Ta’amei Hamitzvot in the British Medical Journal: The Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy: Part II

Last time on Talmudology

In Jewish law, a man may marry his dead wife’s sister, but in Victorian Britain it remained against the law (unless you were a Duke). But many ignored the law, and there was a strong movement to change it. Here’s what happened next, but first a personal revelation...

My own great grandfather married his dead wife's sister!

It's true.  I have skin in this game.  I am the direct descendent of a man who married his dead wife's sister. My great-grandfather, Solomon Bograchov married, moved to London (from Odessa?) and had two children. But his wife died, and, so the story goes, he called for his wife's younger sister to come to London and marry him.  Which she did. They had three children, one of whom was Johnny, born in London in 1913. And Johnny was my zaide.

For clarity, not all family members are shown.  

For clarity, not all family members are shown.  

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming

Hook's Church Dictionary vs the British Medical Journal on Ta'amei Hamitzvot

Hook’s Church Dictionary, first published in 1842, was a wildly successful reference manual for the clergy of the Church of England. But its 1887 fourteenth edition contained a controversial new entry

The new edition tackled the key social issue that we have already discussed: should the law be changed to allow a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister? Absolutely not, said Hook’s Church Dictionary. And it supported this opinion by comparing it with what we call Yibbum, that is, the act of levirate marriage, which "was not, properly speaking, permitted by the Jewish law at all." (This is partially true, since marrying a husband's brother was forbidden in Leviticus 18:16.) This prohibition "was a general moral law" and so applied to all mankind, and was only to be overridden in the special case of a married man who died without children. In this instance, The Bible (Deut. 25:5-10) requires levirate marriage so as to "protect those agrarian rights which were at the basis of the Hebrew system.” But at its core, the Bible’s prohibition against marrying a brother’s wife was precisely the same as the Church’s prohibition against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister.  Precisely the same.  And what would happen if that Church prohibition would be changed? It would lead to the end of society as we know it. Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what it said:

“To legalize marriage with a deceased wife’s sister cannot possibly remain a solitary innovation. We shall have …taken the first step in a revolution of the whole of our domestic and much of our social life.”

Which brings us, at long last, to The British Medical Journal.

Writing in The Journal, an anonymous doctor -“a surgeon of twenty-five years standing” -challenged this entry in Hook's Church Dictionary, and he used the best science of his day to do so.  The reasons for God’s laws, wrote the surgeon,  “will be found closely connected with some physiological law…and …what profound knowledge was possessed by the framer of Mosaic law, because the facts upon which the opinion is based have only recently appeared in the annals of science. “

He stated that the science at the basis of the laws of Yibbum was the laws of heredity.  Since children inherit the “proclivities of their parents,” a marriage of close blood relatives (consanguine marriage) would concentrate any undesirable traits, and “cause the race to deteriorate.” But when a man marries his dead wife’s sister, he is not marrying a close relative. In fact, he not marrying a blood relative at all, and any offspring would not carry the concentrated negative traits of their parents.  As a consequence, these marriages should be permitted. (Remember that the author was writing some six decades before the discovery of DNA, and only a few years after Mendel’s (largely ignored) suggestion that there were recessive and dominant “factors” that carry hereditary characteristics.)

But when a man marries a woman who has fathered children with another husband, something else is at work, scientifically speaking. “The fact may be regarded as well established that…traces of the first child’s father are discoverable in all succeeding children of the same mother, whatever the direct paternity of these may be.”

Got that? When a man impregnates a women, some of his traits are carried to all the future children of that woman, regardless of who the next father may be.  It is for this reason that the Bible prohibited a man from marrying his dead bother’s wife - unless that brother had fathered no children. For if the deceased brother had fathered a child, his traits would be carried by his wife in all her future pregnancies.  If a man would then marry his widowed brother’s wife, she would pass on both his traits and those of her former husband in a concentrated form. The effect on heredity would be exactly the same as marrying a close blood relative, since the undesirable traits (this time from two brothers) would be mixed together and passed on.  

By the powers of this science, the surgeon then addressed the issue of the day. He argued that no such effect would occur if a man were allowed to marry his dead wife’s sister. “The father has no similar power of transmitting traces of his former wife to the children of her successor, for the diseases which are occasionally contracted by contagion are quite distinct from the collaterally inherited traits referred to.”

Ta’amei Hamitzvot in the BMJ

It’s all very neat and scientific. Levirate marriage was a special dispensation and when understood through the science of heredity, it made biological sense. Since the dead brother had fathered no children, his traits were not carried by his wife, and she could marry her brother-in-law without being worried that there would be a concentration of bad blood. This same cutting edge science also supported a change in the law that would allow a man to marry his dead wife’s sister.

“The effect produced upon the ovaries by impregnation is not only special upon the particular ovum which becomes developed into the particular child begotten, but general upon the entire mass of at least one, if not both…But where impregnation has failed to take place no such effects can follow....”

But we know that no such effect exists. Not remotely.  (And don’t write to me about infectious conditions; we’re not talking about those.)  Today, we know that the science in The BMJ was wrong. Which makes us question the nature of scientific knowledge itself.  It is, as this example shows,  unreliable.  What is true for science today turns out to be wrong tomorrow. And so, when the Torah and Jewish tradition faces a challenge from the scientific community, the correct response is to ignore the science, because hey, in a few years, there will be another scientific theory that comes along and replaces the one that is troubling to us. Right?

Find out in the next installment, on Talmudology.