Sermon: Reform Judaism and LGBT+ Jews

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 September 2018

In the decade or so since I joined the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK (now the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors UK) we in the Reform movement in this country have been through some very significant changes.  And some of these have been a cause of real disagreement within the Assembly – hours of hard debate ‘l’shem shamayim’ – arguments for the sake of heaven.

Most challenging was the more than two years of conversation, study and argument over inherited Jewish status – whether to continue to uphold the matrilineal principle introduced by the rabbis, by which the child of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father is Jewish, but the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not.  This long process, which I had the ‘privilege’ of leading, ultimately introduced new mechanisms to create a more equal, more just, status policy.  But the Assembly was, and remains, divided, with a small minority continuing to feel that this reform was too radical, and not using the new mechanisms on offer.
Another challenging debate was the question of whether Reform rabbis and cantors should be permitted to officiate at celebrations after the civil weddings of dual heritage couples.  This was not allowed when I joined the rabbinate but shifted under Mark’s watch as Assembly chair, with the removal of an expulsion clause and some useful guidelines.  This, too, was not without tension.  And while Alyth rabbis are delighted to be able to celebrate with such couples where they are committed to creating a Jewish home, there are still some colleagues who are not so happy, and exercise their right not to do so.

One other major shift of the last decade was our policy on full religious weddings for same sex couples – first accompanying civil partnerships, and then as full civil marriages.  Yet while the other developments I’ve mentioned were a source of disagreement, this was not.  I remember almost no argument at all – this is a decade or so ago – about the principle, though there were some about the liturgy.  And, to my knowledge, there is not a single one of our colleagues in the Assembly who makes the choice – which is open to them – not to officiate under a chuppah with a same sex couple.  Along with our colleagues in the Liberal movement, we offer full equality of marriage across our communities.

I was reflecting on this as I read the new paper issued by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations to schools for which he is the religious authority; guidance on their responsibility to their LGBT+ students.

It is a statement that has been widely welcomed, and rightly so.  Rabbi Mirvis has acted bravely and forcefully.  He has acted to address a culture of homophobic and transphobic bullying in these schools, one which does real damage to the lives of individuals in their – by extension in his – care.  In a genuinely unprecedented step for an Orthodox Chief Rabbi, he has worked with a Jewish LGBT+ group, Keshet UK, producing a religious document of real meat about the need to create a culture of care in his words ‘regardless of sexuality or gender’.  In it he has cited important religious values, religious obligations, for example, naming the prohibition on ona’at dvarim – wronging with words.  And he has condemned such bullying as powerfully as it is possible to do as a rabbi, as a chillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name.

That such a document was released on the eve of Rosh HaShanah was symbolically – and practically – important.  It must be hoped that it improves the experience of young people in Orthodox Jewish schools, and if it does, then the flack that will come his way will absolutely be worth it.  Rabbi Mirvis should be applauded.


And, for me, this document is also a reminder of what is so special about the form of Judaism that we live.  Why we matter.

Because while Mirvis’ guidance is welcome, it does not, and of course it cannot within the theological and textual realities of Orthodox Judaism, in any way begin to address the fundamental problems that come from within our tradition.

The author Naomi Alderman has written how clever Mirvis has been in not “trying to strip people” of “their beliefs and practices” but “easing those beliefs and practices into a less hurtful shape”.  And this is what he has sought to do.  But in so doing, this ignores that the beliefs, the practices, the assumptions, are hurtful in themselves.  They themselves are the chillul hashem.  The beliefs themselves are a desecration of God’s name.  And the position of this document is, to use the midrashic metaphor, to try to hold the rope at both ends.

Any student in one of his schools will still know that a fundamental aspect of who they are – be it their sexual orientation or gender identity – is not honoured.  Mirvis mentions in passing in the introduction to the document “we are, of course, aware of the Torah’s prohibitions here”.  That is the problem.  He demands that LGBT+ people be treated with dignity and kindness despite who they are.

And it is not merely that the Torah contains a prohibition on certain types of sexual behaviour.  Built into the very DNA of Orthodoxy is an idealised version of what families and relationships should look like:  the emphasis is on relationships being for the purpose primarily of procreation.  The very concept of kiddushin – a sacred marriage – for Orthodoxy is possible only between a man and a woman.  In classical Jewish Law, kiddushin is the acquisition of a bride by a groom, kinyan, and while the bride is sanctified to the groom, in theory the groom may – but for the takkanah of Rabbenu Gershom banning polygamy in 1000 CE – take other wives.  Same sex marriage is therefore a category error, because marriage is necessarily between two people who are not halachically the same.  This is also why the Masorti movement does not officiate at same-sex kiddushin, but created a new ritual called shutafut, or partnership, because a movement that is bound to classical halachic modes is unable to fully respond to the needs of same-sex couples even if it wishes to.

And the United Synagogue in this country, of course, does not wish to do so.  The Response of the London Bet Din to the government consultation on Equal Civil Marriage was unequivocal: “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.”  This is in fundamental tension with a document citing values such as kavod habriyot – real respect for other people, or the idea that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim – that each of us is created in the image of God.

As Reform Jews we can, and do, take a different approach.  And through this approach can create a different form of Jewish life.
In recognising Torah as the work of a particular time and place, we can also recognise that where its prohibitions are in tension with the core religious values also articulated by our tradition, they cannot possibly represent the will of God.  If there are prohibitions in Torah that themselves are disrespectful of others, deny that core aspects of who they are is divine, then we cannot understand them as divine in origin.

And where legal models of 2000 years ago – for that is all they are, ancient legal models influence by the context in which they developed, not sacred structures – force us to live without decency and integrity, we do not privilege them over, again, our fundamental religious ideals.
We are not handcuffed into a situation where we privilege law over values, while trying to also speak the language of values.

Again, let me be clear, there is much to admire in the guidance Rabbi Mirvis has issued – most especially his willingness to do so at all, one imagines in the face of hostility from some of his peers and the dayanim.

For me, though, this document is also a reminder of what is so special about the form of Judaism that we live, wht we are so important.  For a decade ago the Rabbis in our movement unanimously and without hesitation began to officiate at religious ceremonies for same-sex marriage, and as soon as it was legal, as civil officiants, too.  Because, fundamentally, we consider it the right thing to do, and believe that it is our task to create a religious life that does the right thing.

I do not know what the arguments of the next decade will look like.  But in a world that is moving extraordinarily fast, what I know is that my colleagues and I will seek to respond in such a way that genuinely promotes the Jewish values of justice and of human dignity; that whatever our arguments, we will be committed in the task of building a Judaism that recognises the equality of each of us in the image of God.