Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks found himself on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle this week for, unsurprisingly, being against gay marriage. Or actually, having put his name to a response to the government consultation on same sex marriage by the London Beth Din, the Orthodox religious law court. In response, the Jewish Chronicle published a letter from various prominent Jewish figures who think that this was a bit pants.
But, let’s get some perspective here. The response from the London Beth Don, notoriously right-wing, was less than a page long. In fact, it was so short, I can quote the entire thing here:
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. It therefore follows that same-sex unions are against Jewish law.
Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?
Please explain the reasons for your answer.
Our understanding of marriage from time immemorial has been that of a union between a man and a woman. Any attempt to redefine this sacred institution would be to undermine the concept of marriage.
If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, would you wish to have a civil marriage ceremony?
If you represent a group a group of individuals who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, would those you represent with to have a civil marriage?
The government does not propose to open up religious marriage to same-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?
This question confuses the notion of religious and civil marriage with a religious and civil ceremony. In English law, there is only one institution of marriage which can be entered into through either a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony.
We agree that the government should not legislate for a religious ceremony for same-sex couples. However, we also do not agree that a civil ceremony should be open to such couples for the reasons given in our response to questions 1 and 2. Furthermore, we are concerned that if the government were to introduce same-sex marriage through a civil ceremony, any attempt to exclude the possibility of a religious ceremony for such couples would be subject to challenge to the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds of discrimination.
Do you agree or disagree with keeping the option of civil partnerships once civil marriage is available to same-sex couples?
As we have made clear in our response to question 1 and 2, Orthodox Judaism prohibits same-sex civil partnerships.
If you identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual and were considering making a legal commitment to your partner, would you prefer to have a civil partnership or a civil marriage.
The government is not considering opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Do you agree or disagree with this proposal?
We support the institution of marriage as opposed to that of civil partnership but note that if same-sex couples were to be allowed to enter into both civil partnerships and marriages, there would be a case for opposite-sex couples to protest that they have been discriminated against, insofar as they are precluded from entering into civil partnerships.
If you are in a civil partnership, would you wish to take advantage of this policy and convert your civil partnership into a marriage?
Do you agree or disagree that there should be a time limit on the ability to convert a civil partnership into a marriage?
Do you agree or disagree that there should be the choice to have a civil ceremony on conversion of a civil partnership into a marriage?
We have already responded, that we do not agree that the institution of marriage should be extended to include same-sex couples.
If you are a married transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage while obtaining a full Gender Recognition Certificate?
If you are the spouse of a transsexual person, would you want to take advantage of this policy and remain in your marriage while your spouse obtained a full Gender Recognition Certificate?
Do you have any comments on the assumptions or issues outlined in this chapter on consequential impacts.
Are you aware of any costs or benefits that exist to either the public or private sector, or individuals that we have not accounted for?
Do you have any other comments on the proposals within this consultation?
Call me stupid, but I get the distinct impression that Rabbi Sacks’ heart wasn’t in the only thing he has ever had to say about same sex marriage. Compare this to the thirteen page narrow-margin document the Church of England submitted, along with a press release and interview with the Daily Telegraph by the Archbishop of York. Incidentally, if you don’t want to read thirteen pages of hand-wringing and homophobia, just read the Coptic Orthodox Church’s response instead – it says pretty much exactly the same thing in 500 words.
The most bizarre bit of the Church of England’s submission that I saw was, “Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.”
How exactly does society, or anyone, benefit from “acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity”? Have anyone ever turned to their long-term partner and said, “You know, I really love you, but I just feel like we just haven’t acknowledged an underlying biological complementarity. We should get married. Because we’re not gay.”
It’s just scrabbling around to justify an underlying half-embarrassed homophobia.
The Catholic Church’s response (6 pages, normal margins), incidentally contains a very interesting argument that I’ve yet to read elsewhere:
The consultation document makes clear (para. 2.16) that the concepts of consummation and adultery would apply equally to same-sex marriage. But instead of considering how the law should define these issues for same-sex couples, it simply abandons the matter to future case law. But the common law method proceeds by dealing with the real and difficult cases before the court. The scope for expansion through precedent of what kinds of relationships are covered by marriage or civil partnerships is very real unless there is legislative clarity at the outset defining these issues.
The thought of a judge having to determine what does and does not constitute gay sex and the consequences that will inevitably have on the definition of sex generally is a thought I find hilariously amusing but will no doubt prove quite traumatic for whatever couple is going to have to set the case law.
But Rabbi Sacks, being neither a bigot nor pruriently interested in the sex lives of others by way of displacement, has spent very little time worrying about this, to judge by the length of his response. In fact, I think really someone needs to send him a letter congratulating him expressing the principles of his faith without managing to dehumanise or grossly offend his LGB congregants, of whom there are presumably thousands. This is the way to do it. To say, “My beliefs are this and have been formed by generations who came before me, and I’m not going to change my mind on what is moral and what is not based on the government policy of the day. But if other people, human beings of dignity and worth, disagree with me and wish to live their lives in a way which harms no-one, then I have nothing to say.”
The Chief Rabbi’s recognition that he is on the wrong side of history and consequent silence has been nothing short of deafening to those of us who have been listening. Would that the Church of England could manage such restraint! It’s not unknown in the Christian world – the Church of Scotland also has nothing to say on the matter, to the irritation of some. No-one can be surprised that conservative forms of religion don’t approve of same sex marriage, but I think that we should appreciate people who are willing to say that with actual regard for LGB people. Even the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols was as right on as he could be:
Obviously, I disagree, but it’s obvious that Archbishop Nichols, and Rabbi Sacks, care far more about Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism respectively than they do about what gay people get up to in their spare time. I can respect that. I can’t respect folks who want to stop my mate Robbie from getting married because they think he’s incapable of “biologically complementing” his boyfriend.
And now having said all that, here is an ace infographic from the Humanist Society Scotland about why we should allow religious marriage anyway.
And here’s a petition to sign. Go on. *pushes gently*