Society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality has posed a challenge to traditional religions. The threat of schism still hovers over the Anglican Church.
In 1992, then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks encountered controversy over the exclusion of the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Helpline from a communal charity walkabout he organised.
The helpline, a spokesman for his office commented, “presented an alternative lifestyle which we don’t accept. We know that some people feel that they are inclined that way but we draw the line at institutionalising it.”
The following year, his predecessor Lord Jakobovits, provoked outrage after he expressed support for the (hypothetical) idea of using gene therapy to prevent a homosexual orientation.
A decade later, attitudes within Orthodoxy had begun to shift, crystallised in a book by Lord Sacks’s medical ethics adviser, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. While making clear that Judaism could not accept sexual relations between members of the same-sex, it advocated greater empathy for gay people and their inclusion in mainstream communities.
In his preface to the book, Lord Sacks said that, while the Torah asked a person with a homosexual disposition to “suppress or sublimate it”, what homosexual Jews needed was “compassion, sympathy, empathy, understanding”. Homophobia was “absolutely forbidden”.
A few years later, in 2012, the Chief Rabbi and his Beth Din came under fire from a group of prominent Jewish individuals for opposing the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK on the grounds that it undermined the traditional notion of marriage.
Both Liberal and Reform now perform same-sex marriages, while Masorti has introduced shutafut (partnership) ceremonies for gay couples.
Lord Sacks’s successor, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, when asked about the issue in an interview before taking office the following year, responded: “We have a very clear biblical definition of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman and through that we value traditional family life.
“But I would like to reiterate our genuine sentiment to every single Jewish man and woman, you have a home in our synagogues and we will make you feel comfortable, regardless of who you are.”
Since then, when Rabbi Mirvis has spoken publicly on the subject, it has generally been to condemn homophobia.