Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Incest and Sinai

Did you know Rhode Island exempts Jews from its law barring Uncle-Niece incest and marriages? This is to allow Jews to fulfill certain commandments laid out in Leviticus. While Jews no longer condone Uncle-Niece incest (centuries-old Talmudic interpretation has essentially nullified the doctrine entirely), it does kind of give lie to cheap talk about "a code of conduct stretching back to Sinai" being against incest. There's a weird tendency among some authors to assume that "bad things" are exactly interchangable with "things the Bible condemns." It's not true, and often times it leads to really sloppy writing. Not to mention, an atrophy of critical thinking on our part as to why we think Uncle-Niece incest is wrong. As this case demonstrates, always deferring to our ancestry can lead to some dangerous and unforeseen commitments.

The Rhode Island law isn't exactly an anomaly, either, though its the only one to single out Jews. Several other states have exceptions to Uncle-Niece incest and marriage laws (Minnesota and Colorado permit it for "aboriginal cultures"), and Oregon doesn't bar Uncle-Niece incest at all (though it does not recognize marriages). I suspect most of these laws are relics of some form--I doubt any would pass today. It's just an interesting legal and historical note that I never knew.

It certainly would make for an interesting case example for my paper on Jews and American Church/State relations, though.


Holly in Cincinnati said...

Yeah - I once found one of these in my family history.

Anonymous said...

For the sake of precision: there is no explicit prohibition in Jewish Law of uncle-niece marriage, even at the talmudic level.

What there is is the ethical last will and testament of a great European Talmudic scholar of the 13th century wherein he proscribed many up-to-then permitted practices, apparently based on kabbalistic principles.

As a result, most European Jews have accepted this prohibition. However, Sephardic Jews tend not to follow it. Furthermore, a Ashkenazi couple who violated this custom would not be forced to divorce. In the case of halachic incest, the marriage would have been automatically invalid.

Since the early Jewish settlers of Rhode Island were heavily Sephardic, it is understandable why the law is in place there.

Grumpy Old Man said...

The Jewish exception is probably unconstitutional, even if the courts construe the constitution to allow states to prohibit incest.

Jews are only an official oppressed minority when it comes to commemorations of the Nazi genocide.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the Rothschilds do this in the early 19th century to keep the money in the family?

Anonymous said...

Fulfill certain commandments in Leviticus?

I am aware of commandments in Leviticus that PROHIBIT sexual contact -- and therefore marriage -- between certain close relatives, such as a man and his aunt, or between a step-parent and step-child; can anyone tell me on any commandment in Leviticus that might actually REQUIRE (as opposed to permit) marriage between a man and his niece?

About the only situation that comes to mind would be Yibum (Levirate marriage)-- which is not fopund in Leviticus, but in Ki Setze, in Deuteronomy. How could she be the niece of one brother but not the other? Levirate marriage applies to paternal brothers only. Assume that Rueven is married to the daughter of his step-mother's sister. Reuven dies childless, and his paternal brother Yosef marries Reuven's widow, who is Yosef's niece, in order to fullfull Deut. 25:1 et seq.

There's just one problem -- Levirate marriage was abolished by Rabbinic legislation more than a millennium before Rhode Island was founded. So there is no situation I can think of where permitting marriage to a niece would be necessary to permit fulfilling a commandment in Leviticus. At most, the exemption permits Jews to do something the Jewish religion permits, not something that it requires.

Anonymous said...

eh levirate marriage was not abolished, they simply came up with an alternative, Chalitza. It can still be preformed Shulchan Aruch, EH 165:1