I’ve just returned from a synagogue study session that was all about sex!
No wonder there are continuous and increasing complaints about the over-sexualisation of kids – adults of all stripes think of little else.
The lecture was part of a traditional overnight study series for the festival of Shavuot which celebrates the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
During it, the speaker claimed that the adulterous, murderous biblical King David would have made a fantastic modern politician.
Even more relevant would have been a look at the putative homosexual relationship between David and King Saul’s son, Jonathan. Then we could have examined it in the light of the first same-sex Jewish marriage to take place in the U.K. – a significant matter for Jews worldwide - and to me personally for various reasons.
First, the union and so commitment between two men - Jeffrey Levine and Roman Hunter-Fox – happened immediately prior to Shavuot which among much else, is also about the story of Ruth and her inordinately deep, if wholly platonic commitment to Naomi and so the Jewish people.
Second, I am from England and the chuppah took place under the aegis of the relatively new Liberal community in Manchester, where I lived before I emigrated to Israel.
So far as I am aware, no religious institution in the U.K. - other than this local Liberal Jewish community led by Rabbi Mark Solomon - has performed a same-sex marriage.
In the U.K., Liberal Judaism is regarded as akin to US Reform tradition while British Reform practice is similar to that of US Conservative communities.
Third, for some years I had served as a volunteer marriage registrar at my own congregation, Sha’arei Shalom North Manchester Reform, which is now about to debate the same issue. My role as registrar was to complete the civil paperwork and then to assist the presiding rabbi during the religious ceremony.
According to the U.K. Marriage Act 1949, Jewish and Quaker communities in England and Wales are allowed to perform their own marriages. The Act as a whole was updated in 2005 to allow same sex-couples to marry in ‘civil partnerships’, so granting them the same rights and responsibilities as couples in a civil marriage.
Sha’arei Shalom is a largely ageing, right of centre community and congregants include many diehard traditionalists who dislike the idea of women reading from the Torah or leading services, let alone that of employing a woman rabbi. So imagine the dismay when the issue of possible same-sex marriages arose.
The topic is to be debated at the congregation’s annual meeting later this month and the current edition of its newsletter carries letters both in favour and against their being performed under its jurisdiction.
Moreover the editor remarks: “Apart from the rather bald statement from our rabbis at the Movement for Reform Judaism, there has been virtually no information about how ceremonies might be arranged or their content.”
On research, the only information available is that:
“Rabbi Colin Eimer, who chaired the MRJ Assembly of Reform Rabbis working party on the topic said that his colleagues will only conduct same-sex commitment ceremonies with a prior or concurrent Civil Partnership ceremony.”
I am sure that many people reading this have relatives and friends who are gay and who live quiet, fulfilled lives in one-partner unions, so belying the view that homosexuals are almost indecently promiscuous.
Indeed, when same-sex ‘divorce‘ rates in the U.K. were published last year they revealed that while the number of partnerships had dropped and the dissolution of such unions had increased since they began in 2005, the figures were ‘beginning to stabilize, rather than fall.’ Perhaps the initial flurry of interest was simply its novelty.
It is amazing that following centuries of criminalisation, how much advance has been made in favour of homosexuals during the past 45 years.
The U.K.’s once strict laws criminalising male homosexual activity were abolished in 1966, due mainly to the efforts of a Jewish Welsh Member of Parliament, Leo Abse. Now to be homophobic is to be a social pariah but still the gay community feels it will not be equal in law until members may marry in religious ceremonies.
Meanwhile I understand that not only is Tel Aviv recognised as an international centre for the gay community, but that in Israel generally there is widespread support for same-sex civil marriage.
Indeed, five years ago, the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognise same-sex marriages performed abroad following a case filed by several male Israeli couples married in Canada.
The ruling dealt with the registration of the marriages in Israel, noting that it did not refer to the validity of those marriages. However, same sex couples in Israel enjoy most of the rights of married couples, as unmarried opposite sex couples.
This past weekend coincidentally marked the 30th anniversary of the first report in the US of acquired immune deficiency syndrome – AIDS . At its peak, the pandemic reached such monstrous proportions that many people were frightened even to shake hands with victims – mainly gay men - for fear of contracting the disease. That myth was dispelled finally when patients were befriended by celebrities like the late Princess of Wales.
