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]

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15 Responses

  1. Paul Murphy says:

    Excellent item above.

    Do you send out newsletters? If so, please include us.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    At the risk of sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, the Pope was right. The issue for them was not about contemporary Jewish practice, but the interpretation of Torah verses. Both Pope and King believed that we lost our divine guidance when we rejected Jesus – so it was irrelevant for them that Yibum fell into disuse after the end of the Talmudic period, or that Rabbeinu Gershom and Rabbeinu Tam were against it.

  3. Tal Benschar says:

    The Pope was right for the wrong reason. The prohibition of marrying one’s brother’s wife (eshet ach>/i>) does not apply to Bnei Noach. Nor does the mitzvah of yibbum, for that matter.

  4. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    The events recounted had quite a few more shades of nuance than you give credit for. First of all, Rome was occupied by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, ruler of half of Europe, and Katherine’s nephew. He couldn’t be angered. Second, the Pope’s representative in England tried to resolve things in Henry’s favor as best he could. If Catherine had become a nun, the marriage would automatically be annulled, so he tried to convince Katherine. No dice. Henry had an illegitimate son. The Vatican offered to legitimate him, give a dispensation for the son to marry his half-sister, and then the two of them would be Henry’s successors as rulers of England. Henry vetoed that one, because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. The next offer was a dispensation for Henry to take two wives, so he could be married to both. Anne Boleyn vetoed that one. In the end, Henry VIII did not bring Protestantism to England; it was already there. All he did was to make himself supreme ruler of the church. Otherwise, things continued as before. Protestantism marched forward only on Henry’s death, with the 6 year reign of his legitimate son, Edward VI. When his daughter Mary became queen, she “restored” Catholicism by enacting a law that returned all forms of worship to what they were when Henry had died. Principle had very little to do with any thing.

  5. Michoel @Chareidio says:

    Similarly, it was very recently announced that the Vatican overturned the annulment of the marriage of Joseph kennedy to his first wife Sheila Rauch. Kennedy, (Son of Bobby Kennedy), received the annulment in secret, back in 1991, and Sheila, who learned about it 5 years later, was furious, and wrote a book called ‘Shattered Faith’, in which she accused the Church of kowtowing to the Kennedy family. In the meantime, Kennedy married his congressional aide, Beth Kelly in 1993. L’ch’ora, he remarried when the annulment was in force. When it got overturned, does that shlug up the 2nd marriage le’maf’rea?

  6. Ken says:

    Whats with the backhanded slap at far-left orthodox? What do they mangle so badly? How about some clarifications and examples if youre going to bash them?!

  7. michoel halberstam says:

    Ragarding the MItzvoh of Yibbum and Bnei Noach, see the Ramban on Parshas Vayeshev, regarding the Story of Yehuda and Tamar, and the Story of Rus.

  8. al says:

    I think that Henry did not establish a protestant church but rather a national catholic church with him as its leader.
    It was his daughter eliz that made it truly protestant.

  9. HILLEL says:


  10. Noam says:

    “I suppose, that neither Neturei Karta nor the far-left Orthodox invented the art of mangling Torah sources”

    Do we really need the gratuitous insults? And if so, please define who you mean so I can know if my hashkafa is included in the accusation of mangling.

  11. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Al writes that:

    “Henry did not establish a protestant church but rather a national catholic church with him as its leader.” Correct. And when his daughter Mary “restored” Catholicism, this is what she restored.

    “It was his daughter eliz that made it truly protestant.” Wrong. During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer tried to make the church protestant, but met with widespread resistance. It was the popular reaction to Cranmer’s obdurate protestant theology that propelled the Marian revolution and brought Mary to the throne on the death of Edward VI. All Elizabeth did was to moderate some of Mary’s stands. She did not, by any means, make the church protestant.

  12. SM says:

    No, but what Henry did was alter the rules of engagement. In Germany it was Catholicism v Lutherism. After Henry it was Catholicism v England. The English have never been terribly interested in religion – hence the Church of England – a church which makes no demands on its membership and even belief in God is optional. But they are very keen on being English and Henry identified that with their own church.

    Consequently the opposition to Mary was based not on religion (the concern only of a few) but on importing foreign elements. Elizabeth tried hard not to chose between Protestantism and Catholicism but had little hesitation in persecuting individual Catholics on the basis that they were foreign agents. And Spain made her case when they sent over the Armada.

    English coins still bear the inscription (in Latin) – ‘Defender of the Faith’ which the Pope granted to Henry before they fell out. Proof that the English religion is being English.

    This is the mirror image of the position taken by the Irish. When R Herzog was Chief Rabbi of Ireland he was stopped on his way home from shul one Friday night during the troubles and asked, menacingly, ‘Protestant or Catholic?’ In those days the wrongs answer led to a beating or worse. The Chief Rabbi replied, absolutely truthfully, ‘I’m a Jew.’ Pause. Then – ‘Protestant Jew or Catholic Jew?’

  13. Nachum says:

    The dispensation to marry his sister-in-law was not granted on the basis of yibum; it was granted on the basis of the claim that the first marriage (between two kids who barely got to see each other) had never been consumated. When he wanted the marriage annulled, Henry claimed that it had, in fact, been consumated, although to her dying day, Katherine claimed that it hadn’t and that therefore, her second marriage had been valid.

  14. Charles B. Hall says:

    It was pointed out that Pope Clement VII (born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) didn’t have a completely free hand in deciding whether to grant King Henry VIII an annulment. It should also be noted that he was not the pope who had approved the marriage in the first place; that would likely have been Julius II, famous as the warrior pope in the movie “The Agony and the Ecstacy”. Church policies can and do change with popes. Pope Clement was in that time a rare friend of the Jewish people; there would be no pope following him about whom we can truly say that until John XXIII. Unfortunately for the Church, Clement was an otherwise incompetant pope.

    Regarding the Anglican Church, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the now-retired Bishop of New Jersey, publically condemned the anti-Semitism of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, not enough of the Anglican community has followed Bishop Spong’s lead in pointing out the obvious.

  15. Oldster says:

    Are there any Anglicans in England? Last I heard they were only to be found in Africa.

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