The Bible allows and endorses polygyny.
Polygyny is the form of polygamy defined by one man with more than one woman, these could be wives and concubines or any serious relationship. This is the only version of polygamy ever accepted in traditional monotheistic religions.
The modern definition of polygamy, aka polyamory or simply “poly”, commonly means an open relationship without sexual loyalty from the men or women involved. Typically a woman is having intimate contact with multiple men. The men typically know about their rivals and accept this compromised situation, trading away loyalty and exclusivity for some degree of sexual access. Modern “poly” includes a woman being with more than just one man, something which was abhorrent to ancient human societies.
There is a push to normalize this version of poly in present day America. The American Psychological Association* (APA) has a “Consensual Non-monogamy Task Force,” which advocates for polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and more. The APA aims “to generate research, create resources, and advocate for the inclusion of consensual non-monogamous relationships in the following four areas: Basic and applied research; Education and training; Psychological practice; and Public interest.” With APA backing and support by the mainstream media to normalize such behaviors, it’s likely a matter of time before the legalization of poly ‘marriages’ becomes another social justice cause célèbre.
*The same APA whose “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men” claims that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.
However, according to the Bible, a married woman being intimate with more than one man is absolutely forbidden, with the punishment of death for both the adulteress and adulterer, provided she was not forced. Even a serious suspicion of adultery triggered an elaborate ritual in the Holy Temple to determine if the wife was actually guilty, as we discussed in Father’s Day and the Bible. The Bible does not countenance cuckoldry or sharing women. The only permitted type of polygamy was polygyny, which was rare among ancient Jews, but was practiced free of stigma or judgment on the people involved.
The feminists vs the Bible
Part of the reason why feminists have been vehemently anti religion is that the Bible – at least the Old Testament – explicitly endorses patriarchy and allows polygyny but not polyandry, a woman married to multiple men. They call this a double standard, which is actually inaccurate. The Bible has one law for adultery: both the man and women who committed adultery are executed by stoning (Leviticus 20:10).
However, adultery is defined as sexual relations between a married woman and a man who is not her husband. When a man, married or not, has relations with a woman who herself is not married or betrothed, it is not adultery. This asymmetry may boil feminists’ blood, but there are valid biological and social reasons that justify allowing polygyny while punishing adultery.
Women and men have inherent, biological differences from one another. These impact how men and women view and function in romantic relationships. As we shall see, polygyny is the only “poly” that is actually beneficial for families, women, and children in the long run.
The solution for the feminists to resolve their problems with the Bible was to infiltrate mainstream religions and bend their core tenets towards serving feminism. They became influential inside churches, then cut out or reinterpreted away the patriarchal reality which is the core of three major world religions.
This strategy has been very effective in modern churches, as described by Christian blogger Dalrock. Many modern Christian churches are now staunch supporters of feminism, even at the expense of repudiating their own scriptures and traditions. Rollo Tomassi also explains his experience at The Rational Male. He has recently published a book describing this process in detail, and the effects on our society. This work is highly recommended.
However, the feminist attack on the Bible does not work on Orthodox Jews. Jews are famously stubborn, and are the “people of the Book”. Our doctrine does not allow any changes to the Book. And it is the Holy Book itself that is patriarchal and allows polygyny while banning polyandry.
The central Jewish belief is that the Bible (Torah) is Divine wisdom, the Word of God, and can never be changed, edited, mistranslated or suppressed. It does not matter what “modern” society thinks, the Bible for us is Truth with the capital T and we do not change it or ignore it to align with today’s fads. This is one of the thirteen core beliefs of the Jewish faith.
Liberal Jewish groups, long influenced by feminism, are more inclined to disregard or reinterpret parts of the Bible that are incompatible with the feminist dominated modern mainstream society. But even they believe that the Torah is still important and vital part of a Jewish identity. Somewhere on the spectrum between an atheist Jew (yes, there is such a thing) to the traditional and Haredi/Yeshivish/Hasidic Jews, there is a line you cross where Jews believe that changing the words or meaning of the Book is total anathema.
All Jews are Jews, but the key identifier as a conventional or traditional Jew is the belief that the Torah is inviolable. Trying to assert a reinterpretation of the Bible to fit a feminist script or be sensitive to modern sensibilities would mean you are not a real “Orthodox Jew” or “traditional Jew” (or whatever label, there are many).
Jews understand the Torah not merely on a literal level but also through the lens of thousands of years of Rabbinic tradition. We rely on the Medrashim, Mishnah, Talmud, and thousands of meforshim, Rabbis explaining and giving context, to understand the Word. These ancient sources, part of an unbroken chain of learning since Moses at Sinai, understand the Torah as God intended us to, as endorsing patriarchy and polygyny.
