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On Same Sex Ceremonies of Commitment at New London Synagogue

By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

This, and other issues related to same-sex commitment, test every element of our religious and congregational make-up. In the paper that follows there are reflections on theology, the role of ritual, the nature of married life and the realities of congregational change. That said I believe the question of whether and how New London should offer ceremonies for those committed to those of the same-sex can be distilled down to five key questions; three of which I find easy to answer, the other two of which are difficult.

I’ve structured this paper around these key five questions and included a number of excurses – an idea lifted from Rabbi Jacobs’ work Principles of the Jewish Faith – to engage with some of the broader questions that the direct engagement with such ceremonies beg. Rather than use footnotes there are hypertext links to other documents, Youtube videos and the like for those interested in further detail.

At this point this paper is drafted for the purpose of allowing congregational consultation. The recommendations for next steps are included towards its conclusion.

The paper concludes with an ‘executive summary.’

The First Easy Question

Our key question must be this; ‘what do we want for Jews who are only attracted to those of the same sex?’

I don’t struggle to answer this question, it’s the same answer I would give to any Jew; I want these Jews to find other Jews with whom they can make a bet ne’eman b’yisrael – a faithful house in Israel. I want these Jews to feel New London Synagogue is a welcoming and non-judgemental community for them and, should they be so blessed, their families.

Excursus – Sex

I’ve spent a great deal of time studying and teaching issues around the kinds of sexual intimacy our tradition deems permissible and prohibited both between same-sex and heterosexual couples. Source sheets and a video of my most recent presentation on the subject can be found here and here. I follow the position taken in this very detailed working through of the issues in a responsum accepted by the Masorti Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). This responsum finds a single act of homosexual male-to-male intimacy forbidden, but permits other acts of sexual intimacy between couples of the same sex in the context of committed, ritually-affirmed relationships of love. But, frankly, not much of this study impacts on the position I take in the paragraph above. There are standards of sexual behaviour our tradition mandates for couples of all sexual orientations. The welcome and openness I attempt to offer, both as a gatekeeper of the Jewish tradition and as an employee of this community, is not predicated on whether – and forgive the bluntness of the language – our straight members might be engaging in sexual practices that breach Halachah. That is not to condone breaches of Halachah, that is rather to separate issues of welcome from issues of acceptance of behaviour.

Those who find the Torah’s use of the term toevah to refer to those who engage in male-to-male anal intercourse such an absolute taboo as to drive a level of disengagement from both gay and lesbian desire for intimate companionship are encouraged to understand that I do not consider anal-intercourse between men permissible, but are also directed to this analysis of the uses of the term toevah throughout the Hebrew Bible (or those seeking a lighter, if blunter, analysis this clip from the TV show The West Wing).

Excursus – Procreation

The oft-raised issue of procreation should be treated similarly. There is a wonderful Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:3) in which an infertile couple, back in the days when this used to happen, prepare to separate having been married for ten years without producing offspring. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai allows the wife to take one thing from the matrimonial house – and she takes her husband. The Halachah changes and infertile couples are no longer expected to divorce. Of course procreation is important, but sanctified intimate companionship in Judaism is, and has always been, about a lot more than procreation. Even putting aside the notion that same-sex couples, by varying means, are able to raise children, it is necessary to distinguish between a commitment to procreation and the question of the welcome we should offer those attracted to members of the same-sex.

Excursus – New London Synagogue and the Toleration of that Which is Not Halachically Acceptable

This is one of my favourite ‘Louis’ stories. In the old days the Jacobs family lived on the other side of the St Johns Wood High Street from the Synagogue. And on Shabbat, rather than cut across the High Street – with the possibility of seeing members, God forbid, emerging from shops and cafes on the Holy Sabbath Day, Rabbi Jacobs would take the long route home. It wasn’t condoning a breach of Halachah, it was placing his own discomfort – the extra journey time – below that of embarrassing a fellow New London member in public. As a community we have always, rightly, been proud of our non-judgemental and broadly welcoming attitude to all. We have never used Halachic non-compliance as a reason for turning away anyone who would otherwise want to be part of our community.

The First Difficult Question – What Now?

