The Chief Rabbi and gay marriage

By MatthewHarris
June 22, 2012

I hope that there will be a measured, decent and respectful reaction to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' views on marriage equality (gay marriage) (, both inside and outside the Anglo-Jewish community. The views have been expressed in a statement from the London Beth Din and the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, with Lord Sacks' office having said that the statement encompasses the Chief Rabbi's views.

OK, so I and other liberals support the Government's proposed change to the law, to enable same-sex couples to have civil marriages (not civil partnerships, but civil marriages) - but a lot of people don't. That has to be allowable, in a mature liberal democracy, especially as we (the people who support gay marriage) are advocating a view that, not long ago, was only held by a small minority.

Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have have been hard to imagine a UK government changing the law to allow same-sex marriage, at a time when such a change would only have been supported by a small number of people representing 'advanced liberal opinion'. It would never be right to stigmatise people for reasonably expressing views that, until very recently, were held by an overwhelming majority of British people.

While some British faith leaders have been accused of using highly unpleasant and inflammatory language to express their opposition to same-sex marriage, the Chief Rabbi has not done that. It is eminently reasonable for the holder of Lord Sacks' office to state what he considers to be the Jewish religious view on issues such as this. I really hope that cynical sixth-form point-scorers of all ages, inside and outside the Jewish community, will not now jump up and down shouting about what Lord Sacks has said, given the perfectly reasonable way in which he has said it. After all, by way of analogy, if an Orthodox rabbi stood up (or sat down) and said that, actually, Jewish (bibical) law forbids unmarried couples to sleep together, he'd be expressing an ancient Jewish view, and if he expressed it reasonably and constructively, then what would be so terrible about his expressing it?

Of course, I disagree with Lords Sacks on this issue of marriage equality, as I personally think that Orthodox Judaism could allow for non-Jews having same-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism, in the same way that it allows for non-Jews having opposite-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism.

If a non-Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman in a non-religious civil ceremony in an English register office, Jews will recognise the couple as being married under the secular law of the land; why not extend the same recognition to a non-Jewish man marrying another non-Jewish man in the same non-religious civil ceremony in the same English register office?

Also, as a Jew (I am halachically Jewish - that is, Jewish according to the Orthodox Jewish definition of who-is-a-Jew), I could already go into an English register office and marry a non-Jewish woman in a non-religious civil ceremony. In Jewish religious terms, the marriage would obviously not be recognised as being a Jewish marriage, as I'd be marrying a non-Jew, but Orthodox Jews would still accept that I was married under the secular law of the land - why extend that acceptance to my marrying a woman, but not to my marrying a man? Neither marriage is halachically acceptable, as both involve my marrying a non-Jew, so what difference does it make whether I marry a man or marry a woman? I am not gay and I therefore don't actually want to marry a man, but, in principle, what's the halachic problem with secular, same-sex civil marriages that have nothing to do with Judaism?

I respect the Chief Rabbi's view that Jewish (biblical) law defines marriage as the union of a male and a female. A great many people will agree with him on that interpretation of what the Bible says. I appreciate also that Jewish law does not always only define things for Jewish people, but can also sometimes define a vision of things that are done by the whole of humanity, of which marriage is clearly one. So my argument, advanced previously here, that Orthodox-Jewish-marriage (which can only be between a Jewish man and a Jewish woman) is one thing, while marriage in general and civil-marriage in particular are two other things, is obviously not foolproof.

It is, however, an argument that I advance quite seriously - I believe that Orthodox Jews could retain their beliefs about who they are allowed to marry, and about who can marry in their synagogues, without opposing non-religious, civil marriage for same-sex couples in entirely secular register offices.

The Chief Rabbi is obviously sincere in arguing that: "If the government were to introduce same-sex marriage through a civil ceremony, any attempt to exclude the possibility of a religious ceremony for such couples would be subject to challenge to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of discrimination."

I would obviously never support a situation in which ministers of religion were compelled to marry any two people who the ministers do not consider eligible for a religious marriage under their auspices, and the government maintains that such compulsion will never occur. My bank balance sadly confirms that I am not a lawyer, but were we not told previously that employment legislation would compel faith schools to employ religious studies teachers from outside the faith - and that never happened. Were we not previously told that equalities legislation would compel all faith groups to ordain women - never happened. Were we not previously told that race equality laws could be used by civil courts to overturn Jewish religious teachings about who-is-a-Jew - oh, OK, yes, that one did happen. Oops.

Civil marriage equality will therefore have to be implemented in such a way that it never leads to ministers of religion or places of worship being compelled to give a religious wedding to people that they don't want to give a religious wedding to. But I still support civil marriage equality.



Mon, 06/25/2012 - 11:41

Rate this:

0 points

Mr Harris,
I'm a liberal jew too. I am fine with the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue making the same statement as Lord Sacks, but not with him making it as Chief Rabbi.
The ability of the general public to tell the fundemental differences between congregations on matters of faith is fairly shaky at best.
Sacks is effectively seen as "The Representative" of the jewish community.

The arguement I level against him is that he has cherry picked his reasoning from the text. Unless he is going to enforce all talmudic restrictions then he is making a judgement as to which to follow and which to discard. He has chosen to support the denial of equal rights before civil law to a minority group.

What possible interpretation of this choice can there be but that he does not view them as being worthy of justice and loving kindness?


Tue, 06/26/2012 - 10:13

Rate this:

0 points

I think the problem here is that the Chief Rabbi justifiably fears that even if it is understood and accepted that Orthodox Jewish Law prohibits same sex marriage someone not content with that will test it before the European Human Rights Court who going on past experience will effectively force the United Synagogue to solemnise same sex marriages on its premises.


Tue, 06/26/2012 - 13:43

Rate this:

0 points

Advi3r: I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but so far as I know the right of religions to discriminate against minority groups is alive and kicking.

As private associations congregations can opt to refuse membership to anyone, on any basis and would not be subject to the EHRC.

The arguement that Gay Orthodox Jews are going to be battering down the doors of Rabbis to get married is pretty laughable. While the official line may well be mercy and pity, the community does not seem very accepting of alternate lifestyles.

The high profile cases of discrimination before the ECHR have been in relation to companies or persons providing services to the general public, who have discriminated against people.

The premise is that if you are providing a public service then any member of the public should be able to walk in and be treated in the same way. You have the right to deny service because someone smells like a gutter, but not because they are a Jew or a lady.

If the orthodox movement truely had something to fear from equality legislation then why are there no prospective lady rabbis before the ECHR?


You must be logged in to post a comment.