Far be it from me to wade into a debate amongst Christians about same-sex marriage. What the church and its leaders choose to be its position on the subject is entirely up to them. However, from a Liberal Jewish perspective, I disagree quite fundamentally with the arguments espoused by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu and Cardinal O’Brien of the Catholic Church. I work for The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, a constituent synagogue of Liberal Judaism; Liberal Judaism has been advocating for a change in the law for some time now. Liberal Judaism’s statements preceded all other Jewish denominations belated comments and we were the first Jewish movement in the UK to create a purpose written liturgy for same-sex couples who have had a civil partnership.
The Jewish views of marriage, procreation, and sex have been the subject of some scholarly debate, particularly with regard to how they differ from Christianity. Research shows that Jewish marriage, already in the Greco-Roman period, underwent changes in how the Jewish community perceived its function. Historically, marital union served as a vehicle for procreation, but that does not recognise the totality of its function, which may also have related to the way in which marriage provided a mechanism to strengthen society and, though quite unfashionable in most circles today, a means to ensure a good family lineage. All that said, we should remember that sex in Judaism was never regarded as solely for the purposes of procreation. Moreover today, in my opinion, the love between two people in a stable relationship, not even necessarily married, is also about the intimate companionship that challenges the existential loneliness of life’s journey.
Individuals can quote Leviticus or any other religious injunction until they’re blue in the face, but it does not change my position. First of all, our religious texts are themselves human products, full of the nobility of the search to understand our relationship to God and the world around us. However, these texts also contain examples of the inability of any human being to grasp the eternal truth of life, including ideas which I consider to be immoral today. We live in a different world from those of the authors and we are able to frame the debate in a different way that does not rely on the binary relationship of man and woman, but shifts to reflect on the love, commitment, and ethical conduct of any couple in an intimate relationship. From that point of view, any union between two consenting adults that is undertaken with sincerity and love can be called marriage.
I have no fear for the future of the marital unit because same-sex couples might also be able to enter the bond of marriage for life. On the contrary, if the desire to enter a relationship, that it is hoped will last for life, exists we should encourage it. I do not understand why this should be something only for men and women, even if that is how it was defined in the past. It is not a degradation of our morality that people who are homosexual wish to commit in a relationship to one another. Quite the reverse it would seem to me. We may even strengthen the idea of marriage if it is available to more people. And with regards to parenting, I must confess that I am delighted to see the happy and loved children who are being parented by individuals who are committed to being a constant presence and, with all the human infelicities (sexual preference not being one of them) we suffer from, are trying to be a force for good in their child’s life. That goes for every type of permutation of family (married or otherwise), including two same-sex parents, two different sex parents or more than two parents of same and different sex. There are plenty of children deprived of loving families and living in poverty or subject to violence; that should surely grab more headlines than the two people wishing to dedicate the rest of their lives together and have a ceremony that means we call that relationship ‘a marriage’.
In Liberal Judaism, we already offer Jewish same-sex couples the opportunity to mark a change in their relationship after a civil partnership, with a religious ceremony that we call a ‘B’rit Ahava’ (Covenant of Love). We use the term ‘kiddushin’ within these ceremonies to describe the way in which a couple set themselves apart, in union, in holiness, as a way to describe the moment at which they embark on their lives together; this is the same term as that used in a Jewish marriage. Therefore we have, in reality, already implicitly acknowledged the need for marriage equality in religious terms even if it is not available by law (by the way, as a result, no slippery slope towards degradation of society is in evidence here I can tell you).
So, if we’re changing the semiotics of a term that is centuries old, or innovating in terms of how we regard sexual ethics and morality, I’m not sure it really matters, since I do not feel enslaved (to use a term that has already been rather outrageously used in the context of same-sex marriage) to what was just because it ‘was’. As far as I am concerned, it is time that we called the union between same-sex couples a marriage and then religion might stop being interested in legislating for the sex lives of its followers and start dealing with more pressing moral concerns in our world.
PS – This article in ‘The Week‘ is doing the rounds at the moment. I’m proud to say that Rabbi Lionel Blue was invited, by the ordinands, to give the address at my ordination.