What role should a Synagogue play in helping a same-sex couple create a bet ne’eman b’yisrael – a faithful house in Israel? I’m not asking about civil legal protection, that part is easy. We certainly would support the protections offered by the State to those in same-sex relationships, but should we offer anything in addition to these protections within the Synagogue community?

Currently we adopt a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach that communicates to those attracted only to the same-sex that we will accept their sexuality without offering any religious marker of their choice of life partner. But this seemingly clear-cut distinction frays in the realities of the lives lived by our members.

When a same-sex couples announce they wish their relationship to be acknowledged as significant do we print a congratulation in our newsletter, do we use the loaded term ‘Mazal Tov?’ There are a myriad of incremental decisions one simply can’t escape making – as a member or as a Synagogue. Should we record same-sex couples as families on our databases? Do we offer baby blessings to couples who have a child, or announce an adoption? If we do offer a baby blessing, do we sing Mazal Tov in full voice, or in a tone designed to communicate (or unable to hide) our ambivalent approval/disapproval of such a family?

Excursus – How to Say Mazal Tov When You Feel Uneasy

Judaism is a pursuit of truth, normally. But not absolutely, certainly not when the feelings of another are at risk. The classic text on the appropriateness of a ‘white lie’ comes in a response to the question – how should one dance before an ugly bride on their wedding day? (Ketubot 16b-17a). Shammai insists the ugly bride is to treated as she is. Hillel – who models our normative response – insists we say she is beautiful and graceful. At a wedding, regardless of whether one finds the parties under the Chuppah attractive, we are commanded to dance with joy. To do otherwise is cruel and cruelty can never be holy. At a wedding you have to say Mazal Tov as if you mean it with your whole heart, even if you don’t.

We can make the claim that it is possible to construct a myriad of responses, both explicit and implicit, that count as being fully supportive and welcoming of same-sex couples without offering a religious ceremony designed to celebrate same-sex coupling in the same way that heterosexual coupling is celebrated – indeed this is what we currently do at New London. But I am not convinced. It can sound a little like the treatment of Jews in the bad-old-days of ‘acceptable’ English antisemitism. We were, as English Jews, allowed some access to some parts of English society, but in a myriad of ways, both subtle and gross, we were informed we were only being tolerated and that the openness of our host community was tempered by limits and quotas. We were encouraged to feel these limits weren’t brazenly antisemitic but we knew how our surrounding society truly felt about us. Old fashioned ‘acceptable’ antisemitism wasn’t acceptable. I feel the same about our current approach. The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach is half-hearted; there is some welcome, but a lot of pushing-away. I don’t like it and I don’t accept it models the best of who we, as a community, are and should be. If we are to adopt the status-quo as our formal position, at the very least, we should admit of its pushing-away qualities; making clear the rejection of those attracted only to those of the same-sex. I don’t believe we are a community that should, or genuinely wishes to do that. Certainly, as a Rabbi and member here, I do not wish to do that.

On the other hand there is a level of pain associated in making a dramatic change to the range of lifecycle offerings we offer as a community. I know there are members who relate to same-sex physicality attraction on a scale between incomprehension and aversion. I’m among members who have been on a journey in terms of understanding what it means to support those who find themselves attracted in this way. I know there are members here who are so hostile to a significant change on these issues that they share that a decision of the community to offer a specific same-sex ceremony would lead them to feel alienated from a community they might have been members of for decades. I don’t like debates that threaten the sense of security of any of our members.

If there is a cost to the status quo, there is a cost entailed in making a change. That is what makes this a difficult decision.

The Second Easy Question – Where should the pain fall?

In many ways the question about whether or not to perform these ceremonies is a question about where we want the pain to fall. We can allow the same-sex attracted members of the community to carry the pain of our limited toleration of their sexuality. Or we, finding ourselves as gatekeepers of the norms of this community, can shoulder that pain ourselves; even if we do not understand what might draw a person only to a member of their own sex; even if we experience a level of uneasiness around what such a new venture might mean for traditional Jewish life.

