Abraham did it, David did it, Solomon did it... But should respectable married men in the 1990s do it? An organisation that encourages Orthodox Jews to take concubines is causing outrage in New York - and alarm in Britain

Suzanne Glass
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:37

ON A pavement in a respectable district of Brooklyn, New York City, a man and a woman bump into each other accidentally. They neither apologise nor acknowledge one another. Instead, they cast their eyes downwards and scurry on.

It is a typical scene. This is Williamsburg, only a few miles from the vulgarity and permissiveness of Manhattan - but light years away in atmosphere. In this tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews, all traces of sexuality are hidden beneath layers of shapeless clothing. The men - dressed in black from head to toe, save for the odd fur hat or prayer shawl - gather in groups, their pale faces hidden by heavy beards. The women, faces untouched by make-up, hair covered by headscarves, are the personification of modesty. Social interaction between these men and women extends no further than the purchase of the Sabbath chicken across a counter.

Yet behind Williamsburg's closed doors - each one adorned with a small scroll that contains the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery" - passions are seething: not the ordinary passions of repressed sexuality, but anger. Men and women alike are outraged, for the respectability of their entire devout community has been threatened. They are, they believe, the targets of an organised moral siege.

The onslaught began a year ago, with orange, yellow and white posters on trees and lampposts in the neighbourhood. Then came the lewd leaflets surreptitiously slipped through letter-boxes and the unsolicited advertisements furtively faxed to private homes and offices. By now, no Orthodox household in Brooklyn can be unaware of it. Underground, undercover, someone, somewhere in New York City, has set up a "concubine hotline".

The hotline is what it sounds like: that is, a service offering married Orthodox Jewish men the sexual favours of unmarried, live-in mistresses. What it all means is more of a mystery. Dial the New York telephone number advertised in bold black print on the fliers and you are answered by a recording. "This is the Shalom Bayis [Peace in the Home] Organisation," says a woman's voice. "If matters in your marriage are urgent, never threaten your spouse with talk of a divorce. Our organisation offers hundreds of career women, desperate to be concubines to exclusively married men. If you think a concubine would enhance your marriage please leave a bleeper number and a brief description of yourself after the tone. Remember Rabbi Yacov Emden [a well-known scholar in 18th-century Hamburg] advocated 'pilagshen' - concubines - as a means to offset sins of illicit relationships and masturbation." No mention is made of a charge for the service; nor is there any suggestion of what might be in it for the concubines or the organisers.

The hotline appears to be the brainchild of a man who calls himself simply Yossi, or occasionally Moshe. Though he claims to be assisted by a group of committed volunteers, he appears to man the hotline single-handedly. Such are the passions his hotline has aroused that he is afraid for his physical safety, and he takes great pains to conceal his identity. But operating incognito is no novelty to Yossi, if what he tells me is to be believed. He claims to have been the catalyst behind the extreme right- wing movement to raise funds in the US for the legal defence of Yigal Amir (assassin of the late Israeli Prime Minister Rabin). "I set up the telephone Defence Line," boasts Yossi. "The Israeli Secret Services, the Mossad, were desperate to track me down, but they failed."

The only way to reach Yossi is by leaving him a number and hoping - often in vain - that he will judge it safe to return the call. I eventually speak to him on the telephone, after leaving a message feigning interest in becoming a concubine. He calls back with a string of intrusive questions. "Are you still menstruating? Do you have an active sex life? How many sexual partners have you had?" Disturbed, I inform him that I am in fact a journalist and interested in learning more about his organisation.

For a moment he hesitates, but he quickly grows determined to convince me of the benefits of concubine arrangements. He is, he says, excited that word of his work may spread to Europe. He maintains that it is an entirely altruistic mission, described by the hotline's recorded message as "an aggressive campaign to promote peace and harmony in the home".

"We are doing it," he explains, "to help wives - to save marriages. That's my vocation. If a man has a concubine, his wife does not need to feel the burden of sexually satisfying him alone. This way, there's no need for them to divorce and hurt the children, even if things are not so good." The hotline, he adds, is ringing day and night. I ask if he can introduce me to a satisfied customer. He promises to try and oblige.

