Sermon – On Same-Sex Marriage, Shavuot 5772

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 26 May 2012

It is a generally accepted rule of thumb that a rabbi should never give the same sermon twice.  At least, not to the same congregation.  To do so carries a terrible risk. On the one hand it might mean barbed comments at Kiddush about how repetitive you have now become.  Even worse is the possibility that no-one will say anything at all, final proof that no-one has been listening the whole time anyway.

Which makes for a certain jeopardy when it comes to topical sermons.  You only get one shot.  Go too early and you might miss the opportunity to speak when a subject is especially pressing.  Wait too long and it may no longer be interesting; or worse in a rabbinic team your colleague might get there before you.

So when to give that topical sermon? I was on sabbatical when the Stephen Hester pay furore happened, have I now missed the boat on Jewish perspectives on Executive Remuneration?  What about media ethics? I am working on the assumption that the final publication of a Leveson report will be the right time.  But will we actually care by then?  And what about same sex marriage?  In just the last few weeks the government has launched its consultation on extending the right to marry to same sex couples; there have been regular statements from church leaders against – and for; Barack Obama has become the first president to declare his support for equalisation of marriage rights in America.

But none of them led me to preach on this issue – I’ve been waiting for today, for Shavuot.  I’ve been waiting for today to explain why it seems correct to me that the right to civil marriage should be extended to same sex couples, and why I find it odd that even if proposed legislation is passed it will not result in equality as same sex couples will not be able to have religious weddings including a civil element.

Why?  The underlying question for me is not to do with attitudes to sexual orientation – that is another sermon entirely – but about the meaning of marriage.  What am I doing when I officiate at a wedding – any wedding?  And does this exclusively apply to one model of couple?

Let me explain first what I do not think I am doing. First the simple bit:  I am not honouring the formulation of a marriage as found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and considered canonical for some in that Church until today.  I have never, nor shall I ever, utter the words: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God… to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony.” It is the position of some in the church that this is a definer of marriage, but it is not for me – I don’t believe that even our texts are binding in this way! The fact that ‘this man and this woman’ was the language of holy matrimony in 1662 does not mean it necessarily remains so for our time.  Definitions change, and so, as it happens, do liturgies.

Nor do I believe that I am involved in some re-enactment of the union of Adam and Eve.  This is, to me, is a formative narrative for our people and not a definer of social norms.  So the fact that Genesis states “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his woman, so that they become one flesh” does not bind me to this model of relationship, nor preclude other models from being legitimate.  I do not believe that when I am officiating at a wedding I am perpetuating a cultural norm – some idealised vision of what families should look like – at least not intentionally.  It is not my job at that moment to give a hechshe to one lifestyle or model of family life over any other.

What else am I not doing?  I am not creating a child-producing unit.  In this I clearly disagree with the MP for Hendon, Matthew Offord, who this week wrote to a gay constituent saying: “It is my strong personal, moral and religious belief that the institution of marriage is to provide the foundation of a stable relationship in which those two people of the opposite sex procreate and raise a child.” If this were the case, I would not marry couples who are past child-bearing age, couples in which one partner is unable to have children, or couples in which there is a strong feeling that they will not have children.  And I have officiated in all of these.

I am also not engaged in the classical paradigm of a Jewish wedding – I am not involved in an act of kinyan – of acquisition – by a man of a woman who is then transferred from her father’s house to her husband’s house.  For this reason I insist, for example, upon a two way exchange of rings with both parties reciting the classical formula – if we were carrying out Kinyan, this would annul the financial transaction (which is why you never see a two way ring exchange in an Orthodox wedding, nor a two-way ring exchange with both parties using the classic formula in a Conservative wedding).  Kinyan, is necessarily a man-woman thing.  And it is not what I do.

So what am I doing when I officiate at a wedding? What I think I am doing is this – I am marking, honouring, the formation of a sacred covenantal relationship.  One which is exclusive to that partner, and carries with it a high level of commitment and demand from each party to the other.  One in which the core activities of that couple’s life is marked off as distinct, as separate – in the language of Judaism, as sacred, as holy.

Hence I have waited for today for this topical sermon.  Because today, on Shavuot, it is this sacred, covenantal relationship – marriage – that is on our minds.  On Shavuot we mark the anniversary, in the rabbinic understanding, of Israel’s marriage to God, the forming of a sacred covenantal relationship between two parties.  And boy is that relationship complex.  It involves all the things that relationships involve – struggle, argument, disappointment, love and honour.  In midrashic literature, both Israel and God are sometimes male and sometimes female.  Yet what defines the relationship above all else is that it is demanding, it is (in intent at least) exclusive – and it is holy.

So the key question for me about same sex marriage is nothing to do with sexual orientation. It is to do with quality of relationship.  With holiness.  The key question – do I believe that a same sex marriage is one of holiness?

The answer is, appropriately, ‘I do’.