Ask the Rabbi: Does Jewish law ever permit bigamy?

When Jews began to return en masse to the land of Israel in the 20th century, some scholars, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, believed that each community could continue to maintain their traditional marital frameworks

diamond ring 88 (photo credit: )
diamond ring 88
(photo credit: )
The recent coverage in The New York Times of the second marriage of Yisrael Meir Kin has reignited discussion regarding bigamy in Halacha. Kin was civilly divorced from his wife several years ago but did not grant her a get to terminate their relationship under Jewish law, thereby rendering her an aguna, a chained woman unable to remarry. He has nonetheless despicably married a second woman, allegedly under a rule known as Heter me’a rabbanim, a dispensation for bigamy approved by 100 rabbis.
Many details of this case remain murky, with no documentation provided by the rabbinic court of ill repute allegedly advising Kin. Yet it pays to review whether, in theory, Jewish law might actually permit such dispensations in similar cases.
Biblical law permitted polygamy, the practice of a man having more than one wife. As seen in numerous biblical stories, this family structure frequently caused marital competition and fraternal strife.
The Talmudic sages further worried that polygamy would lead to confusion in family lineages, leading to a prohibition against marrying women in different locales unless the husband was a well-known figure whose children would be easily identified. One Talmudic sage even asserted that a woman had grounds for divorce if her husband desired to add an additional wife (Yevamot 65a).
Talmudic law, however, followed the position that a man may marry a second woman, even over his first wife’s objections, provided that he could physically and financially provide for all his wives, typically limited to four.
Toward the 11th century, one early Ashkenazi rabbinic authority, Rabbenu Gershom, prohibited men from marrying a second wife and issued a complementary ban against divorcing women without their consent. Many scholars believe he acted out of concern for the emotional and economic welfare of Jewish women; others noted that he might have been motivated by his Christian neighbors, who spurned polygamy. This ban spread throughout Ashkenazi lands and has been constantly reaffirmed by later Ashkenazi authorities.
This ban was not adopted in many Muslim lands. Jewish communities in Yemen or North Africa, for example, continued to permit polygamy. While Spanish Jewry (Sephardim) never accepted a formal ban, the common practice in some periods (particularly when under Catholic rulers) was not to allow polygamy. In many Sephardi communities, this understanding was formalized in marriage contacts, which included stipulations that the husband would not marry a second woman.
As Elimelech Westreich has documented, the various practices created legal dilemmas in later eras for communities in which Sephardim and Ashkenazim lived together.
When Jews began to return en masse to the land of Israel in the 20th century, some scholars, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, believed that each community could continue to maintain their traditional marital frameworks. Yet in 1950, Sephardi chief rabbi Benzion Uziel and Ashkenazi chief rabbi Isaac Herzog jointly issued a ban on polygamy in the newly founded State of Israel. As Amihai Radzyner had documented, Rabbi Uziel did not believe that this was an infringement on Sephardi ritual since many communities had historically shunned polygamy voluntarily; moreover, he believed only monogamy was appropriate in the modern era.
While some scholars like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef protested this ban as an act of Ashkenazi hegemony, it remains the law of the land in Israel and around the world.
Yet Jewish (and Israeli) law does permit dispensations for men to remarry without divorcing their first wives under the heter me’a rabbanim. Some early Ashkenazi authorities believed that Rabbenu Gershom allowed for no exceptions to this prohibition, arguing that any dispensations, even in vexing situations, would weaken the ban and cause greater damage to the collective good.
Still, many argued that Rabbenu Gershom allowed second marriages in cases when the couple had no children, or if a divorce could not be granted, such as when the first wife apostatized to a different religion or became insane. To prevent abuse of this clause, however, Jewish law required 100 rabbis from three locales to agree that such a dispensation was justified. Later authorities further required the husband to leave a divorce writ and alimony payment in the custody of the judicial court, should the first wife desire to become divorced. (In cases of insanity, the husband remains obligated to care for his ill wife.) Some later scholars, including Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (d. 1869), continued to oppose the heter me’a rabbanim because they believed we should not tamper with such strong and important decrees. Others, however, continue to affirm the legitimacy of the heter in very select cases.
Yet no authorities allow them to be issued to support recalcitrant husbands who refuse to allow their first wives to move on with their lives. Such dispensations remain inherently illegitimate, and represent an absolute violation of the letter and spirit of Jewish law. ■
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars, and is a junior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.