Two days later, I receive a call from a Jewish woman. "My name's Sarah," she says. "I'm the concubine from Brooklyn." It is not clear from her story precisely what her connection with Yossi and his hotline has been; none the less, her experiences clearly illustrate the nature of the relationships that Yossi is advocating. Sarah is neither a mistress nor a prostitute. She is a concubine: a woman who is "kept" within the marital home, without subterfuge or guilt.

She tells me that she is a speech therapist, 32 years old and single. She was brought up in a strictly observant Jewish world in the heart of Brooklyn: a world where marriages are arranged by matchmakers. Most of her friends were on their third child while still in their twenties. "I was considered a freak, because I was in my thirties and single. The matchmakers had introduced me to hundreds of men, but I never found one where I could say, 'Yes, this is the one.' " Last year she befriended David and Deborah, the parents of one of her pupils. "They invited me regularly for dinner. I could see there was a spark missing in their marriage. One day David called me into his study. He left the door open - an Orthodox Jewish man and woman are not allowed to be behind closed doors, unchaperoned, until the parameters of their relationship are set - and he said, 'Sarah, have you heard of the concept of pilegesh - a concubine? I would like you to become my concubine.' "

Sarah was both flattered and shocked. She had a vague recollection of the posters she had seen on trees, but the proposition still seemed frighteningly improper. Yet it was also tempting. She had accepted for some time that her marriage prospects were minimal; this might be her only chance of ever enjoying a sexual relationship. In an Orthodox community like hers, normal social interaction with the opposite sex, as it exists in the secular Jewish and Gentile worlds, is out of the question. Physical contact, even the holding of hands, is forbidden outside marriage.

Sarah went away to consult her rabbi, who reassured her that it was perfectly acceptable for her to become a concubine. Her next concern was for Deborah. The two women had, after all, become friends. But David allayed her fears: not only did Deborah know of her husband's intentions, he told her, but she fully supported them. "I insisted on meeting with all three of us together," says Sarah. "I was trembling when I walked in. But Deborah put her hand on my arm and said, 'It's OK with me. This is what I want.' She felt bad that she was not satisfying David's sexual needs. This way she alleviated her guilt."

Ten months ago Sarah gave up her own apartment and moved in with David, Deborah and their three children. She has a separate entrance to the Brooklyn mansion, but inside, her bedroom is only feet away from theirs.

NOT surprisingly, many Orthodox women do not share Deborah's laissez- faire attitude when confronted with their husband's plans to have sex with a concubine. A recent letter to the Jewish feminist organisation Agunah, from a distraught mother of five, was perhaps more representative. "My husband is going to take a concubine. He says he loves me and he won't leave me, but our Rabbi says it's OK and his friends are doing it, so why shouldn't he? I can't believe it is right for a religious man to do this. It also makes me feel worthless. Please help."

In fact, the vast majority of rabbis are adamantly opposed to the practice of taking concubines. Just over 1,000 years ago, a celebrated French scholar, Rabbi Gershon, issued a decree forbidding the Jews of Europe and the rest of the Western world to take a second wife or a concubine during the ensuing millennium. His claim was that the practice would lead to anti-Semitism and that it was against the true spirit of Judaism.

The pro-concubine lobby points out that the 1,000 years have now passed, and that whereas the Torah, the written Jewish law, forbids a man to "spill his seed" through masturbation and is essentially designed to preserve the sanctity of marriage, it does not expressly forbid a married man to take a mistress, as long as she herself is single and Jewish and remains monogamous throughout the relationship.

"It's foreign to most of us," says Rabbi Shea Director, from Brooklyn, one of only a handful of rabbis who can be found to sympathise with the concubine campaign. "But it's not against the law. Abraham did it, David did it and Solomon did it. Anyway, what is a man to do if his wife is sick or doesn't want relations enough? A man must have a companion. And to be a concubine is good for single girls who don't want to get married."

According to Chaim Shaulson, editor of New Faces (a Hassidic weekly sold in the US and Britain), there are seven or eight rabbis in New York to whom a woman can go for a blessing if she wishes to become a concubine. But no one pretends they are anything other than a controversial minority. "Most will not be quoted," says Shaulson, adding: "Sex is considered a dirty word in the Hassidic community." At least 50 women in New York are currently living as concubines, he claims. If Yossi has his way, this number should increase dramatically.