Put like this, I find an easy answer. When faced with a choice as to who should bear a pain the Jewish tradition responds with an almost unheard of unanimity. The secure and the entitled are commanded to bear the pain on behalf of the insecure and the excluded. This command finds its sharpest articulation in the oft-repeated Torah mandate to love the stranger, the outsider amongst the community of Israel. We should love the outsider because we know the experience of the outsider, for we were outsiders in the land of Egypt. We are asked to place ourselves in the position of the other and make the decision they would wish us to make. I know the experience of so many same-sex attracted Jews trying to make their way in the broader Jewish community has been one of being ‘othered,’ excluded and objectified. The central claim of a Jewish morality is that the people who experience exclusion are precisely the people who should not have to bear the pain of the discomfort they might instil among those who count themselves as normative.

Certainly I don’t look at those who are attracted to those of the same sex as cursed or choosing to place themselves in such a situation; and therefore responsible for their own pain with no suggestion that I might be called upon to share in this burden. That seems entirely wrong.

Excursus – On God & Humans

Somewhere, on this issue, one needs to come to a theological decision about the nature of the desire towards same-sex physical intimacy. If one sees this desire as equivalent to the desire to eat bacon, or steal, then the correct response to feeling this desire is suppression of action. Suppression results in the potential thief walking past the opportunity for thievery and the pork-phile not eating pork. But it leads someone attracted only to those of the same-sex condemned to a life without intimate companionship. That seems cruel on a very different level to the level of pain suffered by a kleptomaniac or pork-phile. After all the Torah itself mandates it is not good for a person to live alone.

On a theological level I am simply unable to believe God created some people specifically in order to test their ability to live without intimate companionship. Rather I see the sexuality of a fellow human being as a part of their creation in the image of the divine, as a part of the essential humanity of a human. And the correct response to an element of our essential humanity (as Jews) is to express that essence with decency and respect for one’s fellow in the context of a Halachic framework that engages with every element of our lives. This is not hedonism, this is the search to find and walk on a path of decency within a broader Jewish community.

The Third Easy Question – What does it mean to be welcoming?

If we do want to be welcoming there is only one option. We need a ceremony that seeks to offer same-sex couples the same power afforded heterosexual couples.

Excursus – The Nature of the Power of the Wedding Ceremony

I’ve had the great pleasure of officiating at over 200 wedding ceremonies and, to distil the whole affair into a sentence I believe the Jewish wedding ceremony is a blessing, given in the name of God and the Jewish people, in the sight of friends and family. This blessing, I believe, gives strength to the couple on the uneven road of a life-time’s monogamous commitment. And at the heart of this blessing is the term kiddushin. The Hebrew root K-D-SH is usually translated as ‘holy,’ but more technically the root suggests ‘exclusion;’ you can’t have that which is kodesh. God, of course, is the ultimate-ungraspable. But when, at a heterosexual wedding, a groom says ‘behold you are meKuDeSHet to me,’ the bride becomes excluded for all other partners. Monogamy and holiness are wrapped up together in one moment.

I’m arrogant enough to believe that our same-sex attracted couples need the same public affirmation of this holy exclusivity, wrapped up in a blessing – a hashgacha or stamp of acceptability – which can strengthen their commitments to one another and a Jewish future. I’m humble enough to know we, as a community, needs the commitment of all of its members if we are to have the bold, bright future we wish for ourselves.

Certain elements of a heterosexual ceremony ensure the ceremony is seen as an act of kiddushin – a commitment to sanctified exclusivity and not asecond-class ambivalent toleration; a canopy – chuppah, a document, rings, wine … I also think that we should offer the same access to provisions in civil law that heterosexual couples are afforded. I don’t think you can offer heterosexual couples a full service in both religious and civil matters and tell same-sex couples to go to the Town Hall.

Some of the legal mechanisms of a heterosexual ceremony can’t / shouldn’t be drafted into a same-sex ceremony. These are the mechanisms of kinyan – acquisition. Kinyan – of the bride! – is at the centre of Halachic models of heterosexual marriage. Traditionally a bride is at the very least (and the point is hotly debated) very close to a ‘chattel’ which the groom ‘acquires’ through the rituals of a traditional wedding. I do not advocate drawing these elements of the traditional heterosexual ceremony into the rituals for same-sex couples.

