Polyamory and Judaism

In theory, all Jews are subject to the same Torah laws. In reality, there are different interpretations, traditions and history have informed those laws, and contrary to the assumptions of many Americans, there is a great deal more variety in Jewish tradition then Reform/Conservative/Orthodox.

The Torah (first five books of what Christians call the Jewish Scripture or Old Testament) is very clear on allowing polygyny (multiple wives) under specific conditions. Among other things, a man must be able to provide all his wives with the same level of care when it comes to their physical, and sexual needs, and he must be equally affectionate/loving/caring with all of them. Additionally, his first wife must agree before he can take a second wife, the first two must agree before he can take a third, and etc.

Additionally, the specifics of Torah law define adultery as a man sleeping with a woman who is married to someone else. He can sleep with as many unmarried women as he wants, and it’s frowned on, but not adulterous. Presumably the reverse is true (as long as a woman is unmarried she can sleep with any man she wants). Once the woman is married, it is adultery and against the law for both parties.

By extension polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) would be considered adultery and is against Torah law.

Now, getting to those varieties of Judaism – some Jewish traditions consider the decisions of what is known as the Rabbinic period to be law one step below Torah law in importance. (Think of violating Torah law as on the level of murder and Rabbinic law as on the level of accidental manslaughter if that helps). Those who follow Rabbic law include the Ashkenazim (basically all the Jewish traditions Americans are familiar with) and some (but not all) of the Sephardi (Jews who lived in Spain, Portugal and the Ottoman Empire). Mizrahi (Jews from the Mi+ddle East or Asia) generally do not accept Rabbinic law.

This is important because around 1100 CE, it was decided by the Rabbis that polygyny would no longer be acceptable (several sources say that this was because the cultures they were living among didn’t practice polygyny, and it was dangerous to stand out too much). Regardless of the reason, at this point polygyny is considered illegal by the majority of Jewish traditions in Europe and America based on these Rabbinic laws.

Modern Jewish authority is pretty much against polygamy, and Israeli law says that Jews who married polygynously in their old countries can move to Israel, but once they are there they aren’t allowed any more polygynous marriages.This isn’t much of an issue as for practical reasons of civil laws even Jews whose traditions allow polygyny rarely practice it today.

Over all, from a technical reading of the Scripture, polyamory (multiple loves) is fine, because as long as the women aren’t married, it isn’t adultery. Similarly, a mono/poly marriage where the woman is mono and the man is poly could slip through the cracks as the man can have relations with women who are not married and it isn’t adultery.

However, multiple marriages of any variety are pretty much out.

All this depends on a very legalistic interpretation of the Scripture, and most Jewish communities frown on sex outside of marriage, even if it is technically legal. However, an important tenet of Judaism is that each person is responsible for their own interpretation of the law and how they follow the law.

6 responses to “Polyamory and Judaism

  1. As a bride-to-be, I’m currently experiencing a fair amount of stress and disappointment. I was honest with our rabbi about our situation; my fiance and I are in a committed relationship with a woman, and we are a wonderful family. Each of us had our own ceremony with her, though neither are legally binding. Now, the legal (by US law) wedding with my fiance and I , we are told, cannot be performed under a chuppah (which I disagree with) because obviously, it is halachically illegal. I was told that I could potentially do an “anointing” with the three of us, but that is not an option.

    I still plan on getting married under the chuppah, and I will still walk seven times around my future husband and sign the ketubah, with the woman I love and the children we share watching from beside us. Our families don’t know about our situation and for that reason and out of respect for them, we will not be incorporating our polyamory into the ceremony–something I explained to the rabbi. I refuse to accept that G-d hasn’t brought us together for a reason, and that what we are doing is in some way unacceptable to Him. We will not be using a rabbi, which is not required for a Jewish wedding anyway.

    Rabbis are human, and they are fallible. Not only that, rabbinical law is fallible, and I will fight until my dying breath not only to change the law, but to change the stigma attached to people who choose to have a third partner and be in a committed, consensual relationship. I cannot believe it’s more acceptable in my congregation (Reform Judaism) to be gay than it is to love two people who love me just as much.