Rivka Haut, co-director of the feminist organisation Agunah, is horrified by Yossi's campaign. "What ancient practice will they revive next? Wife- beating, or perhaps female slavery?" Like most observers, she is perplexed as to Yossi's motives, but she has her suspicion: misogyny. Among Orthodox women, she explains, an unhappily married wife remains an agunah, a chained woman, unable to marry again, if her husband refuses to grant her a ghet or religious divorce. In the past, most Orthodox women meekly accepted this state of affairs. But today, encouraged by Jewish feminism, growing numbers of would-be divorcees are exerting pressure, by collectively ostracising men who refuse to give their wives a ghet.

"The men at Shalom Bayis are furious that we are flexing our muscles," claims Haut, "and they're out to damage us as much as possible."

Yet if David's sexual relationship with Sarah was intended as some kind of revenge against Deborah it has failed entirely. Deborah, says Sarah, has been wholly supportive. "I was nervous, very nervous about having relations with David. I was a virgin and had never been touched by a man. Deborah came to me and said, 'Don't worry, he will be very gentle.' And he was." The day before Sarah lost her virginity to David he took her to the mikveh - the ritual cleansing bath. Orthodox Jewish couples are not permitted to touch while the woman has her period, and for the following seven days. If they pass an object to one another, they must first put it down on a table, in case they should accidentally brush hands and ignite each other's passions. When the period of sexual abstention is over, she must wash herself thoroughly at the mikveh in preparation for the resumption of sexual intercourse with her husband. The same rules apply to concubines.

"David waited for me outside, while I scrubbed myself from top to toe," says Sarah. "For the two weeks of the month when sexual relations are permitted, he comes to my room every night. We have relations and he stays the night in my bed. For the other two weeks he sleeps with his wife. It works out very well because we menstruate at different times. The children know nothing about what's going on. They think I'm just there to help in the house. Before I moved in, David and Deborah hardly ever had relations, but the other morning at breakfast she came to me and said, 'David and I were together again last night for the first time in ages.' She meant that they had had sex. I gave her a hug. I'm not jealous. I know that he's more attracted to me than to her."

Sarah says she has agreed to talk about life as a concubine to encourage other single Orthodox Jewish women to follow her path. Not all concubines cohabit with their partners and their wives as she does, she says. "Some of my friends have their own apartment where they are visited by their men," says Sarah. "But I get taken away with the family for weekends to luxury hotels and I get to shop on Fifth Avenue and buy as many outfits as I want. This weekend we are going to a five-star hotel in the country, but I'll be able to rest because I have my period."

Sarah's standard of living has improved dramatically as David's concubine. She refuses to tell me the precise nature of his profession, saying only that he is "an extremely wealthy businessman". But as the Shalom Bayis organisation enthusiastically points out, a man is in no way financially liable to his concubine should they decide to part. "To 'divorce' a pilegesh it is very simple," says its literature. "A man can give a woman something if he wants to ..." In other words, he can discard her with no further ado.

Sarah claims to be unconcerned by the lack of long-term security in her life. She says that she intends to continue living with David, to whom she refers as her "spouse". She even wants him to father her children. "I don't use birth control. We're not allowed to. Anyway, I want 10 children. If David had children with a married woman or a Gentile they would be bastards. But my children will be legitimate."

None the less, she is aware that shock waves would run through her community, if she, an unmarried woman, appeared in synagogue with a swollen belly. There are, in other words, degrees of acceptability. To her rabbi, Sarah is a concubine. For the benefit of her neighbours and family, Sarah is a tenant in David's home.

"I've told my friends the truth, but I haven't dared tell my parents. But when I get pregnant they'll have to know. I'll bring up my children with Deborah and David and their children."

I was at no point able to discover how enthusiastic David and Deborah were about this prospect. During the six weeks we were in touch, Sarah consistently refused to give me her phone number. Each time she called she waited until David had left the house. On the last occasion, she sounded fearful. "He thinks I've revealed too much. He's frightened in case you trace us.