I believe New London Synagogue should offer ceremonies along the lines discussed above. See also this responsum of the CJLS which sets out a number of options for ceremonies (including material regarding dissolution of relationships).

Excursus – On Acquisition in Heterosexual Marriage

Increasingly I am not being asked to perform entirely traditional heterosexual marriage ceremonies where the groom is ‘koneh‘ – acquiring – and the bride is ‘nikneit‘ – acquired. Rather couples are using more mutual ritual including egalitarian Ketubah language – as discussed here and mutual language around rings which become, no longer the consideration in a transaction of a quasi-bridal-purchase, but rather the symbol of two individuals coming together in a partnership – shutafut. I discussed the Halachic validity of this egalitarian ceremony in a class available to view here. See also the paper by my colleague, Rabbi Joel Levy, on page 16 of this publication.

Excursus – On Kinyan and Kiddushin in Masorti Discussion of Same-Sex Ceremonies

In the key responsum accepted by the CJLS, the following sentence, appears; ‘Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples.’ This sentence is also at the heart of a paper on Partnership Ceremonies for Same-Sex Couples authored by my colleague and senior rabbi of the Masorti Movement in this country, Jonathan Wittenberg. Unfortunately this sentence conflates two distinct ideas;

  • One being the legal mechanisms of traditional heterosexual ceremonies, most accurately referred to as kinyan, but here confusingly associated with the term kiddushin.
  • The second being the notion of a sanctified exclusivity – which is the spiritual meaning and outcome of the term kiddushin once freed of the legal mechanisms of kinyan.

It is clear that the authors of this responsum are fully in favour of sanctified exclusivity, so are, as I understand matters, every other supporter of these ceremonies. When I use the term kiddushin in this paper, and advocate for its inclusion in same-sex ceremonies, I refer to sanctified exclusivity, not the legal mechanisms.

Excursus – New Jewish Lifecycle Ceremonies

When has Judaism created a new lifecycle-ritual? When hasn’t Judaism created new life-cycle rituals. The Bar Mitzvah is new, the Bat Mitzvah is newer – originating in 1922. The blessings of welcome shared with baby Jewish girls is new. The heterosexual marriage undergoes a complete transformation between Biblical and Rabbinic periods (a process clearly set out here). In the former there was a mohar – a price paid by the bride’s family to the groom. In the latter there was a ketubah – a sum nominally placed in escrow by the groom for the benefit of the bride. It is one of the greatest truths of Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ career’s work, Judaism is a living tree, continually shifting and evolving.

The Second Difficult Question – How should New London Synagogue address the pain entailed in making such a ceremony available?

In the December 2014 survey of members 56% of the 240 members who responded said they did want to see these services offered. 19% said they had no opinion, or wanted to learn more about the issue, 25% were opposed to seeing these services offered. We are, just as in the case of the our conversations on the role of women, having to weigh up questions around democracy – are all members equal in their claims over the future of the Shul, what is the power of the status quo, and the dangers and necessities of change. This is all complex.

Many of the members opposed to our offering these services are already struggling with changes in the Shul on the role of women, though there are many who are pro one issue and opposed to the other. Many members opposed to this change are members of long-standing (that is not to say that all long-standing members are opposed to this change). I am aware that I take a very different stance from my august predecessor, Rabbi Louis Jacobs in a number of his general writings on the subject. I have a sympathy for members of the community who feel the community is moving away from their expectations of membership leaving them to feel less at home in their Jewish home. That is not easy.

On the other hand I feel more clarity about the long-term future of the community on this issue. I can’t see the future of this community being one where we fail to offer these ceremonies. Nor do I want New London to be the sort of community that tells some of its members they are only half-welcome, in the way discussed above.

This is a change I believe we should make. The question of pace is one that is complex but, partly because ceremonies will only directly impact on those who choose to attend such a ceremony, I recommend that we begin offering ceremonies with immediate effect. We should pursue the linking of civil marriage protection also with immediate effect, although in practice it might take a while for civil arrangements to be made. As far as announcements, recognition and support of couples we should adopt a policy of warm unstinting support, again with immediate effect. On the singular question of a Shabbat morning Aufruf in the sanctuary I believe it would be appropriate to delay hosting Aufruf celebrations for a period of one year in an attempt to ease the discomfort of some of those who are going to be discomforted by such a step. It’s an imperfect attempt at balance and not something I believe to be appropriate or sustainable in the long term, but I think it would be appropriate at this time.

