Monday, April 27, 2009

POLYGAMY: Call it "Marriage"

Once upon a time a guy got hauled before the King's Court for calling the Princess "Miss Piggy".

He was ordered to make an apology and pay a fine. He did so and then asked the judge if it was OK for him to call a pig "Princess".

"I don't see why not," replied the Judge.

The guy walked by where the Princess was sitting in the courtroom, bowed to her, and said, "Good afternoon 'Princess'!"

No matter what you call it, a pig is a pig. On ABC News this evening, it was reported that representatives of the swine industry want "swine flu" to be called "hybrid influenza". Whatever you call it, it is a dangerous disease and it came from pigs.

Which brings us to the main topic here, polygamy. If people of the same gender who love each other can call their civil union "marriage" and be legally married in a growing number of states, why not give the same right to a man and two or more women who love each other?

In other words, if Miss Ellen Degeneres and Miss Piggy can be legally married to each other if they are in love and want to be legally married, why not the "Ménage à trois" of Mr. Kermit the Frog and Miss Ellen Degeneres and Miss Piggy if they all love each other and want a polygamous marriage?


At chumash (bible) study in our synagogue a couple days ago, the subject of Jewish polygamy came up. If you Google "Rabbi Gershom polygamy" you will find many links to recognized Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Encyclopedia and discover:
"In Biblical as in Talmudical times polygamy was a recognized institution ... So long as a man could support them, he was free to have as many wives as he chose, even against the wish of his first wife ... "
So, where does Rabbi Gershom come in?
"The rabbinical prohibition against bigamy dates from the beginning of the eleventh century; Rabbi Gershon b. Judah of Metz forbade it under penalty of excommunication. His decree was accepted without opposition by the French and German Jews; though not in the Orient and in Spain and Portugal, where his authority was questioned. Polygamy is still actually to be found among the Jews in Oriental countries where it is permitted by the law of the land.

"Among the Jews of Europe, bigamy is now a crime in the eyes of religion, because of the prohibibition of Rabbi Gershon, and because custom sanctions monogamy; he who transgresses is excommunicated. A curious suggestion that R. Gershon's prohibition was intended to hold only until the year 1240, the beginning of the fifth millennium of the Jewish calendar ... was never recognized ..."
So, at least among Jews, there is no Biblical prohibition against polygamy. Some Jews living in countries that allow polygamy have had multiple wives even in modern times.

Rabbi Gershom's temporary cherem (ban) was imposed in the tenth century only in Europe and only because of Christian pressure at the time. In any event, the ban may have expired in 1240 AD.

Indeed, in Israel, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi has proposed recinding the ban that dates from the independence of that country on the basis that many religious Jews who come from the Sephardic (Spanish, North African) branch of our religion have ignored the law and that there is a shortage of marriage age men.


European Christian monogamy did not become law until 1139 AD when Pope Innocent II declared polygamy a sin.

The ban on same-sex marriage goes back much further in Judeo-Christian history, but it has been overturned in several states. It may well become the law of the US in our lifetimes if the complexion of the US Supreme Court changes. If that happens will legal polygamy be far behind?

Of course, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) practiced polygamy. The main LDS church in the US discontinued official sanction of multiple marriages in 1890 after a Supreme Court verdict. Splinter Mormon groups continue the practice to this day.

With the ascendance of legal same-sex marriage in the US, can legal polygamy be far behind? Indeed, questions were raised about the possibility legalized same-sex marriage in Canada could justify the practice of polygamy. A 2001 Law Review article argues
"... the Free Exercise Clause protects religiously motivated polygamy for two separate but interrelated reasons. First, because marriage is a fundamental right, the situation presents a hybrid claim of interference with a fundamental right as well as a Free Exercise claim. Second, ... the prohibitions are not of general applicability but rather are aimed at a specific religious practice because they are born of antipathy to the underlying religion..."

Are we in the west really monogamous? Of course not!

Half our marriages end in divorce and so may be considered serial adultery! Sex outside marriage is common even when couples do not divorce.

The "casting couch"

"... is a euphemism for a sociological phenomenon that involves the trading of sexual favors by an aspirant, apprentice employee, or subordinate to a superior, in return for entry into an occupation, or for other career advancement within an organization. The term 'casting couch' originated in the motion picture industry, with specific reference to couches in the offices of casting agents that could be used for sexual activity between the agents and aspiring actresses. But it is now often used in reference to other industries besides entertainment."