"I don't like to go against his will," she added. "It's a mitzvah, a good deed, to obey him." If this practice is sexually liberating for the single Orthodox Jewish woman, it does not appear to be emotionally liberating.

IN Britain, Rabbi Dr Julian Jacobs, a member of the Chief Rabbi's cabinet, is appalled by the phenomenon. "Jewish authorities since late medieval times have utterly condemned the practice of taking a concubine. It bears no relevance to our times, and in interpreting the law you have to have a feel of the era we are in, instead of just looking at the letter of the law. To take a concubine can lead to licentious behaviour. Another consideration is the equality of all human beings. This practice gives a woman no dignity, and I would say it is forbidden. In Deuteronomy Chapter 23, it says, 'No daughter of Israel shall be a harlot.' "

But Jewish law, like any other law, is open to interpretation, and because Yossi and his colleagues have found a loophole through which to justify their practice there is nothing to stop their strange mission from spreading to Britain. "Theoretically that could happen," says Rabbi Dr Jacobs. "Maybe there is already a case or two here that we don't know about. But it would be the work of a few eccentrics, and no rabbinical authority would ever deem it acceptable."

In Brooklyn, meanwhile, the Shalom Bayis has set up a second hotline, offering exclusively weekday concubine services. Many Jewish families spend their summers out of town, with the husbands joining their wives only at weekends. This summer the voice on the hotline answering service said, "We strongly urge all men to send their wives upstate this summer. This will enable them to rejuvenate their marriages with a concubine in the city." Once again, it was hard to be certain that "concubine" was the right word; or, if it was, what motives were really involved.

While I was trying to learn more about this new hotline, I received a call from a 26-year-old married man: a Wall Street trader called Jonathan whose wife was pregnant with their fifth child. He had called the hotline, he said, but had hung up, afraid that someone in his close-knit community might recognise his voice. Jonathan had heard through the grapevine that I had been investigating the subject and wondered whether I might put him in touch with a concubine. He wanted her, he told me, as much for intellectual as for physical variety.

"I had an arranged marriage at 19," he said. "My wife is blonde and beautiful, a wonderful mother and a wonderful cook, but I'm curious to know how it would be with another woman. I wouldn't go to a prostitute because I would be scared of disease. I wouldn't have an affair with a married woman, because it is against Jewish law. At least if I go to a concubine I am doing something that some rabbis find acceptable." Jonathan's wife, needless to say, has not been consulted. He refuses to consider the possibility of contracting a disease from a concubine.

Can Yossi honestly believe that his concubine hotlines are making the world a better place? Or is he driven by misogyny or some undisclosed financial gain? Or are there even darker, more mysterious forces at work - manifestations, perhaps, of extreme sexual repression? If anyone in Orthodox Brooklyn knows the answer, they are keeping it to themselves.

Meanwhile, Yossi and his colleagues have delivered new prayer-books to the local kosher restaurants. These include a post-prandial blessing for concubines as well as for wives and children. As for the crude leaflets, with their insistent messages and 24-hour hotline phone numbers, they continue to slip through letter-boxes and out of fax machines in respectable Jewish homes; while, inevitably, a second wave of word-of-mouth publicity is gaining momentum.

Most Jews who have encountered the idea, on either side of the Atlantic, remain vehemently opposed to it. As Rabbi Haskal Lookstein of the Kehilat Jeshrun synagogue in Manhattan puts it: "It is a cruel and wicked practice that is damaging to wives. The people who advocate going to a concubine should be driven from the Jewish community." The practice, he explains, is a manipulation of the law, and, as such, "it's blasphemous. It's using the Jewish law as a sword and not as a shield."

But Sarah, using an argument well-worn by courtesans and prostitutes throughout the ages, disagrees with Rabbi Lookstein. Far from seeing herself as a home-wrecker, she says, "I really think I've done good things for David and Deborah's marriage. Deborah no longer bears the burden of having to sexually satisfy David.

"I'm in a much better position than Deborah," she adds. "If I want to leave David, I don't have to wait for him to grant me a ghet. I can just go. But I can't see myself doing that. I think I'll live with my spouse and his wife, their children and, God willing, my children, for many, many years." !

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