Too Many Queens

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Ever since they were hunter-gatherers, men were able to accomplish great things. They could build, tear down, plot destinies. But they ever relied upon – or were undone by – their women. As the famous adage goes: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Or sometimes, as Jim Carey put it: “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” It all depends on the man and the woman.

Whether we are talking about our matriarch Sarah, the wives of On and Korach, or the likes of Nefertiti, Josephine Bonaparte, Eleanor Roosevelt, or even Winnie Mandela, it is a truism that regardless of era, culture, or the state of women’s rights, women have always had the ability to make or break their husbands.

How about when a guy has more than one wife? Oy vey!

Abraham and Sarah tried it briefly, when Sarah offered Abraham her maidservant Hagar for the purpose of bearing him children. It did not take long before there was enmity and hostility between Sarah and Hagar; ultimately, Hagar was banished.

Jacob tried it with two sisters, Rachel and Leah. That too resulted in a lifelong hostility and competition among the sisters. Many commentaries suggest that it is for this very reason that Torah later prohibited marrying two sisters: Torah acknowledged the strife caused by and among two wives, and forbade Jewish people from introducing that strife among sisters.

In fact, the famous author of the ban on polygamy for Ashkenazic Jewry – Rabbeinu Gershom – himself took a second wife when his first beloved wife was unable to bear him a child. He ended up being betrayed by his second wife, and was imprisoned by Emperor Basil of Constantinople. He was ultimately rescued by his first wife, and together they escaped to his native home in France. It was after this experience that he, with the approval of the Rabbinic authorities at the time, banned polygamy.

But let’s break it down a bit.

Was R’ Gershom’s betrayal by his second wife the fault of polygamy? Or was she simply a “bad apple”? What was it about his experience that led R’ Gershom to reject polygamy, which that had been practiced since time immemorial?

The fact is, that men devote an enormous part of their mental and emotional resources to their wife. Whether they are aloof and distant or warm and loving, once married, a man’s wife often becomes a part of his core identity. His ability to provide for her, to do right by her, to be a man in her eyes, becomes a crucial part of how a man views himself. She becomes the mirror of his soul, his anchor. When he goes to work, consciously or unconsciously, he works equally for her. A single man might spend all of his income to supporting his own lifestyle. When he marries, however, without even thinking twice, his income will be committed to supporting the two of them.

Indeed, there are several Jewish laws that recognize the principal that a wife’s honor is identical with that of her husband’s – at a minimum. For example, if a woman is taken captive, G-d forbid, her husband is obligated to ransom her – even if he is a Kohein, to whom she is now prohibited. And what if the husband is out of the country and cannot be reached when the opportunity to ransom her arises? The Court of Jewish Law is authorized to sell the husband’s property in his absence, and use it to ransom her. See Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Marriage, 14:19, 21. Another example: if a man’s wife dies, G-d forbid, she is entitled to a burial ceremony that befits his station – unless her station is higher, in which case the funeral must befit hers (and the reverse doesn’t apply). See Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Marriage, 14:24.

This is all because of the extent to which a man becomes bound up in his wife. When he marries, “he cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis, 2:24.

Now take the enormity of this commitment and split it among two wives. How would that even work? How could a man possibly maintain his own identity when it is so fragmented, when his soul is reflected back to him by two women with very different personalities? Now imagine 18 wives! A veritable house of mirrors!

In this week’s Parshah, Shoftim, the Torah discusses the special rules applicable to Jewish kings. One of them is that “he shall not take many wives for himself, and he shall not turn his heart astray.” Deuteronomy, 17:17.

So many questions! So R’ Gershom’s ban on polygamy had some biblical precedent, but only for kings? If it’s a bad idea, then why just kings? And how many is “many”? Is Torah suggesting that many wives will automatically turn the king’s heart astray? Or are they two distinct clauses: don’t marry too many wives, and don’t turn your heart astray?

In an interesting Talmudic exposition, the Sages came to the conclusion that 18 wives are the limit. This is extrapolated from a sort of after-the-fact analysis of G-d’s reaction to King David’s wives. The Talmud concludes that when King David was still holding court in Chebron, he had six wives. Then, after his sin, of taking Batsheva from her husband Uriah the Hittite for a wife, the Prophet Nathan castigates him for his greed, informing him that “if this were too little, I would have added for you like these and like these.” The Sages understood “like these and like these” to mean another six wives, and then another six wives. Added to the six wives that he was already married to, that would have meant 18, which the Sages viewed as the maximum allowed. See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21a.

The Kabbalah, of course, has a different explanation for this number. It expounds upon the 18 dimensions of the supernal sefirah Malkhut (Kingship…or in this case, Queenship), all of which are associated with our matriarch Leah. Thus, the masculine King can have only 18 different experiences in His unity with the Queen. These 18 stages are reflected in the world below in the prohibition against the king taking more than 18 queens.

However, the Mishnah also notes a fascinating debate as to whether the prohibition that a king “not turn his heart astray” is merely the explanation for why “he shall not take many wives,” or whether it adds an additional prohibition that concerns avoiding a corrupting influence. The former opinion reads the verse almost as though the word “if” appeared between the clauses; i.e., a king shall not take many wives if those wives will cause his heart to turn astray. But suppose, for example, a king was extremely selective regarding the piety of his wives; in that case, he would be permitted to marry more than 18 of the “right kind” of wife. In other words, it is the individual wife’s personality that determine whether she might be a corrupting influence. A king may not marry more than 18 “bad apples.”

The latter view, though, is that they are two distinct clauses: a king may never marry more than 18 wives, even if they are all as pious as King David’s most righteous wife, Abigail. Eighteen is the absolute maximum. Then, however, the Torah proceeds to a second clause: a king may not marry even one wife of the corrupting kind – he must be picky about whom he invites to be his queen, choosing only women of worthy character.

And yet even this view sees the corruption of the king’s heart as the underlying rationale for a king not to take too many wives, notwithstanding how righteous they may be. Why?

Because even a king, for whom marriage may often be for political expedience, and for whom marriage may less frequently involve a merging of identity – even he cannot sustain such a fragmented existence presented by a large harem of wives, each with a marital claim upon his essence. Given the national role of a king, and that “his heart is the heart of the people,” we simply cannot risk the king’s focus and heart by allowing it to be vested in too many queens.

Shabbat shalom!