Our political leaders seem especially prone to abuse their powers and privileges by straying from their wives. From Bill Clinton and the whole Kennedy family to Newt Gingrich, members of both parties have admitted to straying.


Nearly all mammals practice polygamy. The "alpha-male" gathers as large a harem as he can defend and fathers as many offspring as he can get away with. Our nearest relatives, the Great Apes, are no exception. Polygamy is an adaptation!

Among the eusocial insects (ants, bees) the practice continues in the reverse direction. A single female, the "Queen" is sought after by all the male "Drones".

Perhaps it is natural that the most succesful males in society should father the most offspring? It seems that would promote the most "fit" genes. If polygamy was legal, and the children were not only fathered but also raised by the most successful males, the most "fit" memes would also be promoted.

It may be ideal for a man to start with one wife. She would be his sexual partner, bear him children, and look after the home. If he is successful in his occupation, she would be promoted from the bedroom to an active role in running the business and be replaced by a younger wife who could take over the duties of main sexual partner, bearer of children, and manager of the home. When the first two wives reached 40 years of age, they would be "promoted upstairs" and replaced by two 20 year olds.

I don't dare do anything about it, but I really like to think about that option!

Ira Glickstein


JohnS said...

Your article reminds me of a book I read years ago written by a Mormon man who had multiple wives. The wives duties were similar to your description except he did not have a special sexual partner. Rather, he spent each night with a different wife in rotation. Then every morning he had to reassure each wife that had not shared his bed that night that she was the most important. I’ll settle for a single wife, thank you. More later.

JohnS said...

Ira says, “Which brings us to the main topic here, polygamy. If people of the same gender who love each other can call their civil union "marriage" and be legally married in a growing number of states, why not give the same right to a man and two or more women who love each other?” Alternatively, I add, many men and one woman.

Limiting the following comment to civil “legal” marriages, I cannot find fault with same sex marriages or polygamy as long as it is allowed within the community. However, as I discussed in the previous blog on ethics, community must be viewed broadly. If a town or clan wishes to allow polygamy, they cannot do so in violation of state or national laws. Thus, the Supreme Court must approve or remain silent, and then the state Supreme Court must do likewise. It might be an intriguing exercise to review the supreme courts justification for outlawing polygamy in when, the 1800s? I would venture that most states, other than Utah, have never needed to face the situation and therefore have remained silent. If I wished to start a polygamous community on religious grounds in a state without a law against polygamy what an interesting set of legal complications in our political correct nation - religious freedom, states’ rights, individual rights issues and on and on. Ethically, could I start such a community before having approval in an effort to test the courts, maybe.

Approving polygamy, for which I find no fault, does open Pandora’s Box. I mentioned the inverse above – one woman and many men. What if a man marries many women in different states and they do not cohabitate, maybe they don’t know of each other, is that polygamy?
Our good old IRS would have a field day if allowed.

Setting the above aside, and accepting that each polygamous marriage would be different, in today’s social and legal environment allowing polygamous marriage raises many unanswerable questions and, I believe would be impractical. Some questions are:
Is the husband the “boss” and all the wives subservient to him?
Is there a senior wife, maybe the oldest or the first wife?
How are family duties distributed, by the husband, by the senior wife?
Is each marriage for love, western love, or for to fulfill a need?
When the man decides to take a new wife is it to fulfill a need – someone to mind the children for example?
When choosing a new wife, do all wives have a vote?
What are the obligations and privileges of an adult son in such a marriage?
What if the new wife is younger?
If a wife divorces the husband, what is the position of the child – a child raised by multiple mothers?
How are the legal situations handled? Can a woman simply take her children and leave?
In a divorce, do child support costs come from the family as a whole?
In a divorce, do the other wives have standing in court?
I could go on but I’ve made my point.

Ira Glickstein said...

Some great questions, John! Based on what I read on some pro-polygamy websites, there are at least two ways to get around anti-polygamy laws:

1) If what is illegal is registering the second and subsequent wives, just don't do it! Marry the first one in church and register it. Then, marry the other(s) in church (if the church accepts polygamy) and simply don't register it. In contemporary US no one bothers people who have sex within their homes, no matter the marital situation or lack thereof. Of course, there could be problems (as outlined in your questions) if someone wants to leave or if someone dies, etc.2) Marry the first wife in church and register that marriage. Then, get divorced in civil court but not in church. That way, your marriage is still valid "in the eyes of God". Marry the second wife and register it. Then repeat the process for subsequent wives. Again, no problem unless someone wants to leave or dies.I wonder how many families in the US are currently living in an effective state of polygamy? Could be more than anyone suspects!

