Australian Jewish communities split over national same-sex marriage poll

PM Malcolm Turnbull promises equal marriage law if majority of postal voters support the move


A postal vote that will decide whether Australia legislates on same-sex marriage has divided the country’s Jewish community.

In a rare move, the Australian government initiated a postal survey asking voters whether they support extending marriage to same-sex couples.

The result is due next month. A Yes result will set wheels in motion for a private bill to make same sex marriage legal, a move that Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull said would be complete by Christmas.

The major Jewish schism lies between Australia’s orthodox rabbinate and those who run the communities.

In Melbourne, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV) issued a statement encouraging citizens to vote No to reforming Australia’s marriage laws.

“Our Torah clearly upholds traditional heterosexual marriage as the ideal family unit,” the statement said.

But some Jewish communities and progressive rabbis support a Yes vote and have criticised the RCV’s position.

 “Just as is it is appropriate to not restrict people who follow the RCV from practising whatever they want, the RCV should not interfere with the way other people live,” said a Jewish Community Council of Victoria statement.

Melbourne’s orthodox ARK Centre added: “The plebiscite is a secular matter, not a religious one.

“There is a separation between church and state in Australia and this vote poses no threat to our ability to freely practise our religion. As Jews we must never back down from advocating for the abolition of any and all discrimination.”

A similar divide emerged in Sydney, where the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies voted 99-1 to encourage a Yes vote provided the law allowed rabbis to conduct weddings in accordance with Jewish Law.

President Jeremy Spinak said the vote was for civil marriage and not religious marriage.

But the Sydney Beth Din said it was disappointed that the board had “chosen to take sides”.

“The organisation has traditionally dealt only in lay matters and it purports to represent all streams of Judaism equally. This it has not done,” a statement said.

“We find it astounding that the Rabbinical Council of Victoria and its rabbis were criticised and forced to apologise for telling people how to vote, and now the [New South Wales] Board of Deputies has done precisely that.

“So is it only acceptable to have an opinion if you are not a Rabbi and the opinion is yes?”

“No amount of pseudo-rabbinical gymnastics or twisted logic could with any modicum of intellectual integrity suggest that the Torah would allow same sex marriage, civil or otherwise. In fact the Talmud and Midrash are full of statements to the contrary.”

Rabbis Kim Ettlinger and Jeffrey Kamins, representing the Progressive and Masorti communities said: “We believe that two people who wish to join in a lifelong union through a wedding ceremony should be able to do so without prejudice. We encourage our members to vote Yes.”

Also throwing their hat into the ring was the National Council of the Jewish Women of Australia, which said: “We believe that civil marriage under the Marriage Act should be available to all people regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.”

Michael Barnett, from the Jewish LGBTI group Aleph, said a rejection would not end the issue.

“If same sex marriage becomes legal, it is clear the status quo will remain in the orthodoxy although many rabbis have openly that any Jew irrespective of their orientation will be welcomed into their congregation,” he told the JC.

“If the No gets up, the issue will not disappear. There will be pressure within the ruling Liberal party currently divided on same sex marriage to get a further vote within parliament.”

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