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. 

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Science, Torah, and The Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy: Part I

The Plan

We are going to discuss what we mean when we say that science changes. We are also going to look at some Jewish skeptics of science, and their understandings and misunderstandings of the concept of a science that changes.  We’re going to do this through the lens of Yevamot, and examine in some depth The British Medical Journal’s understanding of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, the reasons for the commandments in the Torah. But to do so will require a detour into a fascinating social debate that took place in Victorian England. We are going to dive deeply. So strap in. (Yes I know. Too many metaphors. Sorry.)

Background – Yevamot 8a.

In Leviticus (18:18) the Torah states

"ואשה אל אחתה לא תקח לצרר לגלות ערותה עליה בחייה".

You shall not take a women with her sister to become rivals, to lay bare her nakedness, while her sister is still alive. 

Based on the word בחייה – is still alive, the Talmud in Yevamot (8b) established that a man may marry his wife’s sister if, and only if, his wife had died.  

This is reflected in the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, which ruled (as did Maimonides) that the prohibition against a man marrying his wife’s sister exists only while his wife is alive. On her death, a man may marry his deceased wife’s sister. 

 אחות אשתו אסורה לו מן התורה, כל זמן שאשתו קיימת, לא שנא אם היא אחותה מן האב או     מן האם,  ואפילו גירש את אשתו. אבל לאחר מיתתה, מותר באחות

(שולחן ערוך אבן העזר הלכות אישות סימן טו סעיף כו) 

Just to be clear – this is not the central focus of Yevamot, which is concerned with levirate marriage; that’s when a man marries his dead brother’s widow; but it is very important since it will touch on issues central to science and Yevamot.  Let’s see how.  

Was Henry illegitimate?

The Jewish law allowing a man to marry his dead wife's sister was not followed in Victorian England. Quite the opposite - a marriage like this was forbidden. But a debate about this law began with a question about the the legitimacy the Duke of Beaufort. Henry Somerset (d. 1853) the seventh Duke of Beaufort, had married Georgina Fitzroy and had fathered two girls with her. But Georgina died in 1821, and the sad Duke then married her younger half-sister Emily, with whom he had a further six daughters, and a son. (I know this is beginning to sound like a complicated episode of Downton Abbey, but bear with me. It’s worth it.)  That son was Henry Charles FitzRoy Somerset (1824-1899), who later became the 8th Duke of Beaufort. But there was a problem. Perhaps Henry was not a legitimate heir to the House of Somerset, since he was the child of a union of a man and his wife’s sister (or in this case, half-sister.) If the old Duke’s marriage to his dead wife’s (half-) sister was prohibited, then Duke Henry was a bastard child and his inheritance would have to be passed on to other males in the family line. There was a lot at stake.

The solution came with the 1835 Act to render certain marriages valid and to alter the law with respect to certain voidable marriages, introduced by Lord Lyndhurst. This Act retrospectively made any marriage like the old Duke’s valid, but prohibited any such marriages from taking place in the future.  In this way, the present Henry, Duke of Beaufort, was not a bastard child after all; he could inherit the estate, and all was made good.

Except that it wasn’t. The Act did not settle matters at all, and ignited a debate in England that lasted seven decades. 

In addition to regular parliamentary bills and debates, pamphlets, letters, treatises and statements from all sides were published steadily through this period; major journals carried articles from leading figures in the controversy…and at least five novels took marriage with a deceased wife’s sister as their explicit subject
— Wallace, Anne D. “On the Deceased Wife’s Sister Controversy, 1835-1907."

The Chief Rabbi and the Royal Commission

In 1842, and almost every year after that, the British Parliament debated whether to legalize the marriage between a man and his dead wife’s sister. Queen Victoria appointed a Commission to look into the whole thing, and look it did, producing a report of over 150 pages in 1848.  Buried in that report is a letter from the Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler, who made the Jewish position very clear.

...the marriage of a widower with the sister of his deceased wife… is not only not considered as prohibited, but it is distinctly understood to be permitted, and on this point neither the Divine Law, nor the Rabbis, nor historical Judaism leave room for the least doubt.
— Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler, Appendix to the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the state and operation of the Law of Marriage

It didn’t much matter. The law remained the law, though it seemed that the British public ignored their learned lawmakers.  In one 1849 parliamentary debate, it was estimated that there were some 13,000 such marriages. These marriages in turn produced about 40,000 children, all of whom were, by Victorian standards, bastards.

Things became especially heated in the late 1870s when some 3,000 farmers (all, apparently from Norfolk – what was happening in Norfolk?) signed a petition “praying for the legislation of marriage with a deceased wife’s sister.” And so, in May 1879, the Prince of Wales himself introduced a bill to legalize this marriage in Britain’s Parliamentary upper chamber, the House of Lords. Their lordships droned on, and on, and on (the transcript takes up some eight pages of single space font) until the measure was struck down in a vote: “Contents 81: Not-Contents 101”.

But even in England, things do change, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, Parliament was ready to legalize what many women were already doing with their dead sister’s husband. The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907 was passed, and British law finally caught up with that of the Talmud.

Next time:

The scientists weigh in on the Marriage Act as we look at The British Medical Journal and its understanding of Ta’amei Hamitzvot and Yibbum.



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