Ira Glickstein

PS: On the question of the current wife(s) having a vote on a new wife, biblical and talmudic law (prior to Rabbi Gershom's ban on polygamy) held that a man could marry another wife despite the objections of the current wife(s).

JohnS said...

In respect to polygamy and religion, I confront a problem that I cannot resolve satisfactorily, a problem that has concerned me for years. I am a Christian, I strongly believe that portions of the bible are the word of God, the ten commandments for example. What does this have to do with polygamy? My problem is with the humans who say they speak for God. Your references are interesting, if polygamy was acceptable at one time but not now. What happened did God change his mind? I don’t think so. God probably has not spoken on these matters with the exception of marriage. He said obey thy father and thy mother not obey thy father and thy mothers or obey thy father and his partner.

Ira Glickstein said...

John wrote: "I am a Christian, I strongly believe that portions of the bible are the word of God, ... if polygamy was acceptable at one time but not now. What happened did God change his mind? I don’t think so. ..."I know your view is common among those who are literal believers in one religion or another. If your Holy Scriptures are the literal Word of God, and if God is Eternal and All-Knowing, how can He change His Mind?

Well, committed Christians know God ordained circumcision and kosher rules and other practices for the Hebrews and then, with a revelation to St. Paul and/or St. Peter I believe, recinded some of those previously required practices. So, apparently, God can and does change His Mind from time to time as circumstances change. For example when the appostles were spreading Christianity to to the non-Jews and certain Biblically-ordained practices proved to be an obstacle.

In one of my comments to your Medical Ethics topic, I wrote my view (as a Panthiest) of what true ethics really are:

"Ethics are commonly accepted practices that are in the long-term, enlightened self-interest of societal survival and reproduction.

"Different conditions demand different ethical practices in disparate contemporary societies and over the course of time."
So, for my GOD ("General Organizing Device" for evolution and natural selection), ethics do change from time to time and place to place.

Ira Glickstein

JohnS said...

Ira, I am not a Christian who takes the bible literally. I believe in God, but probably not in the way you and most others do – but that is a subject for another time. I also believe that God changes his mind on occasion, so there:>)

I agree with your, "Ethics are commonly accepted practices that are in the long-term, enlightened self-interest of societal survival and reproduction.” Which means that ethics are flexible – there is no “universal ethical standard”, something I have been mulling over and may comment on in the future.

I don’t quite know how to clarify the point I was trying to make, however, I will try again. Religions can change their position pro/con polygamy, gay marriage etc. Priests, Ministers, Rabbis can explain those changes as conforming to what they or their church believe God would approve of in light of today’s conditions; no problem. However, when a Priest, Minister or Rabbi pounds the pulpit exclaiming God says polygamy is good and later God says polygamy is now bad that I find fault. How the heck do they know what God says?

Ira Glickstein said...

Excellent points John! When a sincere clergyperson or any literal believer says "This is what God wants" he or she is expressing a certainty based on how he or she "feels in his or her heart".All animals, including we humans, are wired with an emotional system that has been "designed" (by evolution and natural selection) to serve as an ombudsman for the long term survival and reproduction of the society we have been socialized in. Absent a properly socialized emotional system, we would focus on our own short-term and short-sighted interests and our society would fail.

Before a child reaches the age of reason, he or she is normally socialized (imprinted/indoctrinated) with certain norms. Those norms are embedded into portions of our brains in ways that are not easy to reverse. Since they were imprinted before we were capable of reason, they cannot be reversed by reason. They can only be reversed by a traumatic emotional event.

Thus, we feel a deep attachment to our family, our native language, our neighborhood, our flag, our foods, patriotic songs, and other memes. This includes our religious and ethical beliefs if we have been so indoctrinated at an early age.

Thus, when a person is confronted with an ethical problem, he or she will have a deep inner feeling that the way their family did it is the right way. If that person is a believer in God and His Holy Scriptures, they will have a deep inner feeling that God wants them to behave in a certain way and no amount of reasoned argument will change that feeling.

That deep inner feeling trumps reason. If reason trumped emotion, why would any young man leave his family and march off into war? Why would any young woman go to the segregated south and risk her life to promote integration? Why would any American leave the comfort of home to go to a backward region such as South America to minister to the poor (as I believe John did)?

Ira Glickstein