Chief Rabbi’s error

Opinions on gay marriage vary. In that, the Jewish community is no different from the rest of society. As the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, it is hardly a surprise that Lord Sacks opposes the idea. Plainly, he believes that gay marriage is contrary to the Torah. And he has as much right oppose to gay marriage as anyone else.

But the Chief Rabbi is no mere individual. When he speaks in his official capacity he represents his community, even if only narrowly defined as Orthodox Jews. And in choosing to speak in that capacity against gay marriage, he has made a major error of judgment which has profoundly worrying implications. Whatever his own beliefs, the Chief Rabbi has no right to intervene, in his official capacity, in secular matters which have no bearing whatsoever on how religious institutions conduct their affairs.
The proposal to introduce gay marriages applies only to secular ceremonies and specifically exempts religious organisations from the need to perform such marriages. And yet Lord Sacks has chosen to attempt to make Parliament comply with his religious beliefs - and thus to demand that non-Jews lead their lives in accord with Orthodox Jewish rules.

This is not merely misguided; it is dangerous. In a liberal democracy, religions are afforded freedom of worship; even the right to exempt themselves from some aspects of legislation. That ought to be a cherished privilege. Yet the Chief Rabbi has chosen to lecture the rest of society to comply with his interpretation of the Torah.

It is no wonder that a number of respected figures within the community felt that they had no choice but to break the tradition that the Chief Rabbi is not criticised directly. A Chief Rabbi has no more right to push for secular legislation to comply with religious views than would a Muslim equivalent have to demand that Parliament frames laws so that non-Muslims have to comply with sharia.

It is important to stress that this is not about gay marriage. It is about the correct place of religion in a liberal democracy. And on that, the Chief Rabbi has opened up a hornets' nest which may rebound to the detriment of the entire Jewish community.

Last updated: 10:51am, July 5 2012