A Jew learning Bible in the modern era is standing on the shoulders of these spiritual and intellectual giants. No honest Biblical scholar disregards over three thousand years of scholarship by sages who learned, in a direct chain from Moses, every nuance and meaning of the Word. That would be akin to a man wanting to build an airplane, but ignoring everything mankind has already discovered about aviation. Instead he tries to build his own flying machine from scratch.
No honest student of the Bible would do such a thing. Unless their aim was not actually understanding and learning the Word, but instead promoting a feminist misinterpretation of the Bible to serve their own goals. A feminist subversion of conventional Judaism would require convincing the People of the Book to throw out not just the Book but also thousands of years of accepted tradition about how to understand and apply the Book. Any person asking this of us would not be considered conventionally Jewish at all, and their reinterpretations would be rejected on those grounds.
Polygamists in the Bible
There are many prominent polygynists in the Bible. Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, King David, King Solomon and others all had multiple wives. This was normal and accepted. Note that Abraham himself, the patriarch of the Jewish people and all of the monotheistic faiths, did not take a second wife until his first wife Sarah suggested it, giving us an answer to our question Are Jewish women different? Jacob was originally interested only in Rachel, and was duped into marrying Leah first, then these sister wives each gave him their own maid as a concubine.
But many prominent figures in the Bible, including Moses himself, had just one wife. Most men mentioned in the Bible did not have multiple wives, at least not that we know of. From a simple reading of the Bible, polygyny was not very common. It seems to have been practiced mainly by kings or elites, though Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah (I Samuel), and he does not seem to have been especially rich or powerful.
What guidance does the Bible give about taking multiple wives?
The Bible states in Exodus 21:10: “If he take another wife for himself; her food, her clothing, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish”. This requires a man to treat his wives equally, he cannot add another wife at the expense of the first. This verse also provides the framework for a man’s responsibility to have a healthy sexual relationship with his wives.
Deuteronomy 21:15–17 rules that a man with multiple wives may not award the double inheritance due to a firstborn son to the firstborn of a different wife, only to the chronological firstborn, even if his mother was not the favored wife. This shows the Bible is sympathetic to a woman in such a family, and does not want her to lose her rights. It also hints, as our sages explain, that taking multiple wives can result in familial strife, as this man apparently now has a favored and a disfavored wife.
The Bible also encourages a man to marry his brother’s widow, if the deceased had no heirs, to continue his brother’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5). This commandment applies even when the surviving brother is already married. In ancient times even other relatives could fulfill this command, as we see by Judah with Tamar and later Boaz with Ruth.
Polygyny after the Bible
Even after the time of the original scriptures and prophets, we have many references in Jewish canon to polygyny. The Talmud (aka Gemara) in Yevamot 65 teaches that a man may marry wives in addition to his first wife, provided that he has the means to maintain them. This fits with Exodus 21:10.
Yevamot 44 gives practical advice to marry no more than four wives, so the husband can give each of them appropriate attention. Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides 1135-1204, a major figure in Jewish law) rules that a man can marry additional wives without the first wife’s consent, even 100 wives, provided he has the means to provide each wife with food, clothing and conjugal rights (Mishneh Torah, Ishut 14:3).
Rambam rules that the husband may not force the wives to live under one roof, rather each woman is entitled to her own house if she want it. There is a case mentioned in the Talmud of a man with five wives, each with her own apartment (it could be a hypothetical case).
The Shulkhan Aruch, a major Code of Jewish Law written almost 500 years ago, notes that our sages have advised not to marry more than four wives… And in a place where it is customary to marry only one wife, he is not permitted to take another wife above his present wife (Even Ha’ezer 1:9). More on this custom in part two.
Our sages compiling the Mishna, the basic body of the Oral Law, and the Talmud, explaining the Mishna, discuss the possibility of betrothing two women simultaneously (Mishnah Kidushin 2:6-7) and the detailed inheritance laws when a man has two or more wives (Talmud Ketuvot 91 and 93). They also teach that a king, and any man, should be limited to 18 wives, based on King David (Sanhedrin 21 based on Deut. 17:17). However, in Jewish history taking more than one wife was not common (see Tiferes Yisrael on Yevamot 25b).
Jewish polygyny was safe, legal, and rare.
Polygyny casts a long shadow
Polygyny itself is extremely rare among Jews today [Part two will, IYH, address the modern legalities of Polygyny]. However, the polygyny in the Bible casts a long shadow onto Jewish society, even today. Our children, starting in preschool, learn that our most admired and respected ancestors, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of our people, practiced polygyny.
