Concubines are making a comeback. Only this time, adultery has received some impressive Rabbinical blessing. The Chief Judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court, Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, ruled yesterday that a man may take a concubine if his wife cannot have children and refuses to grant him a divorce. According to his latest book, Dvarot Eliyahu, the concubine may even live with the couple.
Well, this latest ruling caused quite a stir in my online social circles. For me, it just brought on a slight pang of nostalgia, back to my single days living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And an organization called Shalom Bayis, which targeted my community to recruit single, Orthodox Jewish women, to become concubines.
The yellow leaflets with bold, black writing, were stacked thick and messy in the mail “room” of the Westmont apartment building on 96th Street and Columbus Avenue. I normally wouldn’t look at the junk mail but, one day back in 1997, I happened to glance over and the headline grabbed my attention. Words like “Shalom Bayis” and “Pilegesh” leaped off the page. Truth be told, I hadn’t seen the word “Pilegesh” in writing since my Yeshiva High School days, when we learned about Pilegesh BeGivah. My knowledge of that particular incident in Jewish history was pretty fuzzy, but I knew that it just did not end well for that Pilegesh. Intrigued, I grabbed a flier and made my way up to my apartment.
The organization was recruiting, and looking for single women to volunteer to become a Pilegesh. I honestly thought it was some sort of joke, but after reading through the rest of the flyer, failed to find any sort of punchline. The organization made headlines a year earlier in the New York Daily News, and were widely condemned by numerous Rabbinical leaders throughout the New York area. According to the article, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens (and my family’s Rabbi), said Shalom Bayis represents “nonsense, lies and fabrications. It is simply a way of allowing married men who don’t want to be loyal . . . to liberate themselves.”
I wonder what he would have said if he knew they were targeting women from his own community, or what he would say today, to Rabbi Abergel’s ruling.
I was new to the building and very new to this type of organization; at 21 years old, I wasn’t yet worried about the potential of my spinsterhood. And, after a good laugh with my roommate, I squirreled the flyer away in the top drawer of my desk and forgot about it.
Eight years later, I was still single and in a very different place in my life. I was frustrated with dating, exasperated with the men I was set up with, and devastated that I wasn’t married with children. My Grandfather had just passed away and I found myself in his Lower East Side apartment, where we had lived together for four and a half years after I moved out of my Westmont apartment, going through closets and drawers. It was difficult to go through our stuff, but the job had to be done. I met my Aunt in the apartment and we split up the rooms. My primary job was to make sure all of the stuff I had left behind, was either thrown away or would be joining me in my new studio apartment on the Upper West Side. With a heavy heart, I made my way through the closet. I tossed old sneakers and dirty clothes, found buried “treasure” in a box of Cuban cigars I was convinced my Great-Uncle Benjy brought home from one of his many trips to Cuba, and shed a few tears over the new Mets baseball jacket I bought my Grandfather. It was still clean.
By the time I got to my old desk, I was emotionally worn out. The desk was still in the hallway by the front door, only the drawers were practically stuffed shut with the junk mail I’d acquired since moving back to the Upper West Side earlier in the year. I yanked the drawers open, the black garbage bag next to my legs already stuffed with non-kosher restaurant menus and dry cleaning stubs. Without much thought or concentration, I dumped the drawer contents into the garbage. And there, beneath the old bills, scraps of notepaper, blue post-its, and fast food restaurant napkins, was the bright yellow Shalom Bayis flyer.
I took it out of the drawer and slumped against the desk, the yellow felt wallpaper cushioned my back as I read it through.
Could this really be my only option? I thought. I was striking out with online dating, matchmakers, trying to meet men at Shabbat meals, and the rare set up through friends. My biological clock was ticking so loud that it practically muted all other sounds in my life. I was fast approaching 30, and if I wanted to have babies, I had better figure something out.
Maybe, I thought, not every woman gets to be a wife. Perhaps, G-d has a different plan in mind for me.
I reached in to the pocket of my jeans and pulled out my cell phone. I started dialing the number at the bottom of the page. I stopped mid-way through.
What would I even say? Somehow, I just couldn’t imagine choking out the words: “Hi, I’m calling about the ad looking for mistresses.”
I quickly shut the phone and shook the moment of insanity from my head. I didn’t know what G-d’s plan was for me, but I was pretty sure becoming a Pilegesh wasn’t in the cards. Besides, I could not imagine how I would explain it to my family. It certainly wouldn’t be conversation fodder for the Shul kiddush.
Looking once more at the flyer, I debated at least storing the organizations’ phone number in my phone. Fortunately, I thought better of it and crumpled the paper, adding it to the overflowing black garbage bag. And thus the five minutes I considered becoming a mistress came to an end.
As for Rabbi Abergel’s latest ruling? It’s just not really news, in my opinion. Organizations supporting men who seek concubines have been backed by Rabbinical “authorities” for years.
Now, if Rabbi Abergel came out with a ruling that Pilegesh is a viable solution for the singles problem? Well, that would certainly be something to get all worked up about.