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The Marriage of Commodore Uriah Levy

Rabbi Joseph S. Topek
Summer 2002

To the Editor:  

The Spring 2002 Issues contains an interesting review (“How Jefferson’s Ideals Inspired the Levy Family to Preserve Monticello” by Peter Egill Brownfeld) of two recent books on Monticello and the Levy family. The article provides a great deal of biographical information on Uriah P. Levy, and in citing his marriage at the age of 61 to Virginia Lopez, the 18-year-old daughter of his sister Fanny, claims that “With this marriage he was following an obscure Jewish tradition that obligates the closest unmarried male relative of a recently orphaned or widowed woman to marry her.”  

I don’t know if this is the observation of the author or if he is citing one of the books under review, but in either event this is somewhat incorrect. The reference here is to Levirate marriage, a Biblical commandment whereby a childless widow would be married by her husband’s brother, if he had one, for the purpose of sustaining the family lineage. The Torah also provides a way for either party to refuse, since marriage cannot be forced upon unwilling parties. Still, in order for this to apply in the case of Commodore Levy, Miss Lopez would have had to be married to his brother and be a childless widow, of which she was neither. Rather, she was his niece. As for the obscurity of the practice, I suppose that is a subjective judgment although its necessity, even among those who are faithful to the laws of the Torah, is rare.  

Perhaps Commodore Levy married his niece because it was not uncommon in that era for Sephardic Jews to marry relatives for the purpose of perpetuating a family dynasty or because they sought to marry within their own class and social circle.  

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