Jacob’s 12 sons, the progenitors of the 12 Tribes of Israel, the formative generation that established the structure of the Jewish people, were the product of one man with four women. The greatest of our ancient Kings, David and Solomon, both had many wives. Most of Solomon’s wives were from political marriages – he married 700 wives of royal origin (1 Kings 11:3). The custom then was to seal an alliance by marrying a princess to the king of the allied country.
Now, teaching children about their honored ancestors does not mean they are going to (re)start polygyny here in Jewish communities across America. The effects are subtle but real. Being aware that a man can technically marry multiple wives undermines the idea that there is only one woman out there who is perfect for for each man, a problem called “Oneitis”.
We do find a Jewish concept of soulmate, that there is a girl destined for a man even before he is born. The Talmud (Sotah 2) notes that before a boy is born, he has an intended mate “bas ploni lploni” known as “bashert” in Yiddush. But the modern disease of “Oneitis”, a man swooning over the one woman he thinks is the only one for him, is not a Jewish concept.
This particular woman might not be the one intended by Heaven, and even if she is, there may be a second or third woman who could also be intended for this one man. The language of the Talmud “the daughter of so-and-so is destined for him” is precise. It does not state “the son is destined for her”, so it allows for more than one woman to be an intended match to one man.
Rambam, in a letter to Ovadya the Convert, points out that that the Bible itself shows that marrying a certain person is not predetermined. The proof is that the Torah exempts a man who engaged a girl but did not yet marry her from going into battle (Deuteronomy 20:7). Were he truly destined to marry that girl, there would be no chance that he would die in battle and no exemption would be needed.
Also, we were created with free will which can override destiny. The Talmud states that someone else has the power to take your intended wife through prayer (Moed Katan 18 “Shema Yekadmenu Acher“) and that you can change your destined soulmate through changing your own life situation (Sotah 2, “Zivug Sheni“). A boy may have been “intended” for a certain girl, but by working on himself to change his own goals and priorities , she would no longer be appropriate for him.
In the back of the mind of a Jewish man looking for a wife is this context specific to conventional, Bible thumping Jews. His understanding of marriage started way back in preschool or even before, when he first heard about Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, and Jacob with his four wives. He knows that our great ancestors had more than once wife. This is a sort of vaccine against falling head over heels in infatuation with one specific woman, who may not be a rational choice for a future wife.
Among Orthodox Jews, the idea of polygyny helps our young men to not fixate emotionally on any one girl they are dating, but to look with objectivity for best person to complement his own qualities. A young man not swayed by feelings can readily apply his intellect to help him find the right match. Orthodox Jewish dating is very different from what passes for dating in mainstream society. In our subculture, dating is for the purpose of marriage, and is conducted with a degree of parental and rabbinical involvement to guide the kids to make rational choices in partners.
Such a man is not quick to “fall in love*” with a specific young woman. Instead he uses his intellect to evaluate if she is a suitable match for the long term. They also needs to be attracted to one another, a healthy sex life is required by the Bible.
*I give the Jewish definition of “Love” in our discussion of Sarah and Isaac, Isaac and Rebecca.
Resumes for marriage and burden of performance
Years ago, in a Kosher restaurant in a major metropolitan area, I overheard the conversation of a table full of Orthodox Jewish girls, all good looking and around age 20, complaining that they are the ones who have to prepare and submit their resumes to get dates with boys. They commiserated that it was not the boys sending resumes to them.
As background, among many Orthodox Jews, matches are suggested by Rabbis, teachers, family, and matchmakers. They meet with girls and get their personal resumes, sort and vet them, and pass along the resumes to the specific boys that the girl would be appropriate for. It’s called making a “shidduch”, a match with the possibility for marriage. If the girl’s parents approve and feel the young man has potential to fit with their family, the kids go out and see if they actually like each other.
This is the opposite of dating in modern mainstream society, where a man and a woman go out to see if they like one another, and only much later, if things go well, do they give any thought to whether this person may be a good long term fit for their family and future.
Girls and their resumes are judged for what they bring to the table. For example, if a young man is a bright and promising student and his family wants him to continue learning Torah for a few years before starting a career, the family needs to know if the prospective wife displays the maturity, flexibility, and capacity for self sacrifice to be able to help support the new family while raising small children. That lifestyle requires a huge commitment from the wife, she needs to be sure this is what she wants.
In a sense, a young woman has to have some qualifications to get matched up with a quality young man. Of course the boys need to bring their A game too, and they are encouraged and coached to do so. However, the onus to provide the shidduch resumes – to qualify for matches – is on the girls. She needs to show that she could be the woman destined for this particular young man.
We Jews are still teaching our young girls how our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who practiced patriarchy and polygyny, are shining examples of spiritual greatness to emulate. I’ll speculate that providing these positive role models instills in their subconscious that they should make the effort to attract a valuable man to marry.
