Gay Marriage, Civil Unions, or no recognition?

A previous article on this blog, exploring Orthodox Jewish attitudes towards homosexuality attracted some interesting comment and feedback.

Earlier this week a dramatic and engaging Tikkun Leil Shavuot was hosted by the Beit Midrash of WA, with a series of presentations through the night.  The highlight of the program was a debate entitled “Judaism and Same-Sex Marriage” between legal provocateurs Rabbi Marcus Solomon and Mr Simon Davies, and moderated by Judge David Parry.  The presentation was very interesting and, at the risk of inflaming tensions, worth higlighting on Jewgle Perth.

At the Tikkun Leil, the largely observant Orthodox audience engaged in questions and discussion that perhaps highlighted more than anything else that there are pluralistic views within Orthodoxy regarding attitudes towards homosexual relationships and how they should be treated at a communal level.  There was certainly an open minded willingness to hear alternative perspectives to that of Jewish Orthodoxy.  Many of the points made left confronting ethical dilemmas on both sides of discussion as to whether same sex union relationships should be recognised within Australian society, and if so, under what definitions and structures.  Although religious marriage ceremonies, particularly Jewish marriage (keddushin), could not accomodate homosexual union in accordance with Torah law, it was acknowledged this is a related but different discussion to the one that would provide support for civil law to extend legal recognition and equal economic/fiscal status to a homosexual couple. 

The debate itself was divergent but respectful.  On one side of the discussion was the position that “love trumps all”, and that the majority opinion of Australian citizens should guide societal standards.  On the other side of the discussion the issue of moral relativism was put, complete with examples of how humanistic ethics can cause harm without the steadfast ethics of Torah law.

There was a cogent argument from Simon Davies that the refusal to recognise same sex marriage is discriminatory.  Rabbi Solomon countered that many roles and attributes of Jewish living are discriminatory, and that there can be an affirmative and positive side to discrimination.  Distinguishing roles, responsibilities and functions within Jewish life, both ritually and practically, can provide benefit and balance. 

Further discussion about attitudes, acceptance, and social approaches towards homosexual Jews shifted the discussion towards a more conciliatory stance.  There was consensus that the legalisation of same sex marriage would not force Orthodox Synagogues to redefine religious marriage on account of a legal definition, and that a civil marriage ceremony of any persuasion, including hetrosexual, is insufficient to constitute kiddushin, the definition of a Jewish marriage.

Many present expressed abhorrence with Rabbinic statements that were suggestive of “curing” or “rehabilitating” homosexuality, or even promoting celebacy as a lifestyle option.  Some suggested that Orthodox Jews should decide whether or not to support homosexual marriage in neutral and secular terms, whilst reaffirming the Jewish detachment from mainstream culture as a defence of the public Jewish stance on the issue.  It was noted this approach has been common to the Jewish experience through many host cultures and historic eras, and across many aspects of day to day living, including dress, diet and trade. 

Whilst no-one suggested that Torah dictum can be reconciled with homosexuality, there was a mature and compassionate response to this topic of debate.  There are many people in our community and beyond who are impacted by the dilemma of Jewish identity and social integration within the Jewish community on account of their homosexuality.  Ignoring their plight, especially at a time when the recognition of homosexual relationships is a topic of national debate, is not going to change their reality, or aid better understanding and tolerance on the part of Orthodox Judaism.

For this reason, although some people were hesitant to place such a controversial topic into the Shavuot learning programme, and further still, to open the discussion to perspectives that are beyond the bounds of traditional Orthodox Jewish interpretation, there was much to contemplate through such an open and robust discussion.  The Beit Midrash of WA deserves credit for opening its membership to such a confronting presentation, and not limiting its scope to the Orthodox viewpoint only.