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About two months ago, my wife and I visited the Fundamentalist Mormon community of Colorado City, Arizona, the base of imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs. I had always wanted to see for myself how this community lives.
Arriving late in the afternoon, we went to the main supermarket, where tens of fundamentalist Mormons were out buying food with their families. They were understandably suspicious of these intruders and reluctant to engage us in conversation. After a while, the manager of the store came over to us and asked, with considerable warmth, if we had found what we were looking for. He politely confessed that the community was unused to outsiders and hinted that perhaps it was time for us to continue on our journey.
I told him that I was an Orthodox rabbi, that I had, thank God, eight kids, and that it was nice to see so many children in a community. I also told him that I had a long-standing relationship with the Mormon Church, and that I had always wanted to visit the Fundamentalist Mormons as well. He told me that if I was friendly with the official Mormon Church, then no doubt I had a negative view of their community - to which I responded that I tended to make judgments based on my own observations rather than on what I had been told. We spoke a little to some of the young mothers we met, although I could not say whether any of these women were younger than the age of consent.
The people were pleasant, albeit suspicious. They lived lives bereft of any extravagance, and that was about all I could conclude in such a short visit.
A month later, the Texas authorities entered the Fundamentalist Mormon conclave in Texas and removed over 400 kids they said were in imminent danger of abuse and under-age marriage. To the extent that any of this is true, and some of it seems to be, this is extremely troubling. No amount of love for children or marriage can ever justify under-age marriage, statutory rape, or forcing a woman to marry against her will, all of which is not only illegal but deeply sinful.
BUT EVER since the Texas raid, I have also found myself on the defensive answering questions from curious friends about Judaism's approach to polygamy, with many believing that our faith allows the practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Bible makes it clear that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve, Cindy and Bonnie. The ideal of monogamy is thus established at the very outset of Creation. Similarly Abraham, the first Jew, has one wife, Sarah, until she pushes him to take another wife since she is barren. Likewise, Isaac is completely monogamous, and Jacob intends to be so as well until he is tricked by his own father-in-law into marrying the wrong woman; which will later necessitate marrying the right one as well.
The only real biblical examples of men with many wives are the Jewish kings, like David and Solomon. When it came to kings, who back in ancient times would usurp whatever women they craved, the Bible sought to impose upon Jewish rulers a respect for women. This was done by allowing them to take women beyond their original wives so long as they married them, which would thereby grant them rights, as opposed to simply being used and discarded. But this was a concession to a virile male nature and never an ideal to be upheld. Monogamy was always the standard to which men were directed.
Later, after biblical times, Rabbeinu Gershom took the monogamous standard and made it law, enacting an edict binding on all European Jewry outlawing polygamy forever. And that has been the Jewish norm for more than 1,000 years.
THERE IS good reason to outlaw polygamy. Marriage is the most romantic institution because it establishes the inviolate uniqueness of its participants. A woman is made to feel that she is the one and only to her husband. A husband's devotion confers upon his wife the blessings of primacy and exclusivity. But polygamy subverts that pledge, establishing not a woman's uniqueness, but her ordinariness. Her husband marries her with the express understanding that she alone will not satisfy him. He requires others. She is inadequate.
Likewise, she is forced now to compete for his affections for the rest of her life, thereby immersing her in an unnatural competition for the man who has already pledged himself to her. This competition also erodes the natural, universal sisterhood of women, engaged as they are, even after marriage, in rivalry for the affections of the same man.
In this sense, polygamy leads not to peace and harmony but to altercation and strife. How can any polygamous marriage be happy when, by its very nature, it does not bring people together but drives them apart?
Marriage is the foundation of every civilized society precisely because of its civilizing influences. Marriage takes a man and a woman who are strangers to each other, orchestrates them together into inseparable flesh, and lends children a stable and secure environment within which to be raised.
Polygamy, in contrast, offers children a model not of security but of rivalry, not of confidence but of permanent insecurity, as the members of a single household compete to be favorites. It is a toxic environment in which men are kings and women are courtiers.
After marrying and sacrificing all for her husband, no woman should ever have to feel that she is still not good enough. Likewise, in the Jewish religion no woman can ever be forced to marry a man who is not her choice. As the Bible makes clear in the story of Rebecca's courtship with Isaac, her family says that we must "ask the maiden" if she wishes to follow Eliezer, the matchmaker, and marry Isaac. Only with her consent can the deed be done.
Every marriage must be based on the exercise of free will to transform a stranger into our one and only.
The writer is the author most recently of The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.