Henry VIII and Yevamos
If you think you are having trouble with Daf Yomi these days, read what happened when both Henry VIII and the Pope tried to support their positions with citations from rabbinic treatment of yibum. Which shows, I suppose, that neither Neturei Karta nor the far-left Orthodox invented the art of mangling Torah sources. (What follows is excerpted from a weekly mailing by the Mir- and Cambridge-trained, often very independent-thinking British rabbi and educator, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen.)
Marriages between royal families were matters of alliances and balance of power! Katharine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the nasty fanatics who expelled the Jews. At the age of three, she was betrothed to Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII of England. He became king after a long, divisive Civil War and needed to consolidate his position in a world dominated, at the time, by Spain. In 1501, shortly before her sixteenth birthday, Katharine married Arthur. But after less than six months he died. Henry needed to keep the alliance alive. So Katharine was then betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry. When he became king in 1509, at the age of eighteen, he married Katharine.
Their marriage produced just one living daughter, Mary Tudor. Henry was desperate for a male heir and he was a notorious philanderer. He wanted Anne officially. In a religion where divorce was not allowed, the only option was an annulment. But as the Pope had sanctioned the marriage in the first place he had to be the one to annul it.
Henry tried all sorts of ways of getting the Pope to agree but the Pope was under political pressure from other quarters ( otherwise Popes usually found ways of giving rich people want they wanted, for a price). After several years of fruitless negotiations Henry declared religious independence. He set up the Protestant Church of England with him as the supreme religious head and got his way, at the expense of not a few clergymen who remained loyal to Rome and lost their lives.
Where’s the Jewish angle here? According to Leviticus 18, a man may not marry his brother’s wife and if he does they will be childless. That, thought Henry, was why he had no sons. But the Pope had sanctioned his marriage based on the Levirate Marriage described in Deuteronomy 25. In the event of a brother dying childless, his brother would marry the widow and have children to carry on the dead brother’s name. Henry realized that where texts contradict each other, then interpretation and tradition come into play. If the Pope was not willing to play Henry’s game and annul the marriage, he’d have to show the Pope didn’t know his Aleph from his Beth. The obvious people to turn to were the Church scholars except they themselves were split. So who else do you turn to but the Jews? Of course nowadays we know the Jews can’t agree on anything and certainly not on matters of Jewish Law. But Henry hadn’t spent any time in Yeshivah and new no better.
He sent his men to Italy where a Venetian rabbi, Isaac Halfon, wrote an opinion saying that since the end of the Talmudic period, the biblical law of Yibum, requiring a brother to marry the widow of a childless brother, had fallen into abeyance and only Chalitza was used. Therefore the marriage contacted with Arthur’s widow was against Jewish law, regardless of whether it had been consummated or not. Furthermore the same rabbi who had banned polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom (960 –1028) and the later Rabbeinu Tam (1100 -1171) both undisputed authorities of European Jewry, had banned the levirate marriage on principle. More good news came from a contemporary responsum to the same effect by Yaakov Rephael Ben Yechiel Chaim Paglione of Modena supported by other Italian rabbis. Henry wanted the sympathetic rabbis to come to his court to reassure him and his bishops of his case. But Jews, despite Oliver Cromwell’s support, weren’t allowed back into England officially (and not without heavy opposition) until the reign of Charles II. They couldn’t or wouldn’t come. Instead Henry had to use a Jewish convert to Christianity one Marco Raphael to come over on a generous expense account to persuade the local opponents that Jewishly speaking Henry was in his rights. Henry incidentally acquired a copy of the Talmud to do his own checking. Some years ago it was discovered in a British library and returned to Jewish ownership when the Valmadonna Trust swapped it for a copy of the Magna Carta.
The Pope knew that Sephardi Jews had other customs. Indeed Sephardi Jews had not been bound either by Rabbeinu Gershom or Rabbeinu Tam. They could have several wives and divorce much more easily and they had never banned Yibum at all. The Pope got his own rabbis to say so. Poor old ‘Enery had wasted his time and money and found himself back at square one. And that, my dears, was why he broke with Rome, established the first Protestant Kingdom and how the reigning monarch to this day is also the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
In the end, Henry didn’t find that the Jews were of much use to him, which may or may not explain why the Anglican Church today doesn’t do Jews much good at all. Of mainline Protestant denominations, they rank near the bottom in their fairness and balance towards Israel, and open anti-Semitism flourishes within their ranks. It is a far cry from the position of the immediately preceding Archbishop of Canterbury (the Primate of the Anglican Church), the heroic Lord Carey.
[Thanks to Martin Brody, Los Angeles]