Friday, July 29, 2011

Napoleon And Jewish Polygamists

Medallion struck in honor of the "Grand S...Image via Wikipedia
 Medallion in commemoration of the Grand Sanhedrin
About three weeks ago I posted extensively about a bizarre group who wish to reinstate Jewish polygamy. I listened to an interview this week on this topic with a Mrs. Elisheva Bar who was arguing for Polygamy. One of the interesting things she mentioned was the fact that Polygamy was the first question Napoleon asked of his "Sanhedrin".

The Grand Sanhedrin was a Jewish high court convened in by Napoleon I to answer the question of whether Jews could be equals in the French Empire.  The name was chosen to imply that the Grand Sanhedrin had the authority of the original Sanhedrin that had been the main legislative and judicial body of theJewish people in classical and late antiquity.

Here is the question Napoleon asked and the answer the sanhedrin gave:

Is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife?


It is not lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife: in all European countries they conform to the general practice marrying only one.Moses does not command expressly to take several, but he does not forbid it. He seems even to adopt that custom as generally prevailing, since he settles the rights of inheritance between children of different wives. Although this practice still prevails in the East, yet their ancient doctors have enjoined them to restrain from taking more than one wife, except when the man is enabled by his fortune to maintain several.
The case has been different in the West; the wish of adopting the customs of the inhabitants of this part of the world has induced the Jews to renounce polygamy. But as several individuals still indulged in that practice, a synod was convened at Worms in the eleventh century, composed of one hundred Rabbis, with Gershom at their head. This assembly pronounced an anathema against every Israelite who should, in future, take more than one wife. Although this prohibition was not to last for ever, the influence of European manners has universally prevailed. (source)
There seems to be at least one small exaggeration. The exact nature of the Cherem is not actually known, and this telling is a rather idealistic telling of it. Obviously the Grand Sanhedrin was more interested in giving the politically correct answer, rather then being exact.

I have no idea why Polygamy was the first question Napoleon would ask, since it does not seem to have any great relevance to the question of whether the Jews can be part of society. Furthermore, I highly doubt there were many polygomous Jews around, so this could not have been much of a burning issue.
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