Was the Chief Rabbi right to speak on gay marriage?

We examine the issues behind Lord Sacks’s controversial intervention on same-sex ceremonies


Standing up for same-sex equality: participants at a World Pride rally in London

Standing up for same-sex equality: participants at a World Pride rally in London

A wry smile might have crossed the lips of anyone who read the JC letters page last week. Not often do you find the chairman of the Reform movement jumping to the defence of the Chief Rabbi, after he had been attacked for opposing government plans to introduce civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

The Reform, of course, do not share Lord Sacks’s objections to equal marriage: quite the contrary. But they do uphold the right of religious readers to speak out on social and moral issues.

The Chief Rabbi had come under fire from 21 prominent Jews — among them actor Stephen Fry — who believed he should simply have kept quiet rather than risk dragging the Jewish community into a contentious public debate. Since there was no question of religious bodies being forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies, they argued, there was no reason for the Orthodox authorities to enter the fray.

His critics also observed that while it may be one thing for the Chief Rabbi to preach Torah values to his own Jewish constituency, it was quite another to try to impose them on secular British society. However, their protest overlooks one important point.

It is true that the 613 commandments of the Torah are binding only on Jews. But according to Orthodox tradition, there are also universal standards of morality to which the righteous of all nations should subscribe. The rabbis termed these the seven Noahide laws, which variously proscribe murder, blasphemy, sexual immorality etc.

Needless to say, the seven laws are not quite as simple as that because there are differences among commentators over their precise content: the laws contain sub-clauses. When it comes to forbidden sexual relationships, some rabbis count all those listed in Leviticus 18, the arayot, which include incest, adultery, bestiality and male homosexual intercourse.

Federation Beth Din head Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein has drawn attention to a passage in the Talmud which quotes Rabbi Ulla as saying: “There are 30 commandments the sons of Noah took on themselves but they observe three of them” (the 30 are presumably specific commandments that fall under the more general heading of the seven).

One of the three observed by non-Jews is that “they do not draw up a ketubah [marriage contract] for males” (Chullin 92a); in other words, they do not legitimise same-sex unions.

How far Jews are supposed to promote the Noahide code among their fellow-citizens remains a moot point. For some, it is part and parcel of the aim to be “a light to the nations”, though evangelising may not come easily to many Jews.

The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was one rabbi who was notably keen to encourage Noahide observance. In an article on the subject, the Lubavitch website chabad.org stated: “There will come a time, our sages told us, that the children of Noah will be prepared to return to this path. That will be the beginning of a new world, a world of wisdom and peace…

“For most of Jewish history, however, circumstance did not permit our people to spread these principles, other than by indirect means. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe began speaking about publicising them as a preparation for a new era, he was reviving an almost lost tradition.”

Summarising the seven Noahide Laws, the website explained that the fourth means the obligation to “respect the institution of marriage”, as the sacred union of man and woman reflects the oneness of God and His creation.

Dayan Lichtenstein, in his own response to the government — which he made jointly with Gateshead Rav, Rabbi Shraga Faivel Zimmerman and Manchester’s Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag — did not cite the Noahide code as such. But their position clearly reflected the idea that Jews are supposed to have some wider moral mission: “As those charged with the responsibility of upholding traditional Orthodox Judaism,” they said, “we state that the accepted morality in western society has been based upon principles enunciated in the Bible, through which it is clear that marriage is between male and female.”

When President Obama signalled his support for same-sex marriage, the mainstream American Orthodox body, the Orthodox Union, had no hesitation in releasing a statement to say that Jewish law was “unequivocal” in opposing such unions.

Nonetheless, some Orthodox rabbis believe there is an alternative course that can be taken over issues such as these. Broadly speaking, a person is religiously obliged to intervene to try to stop one else committing a transgression. But if your words are unlikely to have any effect — and even more so, if they will prove counterproductive — then you may opt to hold your tongue.

The Talmud puts it: “Just as there is a mitzvah on a person to say something which will be heard, so too there is a mitzvah not to say something which will not be heard” (Yevamot 65b).

So if protesting against gay marriage would have no influence — and possibly result in a backlash against the Jewish community — it would not be wrong to stay out of the debate.

Last updated: 12:06pm, July 20 2012