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Time for gay shul weddings

Judaism teaches us not to oppress a 'stranger'

    As part of the newest generation of lesbian and gay rabbis, we are delighted to learn after a successful debate in the House of Lords, Civil Partnerships can now take place within religious institutions.

    Inevitably, this change in legislation will be most applicable to those synagogues, rabbis and movements who have already enabled same-sex couples to affirm their commitments to one another within a Jewish context. For example, in Liberal Judaism, the same-sex B'rit Ahavah (Covenant of Love) pre-dated the UK Civil Partnership Act.

    Within such a diverse Jewish community, we realise that this change in legislation will not feel relevant to all. Yet we hope there are many open-minded people who accept that just because someone's ideology or practice may not be in keeping with their own does not automatically mean that it should be curtailed. For example, there are Jewish vegetarians who have no personal need for shechitah but still support the rights of others to enjoy kosher meat.

    As progressive Jews, we are urged to heed the ethical teachings of prophetic Judaism, especially the need to support universal civil liberties and the rights of others regardless of race, gender or sexuality. The experiences of Jewish history also remind us that "you shall not wrong or oppress a stranger for you too were strangers" (Exodus 22:20). Moreover, in keeping with our interpretation of the talmudic principle of Dina De-Malkhuta Dina (the law of the land is the law), progressive Judaism strives to keep apace with civil law and social change.

    Accordingly, we are proud to live in a country where two men or two women in a committed relationship are afforded the same legal rights as a heterosexual couple.

    On December 5 2005, civil partnerships became legal in England. That day, David and his partner were among the first UK Jewish couples to sign the register. Just five months earlier, they celebrated their commitment to each other in a packed Reform synagogue. In stark contrast to the synagogue ceremony, the registry office proceedings were witnessed by just a handful of people. Although they recognised the great privilege of living in a time when they could formalise their partnership in both Jewish and civil settings, given the choice, they would have opted for one ceremony incorporating both.

    As congregational rabbis, we strive to create every opportunity for people to develop positive Jewish identities and feel welcomed within the community. Perhaps this is best expressed through the biblical verse: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isaiah 56:7). Yet both of us know same-sex Jewish couples who have only affirmed their commitment to each other in a registry office.

    The opportunities also to mark this within Jewish settings were dismissed because, unlike civil partnerships or heterosexual weddings, they were not legally recognised. While we understood their decision, we also felt a sense of disappointment that they did not choose a Jewish way to acknowledge this important stage in their relationships.

    Judith has lived in Canada, where the law affords all couples identical rights, regardless of gender or sexuality. In her experience, Canadian same-sex couples feel a stronger sense of belonging to the Jewish community because they can affirm their relationships in identical ways to their straight counterparts. It is also easier for their families to accept their partnerships when they are simultaneously celebrated in both a legal and Jewish context. This often leads lesbian and gay Jews towards a stronger sense of engagement with their community.

    There have already been huge advances within both of the UK's progressive movements towards enabling Jewish same-sex couples to mark their commitment to building a Jewish home together. With this change in legislation, wouldn't it be wonderful if the first call a same-sex couple made after announcing their engagement was not to the registrar but to the rabbi?

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