The Archbishop, The Cardinal and a Rabbi: Marriage Equality

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.


Slideshow at JFS about homosexuality gives cause for concern and hope

Some of my rabbinic colleagues have already responded more fully to the incident of a charity, which promotes an attitude that people who are gay can be ‘cured’, being featured in a lesson at JFS. I do not want to simply repeat what they have said, though it goes without saying that I actually find the inclusion of the charity within any sort of presentation is outrageous. However, here are some of my additional thoughts about the story which featured prominently in the JC.

I think there are three points that I want to make: what seems to me to be a woeful understanding of sound educational principles and concern for welfare of students; the outrage it has prompted is a positive reflection of what I think indicates the dominant open, inclusive and progressive Judaism that a voice in UK Jewry which is slowly becoming more forceful; Liberal Judaism was the pioneer in terms of inclusivity and helping the wider Jewish world become more aware of issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, but must not sit back on its laurels.

Let me take each of these in turn. Regarding educational principles, the statement by JFS seems to betray an utter contempt for the idea that context is everything in education. For a school which prides itself on a high standard of education it is disappointing to see them appear to fail to appreciate that showing a slide of this charity, as has been alleged with no real context or discussion, and claiming it is to ‘leave students with food for thought’ is a specious argument. Some students seem to have been savvy enough to appreciate that the presentation appeared to promote the charity; it is therefore surprising that the head teacher seems to be unable to recognise this same problem. That a school could be so unaware of the impact such a mention could have on the well being of their students, which after all, is of paramount importance in a school seems doubly concerning. Mental health problems for young people who struggle to find acceptance because of their sexuality are a serious concern; a school that undermines a young person’s growing sense of identity in such a way must surely re-evaluate its general level of care for young people.

The positive side of this story, if we can find one, is in the outrage that has been prompted since it broke earlier this week. What I have witnessed is a voice in the Jewish community that is open and inclusive and prepared to be heard. Though we (some of the leaders of the Jewish community) could be accused of being slow to react, I am pleased that it is not only gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews who have spoken out. Movements and movement leaders, rabbis, young people and  JFS alumni have all demonstrated that it is no longer a voice of exclusion, ignorance and homophobia which sets the agenda. That is a sign for hope for Jewish life in this country that welcomes and values everybody.

Lastly, I work for The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, which is constituent synagogue of Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism was the first denomination in the UK to offer a liturgy for same sex commitment ceremonies and has been at the forefront of the campaign for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples who want civil partnership ceremonies in religious buildings. There are many leaders, including rabbis, who have driven this agenda forwards in the last year. What this story at JFS shows us is that we must not rest on our laurels; discrimination, homophobia and ignorance are never far away, even if we accept the school’s account, the fact that charities exist, such as the one which was presented, remains deeply worrying. This is not even an orthodox/non-orthodox issue, thereby placing JFS (an Orthodox Jewish day school) beyond the direct influence of Liberal Judaism. It is an issue for all Jews and, in fact, it is an issue for all of humankind.