tale that Solomon the Wise, despite his divine wisdom, does stray. And it is his beautiful, foreign wives who break him.
Thanks for reading Kvetch! Subscribe for free
Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca were all barren Matriarchs. They were granted children by God, illustrative of the miraculous origins of the Israelites.
The halachic interpretation is that Ishmael was corrupted and engaged in all sorts of mischief and so Sarah was protecting her son.
There is much else extraordinary and very funny about Abraham’s story. His negotiations with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is priceless. He asks God not to destroy the cities if there are 50 righteous among them. God says yes. Abraham asks for 45. God says yes. 40. Yes. 30. Yes. 20. Yes. 10. Yes. And then God departs.
My daughters have the same chutzpah. Papa, can I have a chocolate? Yes. 2! Ok. 5! No.
It reminds me of this scene in Road to Perdition:
Michael Sullivan, Jr.: So when do I get my share of the money?
Michael Sullivan: Well… how much do you want?
Michael Sullivan, Jr.: Two hundred dollars.
Michael Sullivan: Okay. Deal.
Michael Sullivan, Jr.: Could I have had more?
Michael Sullivan: You’ll never know.
An inexhaustive list of other curious occurrences:
Genesis 20:18: As punishment for Sarah’s abduction by a king, God closed every orifice of the king’s household, preventing any relief or birth
Rashi’s commentary suggests Abraham decided to leave his home near Sodom and Gomorrah because there were no more wayfarers to whom he might extend hospitality — so strong was his righteous instinct. Lots to unpack here but feels weird to have to move because God killed all potential guests.
Whilst it is accepted Abraham endured Ten Trials, the Sages disagree on exactly what those were and have different lists.
These may be the most dangerous words in Jewish Biblical interpretation — yes I am aware the written text is only a small portion of the overall law.
Although it was decades, in the Torah it is the preceding paragraph before he dies, illustrative of its relative irrelevance.
This story is also the source of the Talmudic idea that a person without children is a dead person. Per Nedarim 64b:
The Gemara relates: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Any person who does not have children is considered like a dead person. The source is as is stated in the words Rachel said to Jacob: “Give me children, or else I am dead” (Genesis 30:1).
4 types of persons are considered dead: the pauper, the leper, the blind man and the childless. Note the Christian inversion of the status of the pauper. One of the many powerful inversions that saw Christianity find product market fit and conquer the world.
And it was taught in a baraita: Four are considered as if they were dead: A pauper, and a leper, and a blind person, and one who has no children. A pauper, as it is written: “For all the men are dead” (Exodus 4:19). As explained above, they were not actually dead but had descended into poverty, and yet they were considered dead. A leper, as it is written that Aaron said to Moses with regard to Miriam’s leprosy: “Let her not, I pray, be as one dead” (Numbers 12:12). And a blind person, as it is written: “He has made me to dwell in dark places, as those that have been long dead” (Lamentations 3:6). And one who has no children, as it is written: “Give me children, or else I am dead” (Genesis 30:1).
Managing four wives is tough: in whose tent do you spend the night? Genesis 30: 15-16 hints at certain negotiations and rules.
A wild outgrowth of the story of Solomon can be found in this Ethiopian legend to this day (from Wikipedia):
An Ethiopian account from the 14th century (Kebra Nagast) maintains that the Queen of Sheba had sexual relations with King Solomon and gave birth beside the Mai Bella stream in the province of Hamasien, Eritrea. The Ethiopian tradition has a detailed account of the affair. The child was a son who became Menelik I, King of Axum, and founded a dynasty that would reign as the Jewish, then Christian, Empire of Ethiopia which lasted 2900 years until Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974. Menelik was said to be a practicing Jew who was given a replica of the Ark of the Covenant by King Solomon; and, moreover, that the original Ark was switched and went to Axum with him and his mother, and is still there, guarded by a single dedicated priest.
The claim of such a lineage and of possession of the Ark was an important source of legitimacy and prestige for the Ethiopian monarchy through the centuries, and had important and lasting effects on Ethiopian culture. The Ethiopian government and church deny all requests to view the alleged ark.
Note here reappear the Moabites, descendants of Moab who sprung from the incest of Lot and one of his daughters.