Board acted with gay abandon

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 25, 2013

It's a plucky commentator indeed who sets out to criticise the editor on whom he relies for his weekly dole. But this is what I am about to do, and I'm about to do it primarily in order to correct a serious misconception that I fear is widespread within British Jewry.

Earlier this month, the JC reported on a contretemps involving the Board of Deputies and its "interfaith adviser," Rabbi Natan Levy. Levy had put his signature to a letter concerning gay "marriage." The letter - which was, as one might have expected, highly critical of the coalition government's bill - carried 52 other signatures, including those of Michael Hill (the Anglican Bishop of Bristol) and Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, but I should add (for it is an important point) that Levy appears to have signed in a personal capacity.

Of course, he had every right to do so. But his having done so clearly did not please Vivian Wineman, president of the Board, who saw fit to issue a statement dissociating the Board from the letter and alleging that the sentiments expressed in it did not "represent" the organisation's views. The Board (Wineman insisted) was "cross-communal", and "has worked with civil servants and ministers to ensure that the final legislation works to allow each denomination of Judaism to practise their chosen beliefs as they best see fit and to ensure that no one is obliged to act contrary to his own beliefs."

In a leading article in support of Wineman, the JC's editor added this: "The Board does not - and must never - take sides in doctrinal disputes within the different strands of Judaism. The whole point of an umbrella body is that it includes different views. And whatever some might like, there are different views of gay marriage within Judaism."

Well of course there are different views. But I have news for the JC and for Vivian: on religious matters, the Board is actually prevented by its constitution from taking a "cross-communal" position. While there is an obligation to consult other denominational bodies, by virtue of that constitution the Board is actually obliged to take sides in doctrinal disputes within different strands of Judaism. And I fear that in issuing his public riposte to Rabbi Levy, Wineman has ignored his own constitutional obligations as president.

Constitution forbids a cross communal position

Let me explain why. Under its constitution, the Board "shall be guided on religious matters (inclusive of matters relating to marriages…) by the Ecclesiastical Authorities to whom all such matters shall be referred".

These authorities are defined as "the Ecclesiastical Authority for the time being of the United Hebrew Congregations" and "the Ecclesiastical Authority for the time being of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews' Congregation of London." In this, critical, sense, the Board is not "cross-communal." In addition, a "code of practice" annexed to the constitution makes it quite clear that "the Board shall follow the guidance of the Ecclesiastical Authorities and support it in all ways possible and with all due speed".

What this means (and can only mean) is that, in relation to gay marriage in general, and the letter in particular, any statement made or position taken by the Board, or by any of its officers, must conform - and conform wholly and exclusively - to the guidance received from the two ecclesiastical authorities aforementioned.

Was this guidance sought in relation to gay "marriage?" If so, what was it? If not, why not? As he ponders the answer to these questions, Wineman may wish to know that in relation to the Spanish & Portuguese Jews I have been told, on the record, that guidance was not sought.

Just in case anyone is minded to respond that the S&P is "between" ecclesiastical authorities at the moment, I must add that, had the Board's president approached the lay leadership of the S&P, that leadership would have happily indicated a senior rabbi as its ecclesiastical authority for this purpose. But I can tell you now that no such approach was made. As for the United Hebrew Congregations, its ecclesiastical authority - Lord Sacks - has already made known his opposition to gay marriage in what I see as unmistakable terms.

In such doctrinal matters, the Board is constitutionally required to take sides. Vivian Wineman needs to explain to us why, in this instance, it and he have apparently chosen not to do so.

Last updated: 11:45am, June 25 2013