About two months ago, my wife and I visited and entered the fundamentalist Mormon community of Colorado City, Ariz., the very 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 were 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 Jew, a 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 am friendly with the official Mormon Church, then no doubt I had a negative view of their community, to which I responded that I tend to make judgments based on my own observations rather than 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 more than 400 kids who they said were in imminent danger of abuse and underage 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 underage marriage, statutory rape, or forcing a woman to marry against her will, all not only illegal but deeply sinful. And it remains to be seen how this community will respond to these allegations, which are of the most serious nature.
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, Sara, until she pushes him to take another wife because she is barren. 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 correct woman 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 take 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 these women their rights, rather than simply using and discarding them. But this was a concession to a virile male nature and never an ideal to be upheld, with monogamy always being the legitimate 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.
Under polygamy, she is forced to compete for his affections for the rest of her life, thereby immersing in her an unnatural competition for the man who has already pledged himself to her. This competition also erodes the natural and universal sisterhood of women, engaged as they are, even after marriage, for the affections of the same man.
In this sense, polygamy fosters unending rivalry and 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 very 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 into inseparable flesh, and lends children a stable and secure environment within which to be raised.
Polygamy, however, 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 they 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 the human free will to transform a stranger into our one and only.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s national radio show airs daily on "Oprah and Friends." An Englewood resident, he is the author most recently of "The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him" (St. Martin’s Press.)