Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks attacked over gay marriage opposition

Lord Sacks

Lord Sacks

A group of prominent community figures have admonished Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks for opposing plans to allow civil marriage for gays and lesbians.

In a letter to the JC, the Jewish human rights organisation Réné Cassin and 22 lawyers, academics and other individuals, including actor Stephen Fry, declared that it was "a matter of great regret that Lord Sacks has chosen to make a statement in his official capacity opposing the right of gay and lesbian men and women to marry".

Other signatories included author Lisa Appignanesi, communications expert Julia Hobsbawm, Times executive editor Daniel Finkelstein, lawyer Anthony Julius, who is chairman of the JC, and Dinah Rose QC, the barrister who successfully challenged JFS's exclusion of the children of non-Orthodox converts.

They wrote: "Even if same-sex marriage is contrary to Jewish law, it does not compromise the position of Orthodox Jews to let others marry as they wish."

Jewish law, they said, should "play no part in a modern secular society in restricting the lives of non-Jews - and Jews - who do not accept its restraints".

Arguing that the Chief Rabbi should have refrained from public comment, they said: "Speaking when silence is required is no virtue."

Both the Reform and Liberal movements have backed the proposal for equal marriage, arguing that it does not go far enough in allowing only civil, but not religious, marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.

But the Chief Rabbi, in a joint response from his rabbinical court, the London Beth Din and the United Synagogue rabbinate to a government consultation, contended that marriage was a sacred union between a man and a woman and any redefinition would undermine it.

The Chief Rabbi had been urged for several months by other Orthodox rabbis to take a stand on the issue, especially after the Catholic Church strongly condemned the proposals.

He declined to comment on this week's letter.

Some of those who signed it, while doing so in a personal capacity, hold senior communal roles.Clive Sheldon QC is co-chairman of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues - which has taken no public position on the question of same-sex marriage - while solicitor James Libson sits on the Jewish Leadership Council as chairman of World Jewish Relief.

Mr Sheldon said that the Chief Rabbi had been "ill-judged" to speak "when he didn't need to give a response. If it were something that directly affected his [own Orthodox] community, that would be different."

Mr Sheldon, who is a member of a liaison committee for Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogue movements, said that there had been "no cross-communal discussion about this as far as I am aware".

Simone Abel, director of Réné Cassin, said that since the government was planning no change to religious marriage, "we think it was entirely unnecessary for the Beth Din to weigh in on the proposed reforms, which will have no impact on Jewish marriage.

"Quite apart from the fact that the position stated by the Beth Din is not universally accepted amongst religious Jews, it is hard to see how the consequence of stating this position will be anything other than to alienate sections of the Jewish community."

Offering same-sex couples civil marriage was, she said, "a step towards ending discrimination" .

But the Federation Beth Din head, Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, came to Lord Sacks's defence.

"The Chief Rabbi is someone who speaks on moral issues and ethical values," he said.

"By virtue of his position, he represents the Torah point of view. There is an obligation on Jewish people, as we consider ourselves as a beacon of morality to the world, to teach what is right and what is wrong."

Letter in full here

Last updated: 11:51am, July 5 2012