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Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recently called attention to how polygamy had made its way back into the news: "Under the headline 'Polygamists, Unite!' Newsweek informs us of 'polygamy activists emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement.' Says one evangelical Christian big lover: 'Polygamy rights is the next civil-rights battle.'"
Well, among the civilizations in which polygamy was not only accepted but even encouraged was Jewish society. There are numerous examples in the Bible of a man having more than one wife.
Granted that in our patriarch Abraham's case it may have been a mistake because of Sarah's antipathy toward Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Had Sarah had prevailed on Abraham to send them away, we might have fewer troubles with our cousins the Arabs.
But let's be honest. Man is not really a monogamous creature. If he were, you wouldn't have so many men betraying their wives. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but in general, man requires variety and woman requires security. And security for many women means knowing that you are not alone, that you're part of the tribe.
When families were larger, loneliness was less problematic than it is today. These days, many people aged 20 to 40 have only one or two siblings, and lots of folks have no one at all. A lot of people are - by ancient standards, at least - leading an "abnormal existence" in one-person households.
IN ISRAEL women of marriageable age far outnumber men, partly as a result of the many wars that have plagued us. That automatically means not all women are going to get married - unless there is a remarkable spurt of divorce or widowerhood. And while technology now affords women the chance to be mothers through artificial insemination, I'd venture to say that most (non-gay) women would probably prefer to have a man in the picture.
So while there's nothing wrong with fulfilling the desire for motherhood, my hunch is that children are better off in households where a daddy is present.
Now if polygamy came back into vogue, women in such marriages could form an amicable sorority, taking on duties they liked rather than what is imposed on them as wife, mother and homemaker in most monogamous relationships.
Not every woman likes to clean, cook or sew. Some have a marvelous rapport with children, but they don't want to give birth to them. Some are very career-oriented, or have an enviable knack for making money. If a man marries several women with different talents, preferences and ambitions, and they all get along, it could make for one very happy family.
The question is, can petty jealousies be kept in check? They could if the wives thought of themselves as a sisterhood.
Custom, like food, is all about what we've grown up with. To most people in the Western world polygamy is a sign of decadence. But if they had grown up with it they might be differently minded.
AS FAR AS Jewish tradition goes, polygamy existed among Ashkenazi Jews until just over 1,000 years ago, and among Sephardim until after the establishment of the state. Plainly, polygamy is not halachically forbidden.
It was outlawed by Rabbenu Gershom, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his era. There is a popular myth that he issued the edict because he had two wives with a large age gap between them. The older one used to pluck out all the dark hair from his head and his beard, and the younger used to pluck out all the gray hair. The upshot was that he allegedly looked like a plucked chicken whose squawk put an end to polygamy.
There is little, if anything, to support this amusing story, which has nonetheless survived the test of time and helps provide support for monogamous relationships.
Since so many monogamous relationships don't work and betrayal fuels bitterness and spite, polygamy may be the ideal solution to Jewish continuity and bring about a drop in the divorce rate. One of the rules in a polygamous marriage could be that when a husband and wife are angry at each other they don't have to rant and rave or say hurtful things they might regret. She would simply retire to her room to cool off - or unburden her heart to one of the other women in the household - and he could do the same.
A FINAL argument for polygamy is that more women in the household would, in all probability, result in more children, pushing Jewish demographic numbers above levels that existed before the Holocaust.
Perhaps, just perhaps, reintroducing polygamy would be a way of fulfilling God's promise to Abraham that his progeny would become as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore.