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Jewish Child Brides — Why the Barbaric Practice of Marrying Off Young Girls Persists

Ever since the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac over three millennia ago, the children of Abraham and Sarah have toyed with the practice of betrothing their daughters at very young ages. Of course not all scholars agree that Rebecca was actually three years old when she took the fateful decision to feed Eliezer’s camels and cement her destiny as a Jewish matriarch. Realistically, many scholars (including Maimonides, Tosafot and Sifrei, for example) argue that the age is a fabrication. Nevertheless, the mythology of the girl-bride has relentlessly taken hold, to such an extent that even now, thousands of years later, the practice is frightfully tenacious.

The latest chapter in the Jewish annals of child-brides emerged last week in Kiryat Sefer (Modi’in Illit), a Haredi town in the center of Israel not too far from where I live. A 13-year-old girl whose parents were horrified to discover that she was talking to boys (my word!) was apparently married off to a 16-year-old boy from Rehovot. Rumors are sketchy about whether they were merely engaged or secretly married. But according to a report in Haaretz, the girls’ parents were so overwhelmed by their daughter’s rambunctiousness that they turned to a local kabbalist who told them that “this was the only way for the girl to supposedly atone for …. her sin.” The welfare department, the police, and even other local rabbis tried to intervene to prevent the marriage from taking place, but the social workers learned that the marriage took place anyway. (Government social workers are now on strike in Israel, and are thus not currently involved.)

Another story of child-brides emerged several years ago in Israel’s north. Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Schick of the Bratslav Hassidic movement in Yavne’el in the Galilee was arrested “for officiating the marriages of some 20 underage couples, mostly ages 12 to 16,” according to Ha’aretz. In Israel, marriage under the age of 17 is illegal. Schick actually has a bit of a following, and even his own nickname “The Mohorosh,” although if he has continued to marry off children, he has been doing it under the radar.

In 1995, another case of a man betrothing his underage daughter — in that case, it was a girl under the age of 12 — made the headlines in Monsey, and caused a bit of an uproar. In that case, the girl’s parents were in the middle of a divorce and the man used the betrothal as leverage against his wife, thus destroying two female lives at once. Although all these cases are shrouded in mystery and perpetuated by more rumor than fact, there seems to be some anecdotal evidence that underage betrothal in the Jewish community is not as inviolable as one would hope.

There are several important insights from these stories. The most obvious, I think, is that the use of marriage as a “punishment” is not exactly sound educational practice. I mean, what are we saying about marriage? Plus, if the “solution” doesn’t work — that is, if the girl still has a spunky spirit or an interest in conversation with boys even after she is married at 13 — the problems will now compound themselves in scenarios that our own adolescent memories can easily conjure.

I think there are other important messages here as well. One is how unrelenting certain barbaric practices can be, especially when it comes to women. While the world struggles to get a grip on issues like pedophilia, sexual abuse and the trafficking of girls, in some corners of the Jewish world, men continue to offer young girls’ bodies to the nearest bidder as if this is a lofty religious practice. It is mind-boggling, and it’s frightening.

Second, a brief glance at the history of this issue demonstrates that our tradition has hardly progressed in a linear fashion. The Talmud in the tractate Kiddushin describes how nearly 2,000 years ago the rabbis specifically outlawed “kiddushei k’tana,” the betrothal of a little girl. And yet, in one of the most astonishing texts in our heritage, the Baal HaTosafot, a leading medieval Talmudic commentary, wrote that the local community of the 14th-15th century simply did away with this prohibition and returned to betrothing their underage daughters (that is, under the age of 12). The Tosafot justifies this by saying simply, “hagalut hitgaber aleinu” — the exile has overwhelmed us. Whatever their reality vis-à-vis external threats, they felt that underage betrothals somehow protected the community.

This text is phenomenal not only for the manipulation (or sacrifice) of girls’ lives on behalf of some obscure notion of communal protection, but also for the ease with which Talmudic prohibitions were casually tossed aside. It makes you wonder why it is so difficult to cast aside other precepts, ones that are actually archaic and harmful, such as those ancient rulings that keep agunot chained in unwanted marriages today. This whole history establishes unequivocally that perceptions of halachic forward progress are greatly mythologized, especially when it comes to women’s lives.

Finally, as much as we would all like to say that this practice is minute, an aberration, not “us,” we cannot easily make that claim. If this practice exists at all in the Jewish community, if even one girl has her freedom stolen from her before she has experienced the first flicker of independent life, we are all accountable to her. Ultimately, if these are practices carried out in the name of a Judaism that I choose to call my own, then I am responsible, and my community is responsible, and we will all have to answer for the destruction of women’s lives.

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