If a man could have more than one wife, this shows a girl that the man is the prize to be won by the woman. The burden shifts somewhat onto her to become a quality young woman who displays the attributes needed to become an excellent wife. Again, this does not excuse our young men from working to improve themselves. They do that! But the girls are the ones sending their shidduch resumes.
Polygyny and Paternity
The Bible allows polygyny since it maintains the certainty of paternity. If a woman can marry multiple men (Heaven forbid), there is complete uncertainty as to who fathered each of her children. No one man will invest in her child, as it may be from another father. Every healthy man has an innate biological imperative to provide for and protect his own offspring, and a revulsion to being cuckolded.
The Bible sets up a stable society that cares who your father is. While in Judaism religion is set by your mother, it is your father who determines your tribal affiliation and possibility of priesthood, your eligibility to marry certain people, and your inheritance rights.
In modern Jewish society, there are still has legal and practical differences if you are from the Cohanim (priests) or Leviim. In all Jewish families, the father still recites the prayers and blessings for the whole family to sanctify the Sabbath, or to light the Hanukah candles. Not that women don’t have a role, their role is just as crucial, but it is a different role. The father is the person responsible to educate and inspire his children to learn Torah and pursue justice. In Judaism, it still matters who your father is.
The Biblical insistence on certain paternity reflects men’s biological reality. A society allowing polyamory, a women with multiple men, is encouraging cuckoldry, leading men to doubt if the children they provide for and raise are even their own. This reduces parental investment and attachment by men in the children.
There is a twisted push in modern society to praise men who choose to raise another man’s children. This is needed to incentivize men, because biologically males are innately disgusted by this retroactive cuckoldry. There is a natural revulsion to sacrificing your own biological imperative in order to provide for and raise a stranger’s children, in addition to being the sucker working hard to provide a soft landing for a woman’s poor life choices.
Despite modern society heaping praise on men who “step up”, men who are not the father are simply never going to be in the same position as the biological father. This can cause friction, resentment, and even child abuse. In animals, some males even murder the offspring of other males to avoid raising them and to retain resources for their own children. The fact that society needs to send encouraging messages to such men reminds us that it the situation is against their natural inclination.
Whenever a kid does something really wrong, the media ask “Where was his father?!” Usually, the answer is that the biological father was not in the picture. That was the central problem!
The cuckoldry of polyamory replaces the one biological father who is responsible for his family and children with an amorphous constellation of men who might be the father, are not responsible, and are not there to provide positive guidance and inspiration for the next generation. In addition, it allows unscrupulous women to use their bodies to keep a man or men in her orbit while she looks for a better man, reducing her commitment to her partners, and by extension, their children.
Polygyny and Biology
Naturally, we understand that men value female purity. When a woman is chaste, and only sleeps with you, you feel this profound loyalty which in turn inspires your investment in the relationship. As we noted, men look for certainty that the children are their own. A woman who is not intimate with anyone else gives that certainty.
Men can be perfectly loyal to one mate, but they also value variety. This can lead men to seek new methods of bonding within their relationship, but in an unfulfilling relationship may result in a man turning his attention to other women. Previous generations understood that this was part of male nature, how we were created by God. Conventional Judaism deals with this facet of male nature through allowing polygyny, but also by encouraging and legislating that a couple has a healthy sex life.
Women can certainly value loyalty, but also have a deep need to feel secure, in order to be in a good situation to raise the next generation. We have discussed how a healthy woman naturally desire children, and may feel intense emotions that inspire her to become pregnant. Again, this is how God programmed us to function, in His Divine wisdom.
A woman may find more fulfillment in joining a relationship where she is not the only woman in the household, but can be certain that her needs – and those of her children – will be satisfied. Women would rather share a motivated, accomplished, successful high value man with vast assets than have a lazy, ornery, stupid, penniless degenerate all to herself. And in the first situation her own offspring stand to benefit tremendously from her husband’s situation and leadership.
Men and women are biologically different, and this is expressed in different preferences for mating. You can say these are evolved differences, or reflection of Divine planning. Either way, this reality allows polygyny to be a viable option for healthy families while poly is an inevitable failure.
In their innate biology, men need to know if they are the father or not, so they can invest in children and build a stable society. Polygyny is the only form of poly that allows stable, healthy families to flourish. It’s for the children. The Bible really has the best interests of both men and women at heart. In the long term, due to actual biological differences between men and women, Polygyny works where other systems fail.
Part II discusses the view of Jewish law and the modern practice of Jewish polygyny. It is more technical and historical.
Lamech’s two wives and the feminine desire for offspring
King David’s 18 wives and how David teaches us about preselection and abundance
19 thoughts on “Kosher Polygamy”