I know that Jewish law is against same-sex marriage. That debate doesn’t interest me. If you are orthodox, there is no wiggle room. If, however, you interpret Jewish law differently, you can support religious same-sex marriage. I get it.
I also understand the predicament the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR) found itself in. Liberal Judaism, followed by the Movement for Reform Judaism, had set their stalls out in support of same-sex marriage. The Chief Rabbi was being hounded by the more right-wing orthodox rabbis and dayanim who wanted to hear a condemnation from him in the strongest possible terms.
So what to do?
Perhaps the OCR’s submission on the last possible day of the government commission was intentional. On the one hand, its timing maybe hinted at a reluctance to speak out on such a controversial issue. After all, the Chief Rabbi wrote clearly in To Heal a Fractured World:
No one should seek to impose his or her religious convictions on society but we should seek instead to bring the insights of our respective faiths to the public conversation about the principles for which we stand and the values which we share.
In other words, had somebody actively sought out the (traditional) Jewish view on same-sex marriages, the OCR might have offered its opinion and would have had every right to do so.
On the other hand though, the statement was a willing and voluntary submission and its content left no room for misinterpretation: the Chief Rabbi, his Beth Din and the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue are firmly against same-sex marriages.
But let’s look at what was submitted by the OCR to see why it is troubling.
Question 4 of the Home Office’s consultation reads:
If you represent a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual would those you represent wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?
A tricky question for the OCR. How would you answer it? The answer astounded me, in both its brevity and content. Two words:
Two little words. What can this mean?
Representation is a notoriously tricky term to define when it comes to British Jews. Just ask the Board of Deputies. But, in its broadest sense, let’s assume that the United Synagogue does have members whose interests the organisation may ‘represent’. Here are three possible conclusions.
Perhaps ‘Not applicable’ is consultation-speak for ‘No comment’. Could it be that instead of attempting a carefully-worded answer to a difficult question, ignoring it appeared more prudent, lest the response be misinterpreted? This seems unlikely.
Alternatively then, maybe this was the OCR speaking and not the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue. Maybe we are to understand the answer as meaning:
As the Office of the Chief Rabbi doesn’t have members, we can’t legitimately claim to represent anyone’s views. Therefore, this question of representation is not applicable to us.
This would just about work for question 4, but clearly leaves the OCR open to the charge of wading into a debate when there is no particular body of Jews to represent.
But the most troubling conclusion is that representing a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual is “not applicable” because there are no such people to represent within the United Synagogue.
This is patently false. A number of my gay friends grew up in traditional homes and attended United Synagogues. As if being Jewish – and orthodox – wasn’t difficult enough at times growing up, they had to deal with the additional pressure of knowing that just as being Jewish was entirely, unquestionably, 100% of who they were, so too was being gay. Some have tried to remain as traditionally observant as they can be; others have chosen to be happy taking other paths.
So given that it is patently false, and that the United Synagogue, which prides itself on its inclusivity, regardless of religious observance, this can’t be – surely – what they, together with the OCR and London Beth Din were saying. If it was an oversight, (one that may well have caused great anguish to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual Jews who do wish to be included), then I am troubled. They should have provided more context to the answer. But if it was more than a mere oversight, then this is truly an issue which should trouble us all.