Where Now

The process of change in the rituals of the Synagogue is, constitutionally, governed by our Articles of Association. The relevant passage is as follows;

The form and conduct of the Services … shall be as the Rabbi shall decide following prior consultation with Council or … Services Committee, provided that there shall be no substantial change (as determined by Council) in the form or content of the services or customs or rites of the Synagogue … unless such change shall have received the approval of Council, the Rabbi and the members of the Synagogue by ordinary resolution in general meeting.

My proposals are that

  1. The Synagogue should offer a religious ceremony of commitment for same-sex couples as detailed above. As soon as possible the procedures for registering such ceremonies under the provisions of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act shall be pursued.
  2. That same-sex couples should be offered the same welcome and support in the community as heterosexual couples in all ways save that, for the first year after the adoption of this proposal, there shall not be an aufruf offered to same-sex couples in the main, sanctuary, service on a Shabbat morning. One year after the adoption of this proposal that moratorium will lift.

Informally, the Chairman and Council have shared they are minded to consider these proposals amount to a ‘substantial change’ in the language of the Articles of Association of the Synagogue – a consideration I support. Therefore these proposals require support of Council and the membership at general meeting. At this stage I imagine a timetable for such a process would be something like the following;

  • May 2016 Consultation with Exec/Council/Services Committee and selected membership.
  • June 2016 A version of this document would be made available to membership in advance of the AGM.
  • 27th June A period of time shall be made available at the AGM for the discussion of this document, but I do NOT recommend the proposals be formally put to the membership at this time.
  • June – November 2016 Such consultation and/or teaching events as seem helpful shall be hosted at the Synagogue. Other opportunities for membership consultation and communication shall be pursued.
  • November 2016 The decision as to what proposals to put forward for a possible General Meeting shall be made in November 2016.
  •  Any decision making process shall observe constitutional parameters.

Executive Summary

What do we want for Jews who are only attracted to those of the same sex?

I want these Jews to find other Jews with whom they can make a bet ne’eman b’yisrael – a faithful house in Israel. I want these Jews to feel New London Synagogue is a welcoming and non-judgemental community for them and, should they be so blessed, their families.

What role should a Synagogue play in helping a same-sex couple create a bet ne’eman b’yisrael – a faithful house in Israel?

Offering same-sex couples a warm welcome without helping them mark their commitment to each other feels, at the very least, oxymoronic. That said there is a question as to who should hold the pain of a change in our provision of services.

Where should the pain fall?

The tradition sides almost exclusively on the side of the excluded at the cost of the comfortable. In this case this would entail siding with those only attracted to those of the same-sex at the cost of those who are attracted heterosexually.

What does it mean to be welcoming?

We need a ceremony that seeks to offer same-sex couples the same power afforded heterosexual couples. It should not and cannot mirror a classic heterosexual ceremony in every way (principally because of the way a heterosexual ceremony is based on models of kinyan), but has to have the feel of traditional kiddushin – understood as a ceremony which creates a sanctified exclusive intimacy between the participants.

How should New London Synagogue address the pain entailed in making such a ceremony available?

There are many members who already feel uncomfortable with the changes recently made around the role of women. There is some cross-over to this issue and I have sympathy for those who there is too much change around for a naturally conservative community. However my recommendation is that ceremonies should be permitted forthwith and all other forms of welcome are made available to those attracted only to those of the same-sex. I do, however, recommend that there be no aufrufs held in the Mikdash Shabbat morning service for the first year after any acceptance of these proposals, after which time that restriction shall pass.

Timetable

Following a discussion of this issue at the AGM, this paper shall be made available to membership for consultation.The decision as to what proposals to put forward for a possible General Meeting shall be made in November 2016. Any decision making process shall observe constitutional parameters.

Posted on 3 February 2020