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Should The Chief Rabbi be issuing statements on Gay Marriage? A letter from Rabbi Joel Levy

Masorti Judaism has published this paper explaining why the UK Masorti rabbis have supported same-sex ceremonies.

 

Two letters from Rabbi Joel Levy on Gay marriage:

 

The issue of sexuality and gender once again rears its head and threatens to pull apart not only the Church of England but also the Tory Party over the Prime Minister’s decision to support legislation permitting gay marriage in the UK. The Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue and his Beit Din have weighed in with an assertion that the Jewish tradition is opposed to such a shift in policy:

 

“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.”

 

I do not agree with this statement.

 

Firstly a non-minor quibble; Jewish Law is not biblical, it is not even (biblical) in parentheses. Jewish Law is the on-going outcome of over two millennia of interpretation and it’s resemblance to biblical law is, thank God, limited. We are not called upon to follow the dictates of the Bible blindly, but rather to think deeply about how to implement the Bible in our lives; to refract the blinding light of that text through the prism of whatever knowledge and wisdom we can call upon in any given age, reflecting upon the interpretations of every age to aid our thinking.

 

Secondly he uses the weasel word – “respect”. The Chief Rabbi’s orthodox version of Jewish (biblical) Law calls homosexuality an abomination which is (biblically) punishable by death. It is hard to hold onto “respect for others” and condemning “all types of discrimination” whilst also upholding the death penalty for homosexuality.

 

But the real question is this: why has the Chief Rabbi chosen to pick up on this particular aspect of Jewish (biblical) Law and to assert its significance on a national level? Are there, perhaps, other elements of Jewish (biblical) law that he would secretly like to see implemented nationally? Let’s be fair, maybe he is not calling for the national implementation of all Jewish (biblical) Law. Maybe it is only the Noachide laws, those laws applicable to all non-Jews that he would like to see implemented using the full weight of the British judicial and legal system. Would he then like to see the British courts administering the death penalty for such crimes as adultery, unsanctioned Sabbath observance, theft (even of a loaf of bread), and Torah Study for non-Jews?

 

If his version of Jewish (biblical) Law prohibits non-Jews from engaging in homosexual acts this in no way explains his attempt to impose such a law on the general public.
The fact that for him, “Jewish (biblical) law prohibits the practice of homosexuality” does not explain why “we oppose a change to the definition of marriage that includes same-sex relationships”.

In the next letter I’d like to suggest a way that religious leaders might want to conduct themselves when discussing moral issues of interest to the general public

 

And .....

 

In last week’s letter I looked at the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue’s opposition to gay marriage:

“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.”

 

I suggested that this statement is incoherent. The Chief Rabbi is clearly allowed to have a particular reading of Jewish Law that prohibits Jews or non-Jews from engaging in homosexual acts, but this idiosyncratic Jewish prohibition in no way explains his attempt to impose such a law on the general public. The Jewish prohibition on non-Jews engaging in homosexuality is classically derived from a very peculiar rabbinic reading of a single word in Genesis chapter 2, but the general public cannot be expected to have the patterns of their lives determined by peculiar rabbinic readings of ancient Jewish canonical texts. The fact that for him, “Jewish (biblical) law prohibits the practice of homosexuality”, does not explain why “we oppose a change to the definition of marriage that includes same-sex relationships”.

 

I do not mean to suggest that religious leaders have no right to comment in the public arena. My question is: how should religious leaders speak in public in multi-cultural societies? In pre-modern Britain there was a Christian consensus that allowed conversations to take place in the public realm using overtly Christian motifs, but there is no longer a Christian consensus in the UK. Christian inspired voices must continue to be part of our political discourse in the UK if we are not to disconnect ourselves from centuries of deep Christian wisdom, but that does not mean that I should need to suffer conversations packed with overtly Christian motifs and quotations from the Christian bible with which I have and want no relationship. When confronted by such representations I shall continue to respond that I simply do not accept their canonical assumptions.

 

Contemporary religious leaders when speaking outside their own churches, mosques, synagogues and temples should not quote from scripture or from particularistic legal documents. There is no common religious canonical text for the British marketplace. The Chief Rabbi may have a culturally conditioned commitment to an ancient text which he thinks teaches him that homosexuality is a bad thing, but his commitment to that ancient Middle-Eastern text cannot be brought into the marketplace and taken seriously by the vast majority of Britons who do not partake of that cultural oddity.

 

The Chief Rabbi's voice can and should enter the marketplace but only if he is prepared to translate his biblically inspired ideas into more neutral claims that can be analysed and accepted or rejected by normal members of the population. A more culture-neutral argument against gay marriage might be based on the idea that the purpose of marriage ought to be linked to procreation. Michael Sandel, the esteemed Harvard philosopher, promotes the idea that our public discourse would be profoundly enriched by our returning to a version of Aristotelian moral philosophy which focuses on this type of analysis of “right ends”. If the argument about gay marriage looked at what marriage is actually for, what is its purpose, then all people, including the traditionalist Jewish community, could add their voices to the conversation. Traditionalists would say that the right ends of marriage are linked to childbirth and childrearing. Their claim would need to be made without reference to verses from the bible. They would need to translate the culturally loaded “thick” terms of an intra-Jewish conversation into a “thinner” argument more suitable for broad public discourse.

 

Ideally, from my perspective, the conversation should take place without overt reference to the religious beliefs of the participants. Being a Chief Rabbi who feels able to make assertions on questions of Jewish law should lend one no extra weight in the broad public conversation about the law of the land in the UK.

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