This story was written by Sarah Goldstein and originally appeared in Heeb’s “Love Issue” (February, 2007).
Right now, in the boardrooms of Jewish philanthropic organizations throughout the U.S., program officers are locked in heated discussions about your love life. Whirlwind trips to Israel, boozy mixers at community centers, film screenings in darkened theaters, online endogamous dating sites—all meticulously designed to lead young Jews into lasting romantic relationships. So, in an American social climate where divorce is pandemic and for the first time in decades, more than half of the population is unmarried, wouldn’t the powers-that-be be pleased to know that some Jews yearn to be in as many Jewish relationships as possible… even simultaneously? Polyamory, while hardly a sweeping mainstream trend, is a lifestyle that an increasing number of Jews are embracing. But in light of the ongoing—and often vicious—debate both in religion and politics about same-sex marriage, polyamorous Jews are choosing to love their partners quietly and discreetly, wrestling with what it means to be both Jewish and polyamorous out of the public eye.
Rabbi Jacob Levin, 62, is an exception. When he came out to his synagogue’s board seven years ago, his disclosure was met with a mix of confusion and dismay. Homosexuality they understood, there was growing acceptance, some synagogues more conservative than theirs were even supporting gay marriage—but polyamory? This was different, this was weird. They were Jews after all, people of the Book, not pagan nature worshipers or—God forbid—Mormons. In the four-hour conversation that followed Levin’s announcement, the board drilled him on everything from Jewish law to whether their daughters would be safe from sexual advances. Would he come onto the Bat Mitzvah students? Would he advocate husbands to leave wives?
Levin’s synagogue, located some 300 miles north of San Francisco, ultimately decided to let him stay though there remain a number of congregants displeased with the outcome, a few left, refusing to worship with him. Levin, who is straight, describes the decision to tell his synagogue as the most difficult of his life, not unlike, he imagines, a gay man coming out in the ’50s. Levin insists that he was faced with everything a gay rabbi would have been up against—questions of faith, ostracism, distrust. “I had people come up to me and say, ‘I’m more accepting than most and if you were a truck driver it would be okay, but you’re our rabbi’”. While Levin believes that a person’s sexual identity is a “private and personal matter,” because he lives in such a small, conservative community, he feels there is no way to hide if you are gay, lesbian or poly. Rather than congregants finding out backhandedly, he wanted to be up front. As far as he knows, Levin is the only polyamorous rabbi who is out to his congregation.
Because “poly” is not one of the categories kept by the American Jewish Committee—there are no real estimates as to their numbers. A paper published in 1999 by psychologist Geri D. Weitzman suggested that 15 to 28 percent of all heterosexual married couples “allowed non-monogamy under certain circumstances,” but the study is based on data collected 20 years earlier and numbers are difficult to verify because so many remain closeted. Were it not for the anonymity afforded by the Internet, there’s a good chance poly Jews would remain largely invisible to those outside the community. Group websites like KinkyJews, which welcomes “all sexual orientations and all streams of Judaism” (and boasts more than 1,000 members), and the listserv AhavaRaba (“big love”), an online forum for poly Jews, offer the opportunity for people to share their experiences living as poly within the constraints of Judaism and the larger, monogamous-centered culture. Even without official data, their conversations indicate that many of the chosen choose more than one person for long-term intimacy. To be sure, we’re talking about a subset of a minority population, but nonetheless, Jews who consider themselves polyamorous—loosely defined as loving more than one person or having more than one partner—are not the hippy oddballs you might assume them to be.
“You can’t find ‘Polyamory, Chapter 32’ in the Talmud,” says Rabbi Levin. But regardless of their level of religiosity, polyamorous Jews self-consciously try to situate their relationships in a Jewish context. It can be a complicated, sometimes inventive dance.
Michael, 27, and Leah Abrahams, 27, who consider themselves “Conservadox” Jews, were married by law last spring. They have postponed getting a ketubah so they can figure out a way to conduct their relationship with a third partner, Miriam Miller, 24, without violating Jewish law. The Abrahamses note that the Torah defines adultery as a married woman having sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband. It does not say anything about a married woman having sex with another woman (lesbian sex is not acknowledged by the Torah) nor does it say anything about a married man having sex with a woman who is not his wife. So long as Leah Abrahams keeps her poly relationships restricted to women, they reason, the Abrahamses and Miller are not violating Jewish law.
Although Leah Abrahams says she does not have any interest in getting involved with a man outside her marriage, should she change her mind, the Abrahamses imagine that they would have to adopt a different arrangement. That’s why they are thinking about concubine status. A concubine, as defined by the Torah, is a woman in a sexual relationship with a man outside of marriage. Historically, concubinage gave a woman of lesser social standing a measure of economic security, but should the man die or decide he no longer wanted her, she had no legal recourse and no right to any of his money or property. Although concubinage fell out of practice among Jews in the 10th century—around the same time as polygamy—the Abrahamses see it as a way to keep their relationship holy and polyamorous.