Such is the secular social background. Now let’s look at Jewish law:
- ·The best known Torah proscription against male homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22:
“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.”
- ·Then comes Leviticus 20:13:
“And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
The punishment for violation is death but as there are so many factors preventing the ultimate punishment being carried out, there is no account of capital punishment in Jewish history due to acts of homosexuality.
The Midrash is one of the few ancient religious texts which refer to same-sex marriage and the following teaching may be found twice there:
"Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Joseph: 'The generation of the Flood was not wiped out until they wrote marriage documents for the union of a man to a male or to an animal.'"
There may be no direct textual prohibition of homosexual acts between women in Torah but it is generally forbidden, based on an interpretation of the verse:
"Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow any of their customs." (Leviticus 18:3).
So what do I think?
- In many countries throughout the west, homosexuals are allowed to enter civil partnerships and have the same rights in law as heterosexual couples. That is the law and I must accept it.
- However, I can’t acknowledge the demand for same-sex religious ceremonies as the couples involved live in a manner which flagrantly disregards the very ethics the three main monotheistic faiths seek to uphold.
- I cannot approve of same-sex marriage as the concept of matrimony originated as the ideal environment for heterosexual couples to produce and raise children in a loving, protected environment.
- But as there are famous examples of homosexuals raising children successfully in such a manner, what is my argument against this?
- If children see and experience home life only with “two dads” or “two mums” they will treat this as a norm, not the exception I believe it to be and society will suffer the same terrible imbalance it ever did when gays were considered criminals and their way of life was pushed underground.
- All this fuss, I’d be tempted to mutter in a dark moment, about a group of British people - gay, lesbian and bisexual - who in a recent Office of National Statistics survey was discovered to number no more than three-quarters of a million adults – or 1.5% of the population. Indeed, this figure is far lower than the 6% - 3.6M - estimated in 2005 when civil partnership legislation was introduced in the U.K.
- Jewish tradition views the actual ‘chuppah’ – wedding canopy – as representing a couple’s home as a mini temple where even their dining table symbolises the altar with blessings over food staples like bread and salt symbolising the ‘sacrifice’.
- If homosexual couples – right or wrong - are considered to live in total contradiction to Biblical and Jewish law and values – they immediately violate the hallowed concepts outlined above.
- The ‘kiddushin’ – sanctification of the marriage – is just that. It is not about sexual orientation. As illustration in a complete aside, I must point out that during the recent Christian marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, they did not kiss inside Westminster Abbey as the action would have appeared indecorous - unseemly even – after the awe-inspiring holy grandeur of the ceremony.
- More mundanely I do not believe that anyone should join a particular synagogue depending on their secular lifestyle but because they are Jewish and wish to express their Judaism in a specific way.
- Moreover, I suggest that the persistence of the gay community in pushing back the boundaries of long-held values ever yet further is part of the presently universal over-sexualisation and degradation of society.
- All this comes as a report has been published in Britain by the international Christian charity, the Mothers Union and supported by Prime Minister David Cameron calling for popular television programmes like the talent show, The X Factor to moderate their graphic content and for high street retailers to stop selling sexually suggestive clothing to children.
- Further, the Jewish Chronicle has just featured a story about a YouTube clip of a batmitzvah party showing a father-of-five rapping to Usher's OMG. So what’s not to like? After all, it began life as a simple joke to amuse the family’s guests.
- But I was appalled, not because I’m prudish or humourless, but because of the way the girls’ mother was dressed. She looked like a burlesque dancer. Is this a good role model for her children? More especially, is it the way to behave after a ceremony marking her teenage daughters’ religious coming of age? Perhaps she could take lessons from the former Catherine Middleton!
- And finally? Well, I consider it strange that even as Leo Abse fought so tenaciously for gay rights, he felt that "those who do not procreate are deprived or stunted."
- I can’t agree with him as I have no children of my own!
But I do remember vividly almost 30 years later, how I felt when reading the anthology of Jewish lesbian writing, Nice Jewish Girls: The authors I then said, use only one half of Rabbi Hillel’s quotation.
- Sure enough, if they are not for themselves, who will be for them? But as they are so ridiculously self-obsessed – what are they?