Q. Is there a Jewish view of polygamy?
A. A number of Biblical figures had more than one wife, but polygamy was never the Jewish ideal. When Eve was created as a wife for Adam, the Torah said, “Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (singular) and they shall be as one person” (Gen. 2:24). Sforno comments, “A man should seek to marry a woman (singular) harmoniously suited to him so that together they form a perfect whole”.
Generally any instance of polygamy is explained as a special case: Abraham marries a second wife because Sarah is thought to be barren; Jacob takes Rachel as his second wife because his father-in-law deceives him into marrying Leah.
By the time of the Prophets monogamy was the rule and symbolised the special relationship between Israel and God. Having more than one wife was like worshipping more than one god. None of the Talmudic rabbis is recorded as having more than one wife, even though there is one view that says one can marry as many wives as he can support (Yev. 65a).
Monogamy was by now axiomatic – rabbinic discussions speak of “man and wife”, not “man and wives” – and halachic rules were introduced in order to make polygamy unthinkable: thus it was suggested that a wife could sue for divorce if her husband took another wife (ibid.).
In the Middle Ages Rabbenu Gershom placed a ban on polygamy in northern France and Germany, and this became the rule amongst Ashkenazim. Non-Ashkenazim were not necessarily bound by this edict but even amongst them polygamy was rare.
The State of Israel prohibits polygamy. The only sanctioned form of bigamy in modern Judaism is the rarely utilised exception to the ban of Rabbenu Gershom whereby if, for example, a woman is incurably insane and cannot accept a gett, a man can be given permission by 100 rabbis to marry a second wife.