    • One of the wonderful (for me) things about Judaism is that the law is a living thing which is always able to change as our understanding grows and changes. What is halachically legal today would have been illegal in the past, and what was legal in the past would have been illegal in the further past. (And reverse, of course. No matter what the Torah actually says, kinky Jews find no acceptance for their desire to keep or be consensual slaves.)

      Sadly, of all poly arrangements, a man and two women should be one of the easiest for Judaism to accept because, Torah. But the law has grown and changed since the days of Jacob, and so have we. Which IMO is only encouragement to work for new and further change. There was (and may still be) a Poly Jews group on Fetlife if you would like to connect with others in similar situations.

      Mazol tov. May you and yours have a joyous celebration, and a long and happy life together.

      • Thank you so much, Jessica. And yes, I agree with you; that was something I always believed about Judaism. We have yet to catch up with the 21st century where many things are concerned, especially this. Yes, you would think it would be more acceptable, although I think it all should be, regardless of the genders involved.

        I also happen to be in a D/s relationship; my fiance is my Dom, so I’m quite familiar with Fet. I never thought to look for a poly Jews group, though. Brilliant!

        Again, thank you. Sending you and yours light and love.

  2. Hi!

    I’ve come across your blog a few times during research and reading on poly issues, and came across this particular article while researching a specific issue for a poly friend of mine- specifically, the status of poly and halacha inside an Orthodox marriage. In general, I love your blog, and see it as a valuable resource. This article in particular, is a great overview of the historical Jewish views towards poly.

    However, I feel compelled here to point out some minor factual inaccuracies in this article.
    You say that there is a difference between Jews of different origins vis-a-vs their adherence to Rabbninic Law. There are certainly religious, Rabbinical-Law abiding Jews in both the Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. What’s important here is that these communities have traditionally followed different (their own) Rabbis, and these communities developed different traditions, based on the realities of the communities they were living in (apropos Judaism being dynamic, and often reacting to the context it finds itself in).
    The most classic and timely example of this is whether or not Jews will eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover. Ashkenazi Jews do not, due to the traditions that sprung up in their communities, while Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews (except for Algerian Jews, and a few others) do eat kitniyot. This isn’t because Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews don’t follow Rabbinic Judaism, but because the Rabbis of these communities never made a ruling against the eating of these foods.

    How is this relevant?

    The Rabbinic Decree you mention, outlawing polygyny in marriage, was enacted by an Ashkenazi Rabbi, Rabbenu Gershom, around the year 1000. Rabbenu Gershom was an authority in the Ashkenaz communities, not in any others, which is why that particular decree extended to Ashkenazi Jews, and not to others- not because Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews don’t follow Rabbinic Law.

    It’s also interesting to note that this decree was made around the same time as another one influencing Jewish marriage– a man could not obtain a divorce without his wife’s consent. That is, a woman could not be forcibly divorced, of particular important at a time when the legal status of women was frustratingly limited. The polygyny decree was also intended to protect the status of women.

    I think this distinction is especially important to be accurate about considering the Ashkenazi-centric nature of a lot of mainstream Judaism, and especially in Israel. There’s this idea that somehow Ashkenazi Judaism is more “authentic,” that it carried more weight, and this, like any other form of ***-centrism, shows up in all sorts of little oppressive ways against the communities not a part of the hegemonic ideal. (Anthropologically speaking, this might not even be true- there are scholars who believe that the traditions followed by the Yemenite community, and even the dialect in which they pray, is the most similar to what Judaism is believed to look like at the time of the Temple.)


    Ok, I think I’ve rambled on long enough for now.

    Thank you for your blog in general, and for this article in particular.

  3. Brilliantly put Dee! Thank you.

  4. In Judaism the Torah does not forbid lesbian sex. Although it is frouned upon. Only male homosexuality is considered sinful.

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