Another, far less complicated way that polyamorous Jews reconcile their relationships with Judaism is by taking heterosexual sex out of the equation. As Rabbi Shira Feinberg, 45, a closeted polyamorous woman who lives on the West Coast, rationalizes, if adultery is defined specifically as intercourse between a man and a woman, then intercourse between partners of the same sex shouldn’t constitute adultery.
Perhaps the most common misconception about polyamory is that it is a purely sexual lifestyle, akin to swinging. Jay Michaelson, chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice, points out that some polyamorists are interested in pursuing an open and flexible sexuality, “but a lot of people in that community have reached a level of maturity where, on the one hand, they no longer believe in the normative sexual ethic and, on the other, they’ve gotten over the initial frisson of having lots of sex. So that leads people to try to construct meaningful, durable ways of relating to people sexually and emotionally that are neither wholly conservative nor wholly libertine.”
It’s a difficult undertaking and the practical experience of having multiple partners in a world in which the nuclear family is sacrosanct is hardly easy. Chaim Mandel, 51, who has lived with his wife and kids in a polyamorous household for the past eleven years, echoes many other poly Jews when he cautions against these arrangements unless it seems like the only option. He believes that people are either innately monogamous or non-monogamous and, like being gay or straight, polyamory is a natural predisposition, not something you choose.
Jacob Levin agrees that polyamory is not something to try on a whim and that those who do well with one partner should stick with monogamy. Ironically, Levin has found himself more alone since coming out as poly, which brought about the end of his 20-year marriage, than he was while monogamous. For Levin, it is not so easy to meet others like him, especially those who are Jewish. Most of Levin’s contact with other poly Jews is through the listserv AhavaRaba, a lively and supportive community, but still an online one without faces or real names.
Even for those who believe they have reconciled Judaism with polyamory, like most things, these relationships become a lot more complicated when there are kids involved. Chaim Mandel, who raised his two sons with his wife Shoshannah, 55, and their partners David, 42, and Rachel, 42—who have two daughters of their own—acknowledge that while their arrangement was more or less accepted by the younger kids, his eldest son Ari was angry about it for a long time. Ari, who is now 24, explains that one of the most difficult things for him growing up was answering to “extra authority.” Instead of having two parents to bust your chops there were now four, and in the eyes of the teenaged Ari, two of them had no business doing so. Before Ari went to college, he sat all five of the adults down (Chaim and Rachel have also been involved with a third woman, Dina, for the past nine years) and told them that he did not approve of what they were doing and that it had been a confusing environment in which to grow up. After some time away from home, Ari no longer feels so negatively, clarifying, “It could have been a lot worse. Some kids are abused or have to deal with divorce. So my parents are hippies.” He does, however, still think his parents could have been more honest about what was going on, “There was never a formal conversation,” says Ari, “it was more like—oh, now we’re doing this.” His younger brother Gabriel, 20, agrees that their parents could have made more of an effort to be open with the kids. Gabriel explained that he’s “seen what polyamory is like and it’s probably that I spent so much time over the last nine years wishing that my parents could just be together and happy the two of them, I guess I don’t want something like that in my own life.” Even so, Gabriel thinks that divorce would have been more damaging.
Regardless of how the kids have felt about their parents’ relationships, they think of one another as siblings, which, as Gabriel sees it, is “probably the best thing to come out of the relationship.” Keenah, 19, the eldest daughter of David and Rachel, is the most positive of the kids about the experience growing up with another family. She calls Chaim, “Dad,” and David, her biological father, “Poppy,” and is grateful that she was able to rely on different parents for different needs. The only sense Keenah ever got that there was something “wrong” with her family was from others—parents who would not allow their kids to come over to play, or strangers suspiciously quizzing her as soon as they find out the situation. The strongest impression Keenah has of her family is its inclusive sense of community. Although biological parents were the chief guardians of their own children, the others played an active role picking kids up from school, taking turns making dinner and helping with homework and Bar-Mitzvah speeches. Keenah, who now lives with her boyfriend in a monogamous relationship, remembers thinking it was strange and a little sad that her first Thanksgiving dinner away from home had fewer than 75 people.
Images of Bill Paxton’s studly patriarch from HBO’s Big Love or sound-bites from salacious late-night radio shows may come to mind, but polyamorous Jews have much more in common with the larger Jewish community than they do with those of the Mormon or swinging variety. They mirror the concerns being articulated every day by those boardroom suits terrified by the specter of the “vanishing American Jew.” In living in both polyamorous and Jewish relationships, these individuals are hoping to hold on to real and loving connections, and in their way, looking after the future of the Jews.
All the subjects’ names in this article were changed to protect their anonymity.
Illustration by Rebecca Weiner