Do the Chief Rabbi’s remarks on gay marriage this week represent a shift in United Synagogue policy?
Lord Sacks disputed the suggestion that he had “come out strongly” against government proposals to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
And that is so. Compared to other clerics who were vocal in their opposition to the plans, the Chief Rabbi’s office repeatedly declined to comment when approached by the JC last year.
Then, shortly before the closure of a government consultation on the issue last summer, the London Beth Din – of which the Chief Rabbi is the titular head – finally submitted an opinion.
In their submission, they stated: “Marriage, by definition in Jewish (biblical) law is the union of a male and a female. While Judaism teaches respect for others and condemns all types of discrimination, we oppose a change to the definition of marriage that includes same-sex relationships. Jewish (biblical) law prohibits the practice of homosexuality.”
They also said that Orthodox Judaism “prohibits same-sex civil partnerships”.
The statement can be taken in two ways. The narrow interpretation is that they were simply making clear that such ceremonies would be unacceptable in Orthodox synagogues – without taking any stand on their introduction in society as a whole. And therefore their sole concern was to ensure that religious communities were not forced against their beliefs to consecrate same-sex unions.
The broader view is that the submission argued against a redefinition of marriage generally in the UK to include gay couples. Certainly, this was the way it was read by a group of prominent figures in the community who attacked the Chief Rabbi for having made it.
Since then, the Chief Rabbi, as far as I am aware, has not spoken publicly on the issue. But this is what he said a few days ago: “We have strongly defined sexual ethics in Judaism more than 3,000 years old. But I think religions should never seek to impose their view on society as a whole.”
So does that mean the narrow interpretation of the London Beth Din submission is the correct one? Or that the Chief Rabbi has quietly changed his tune?
The proposed legislation has been welcomed by the Liberal and Reform movements, which already allow blessings for same-sex couples. And when it comes to the Lords for discussion, I imagine Rabbi Baroness Neuberger will be there to support it.
But don’t be surprised if Lord Sacks has a prior engagement.