Chief must decide whether he supports equality for gays

By Benjamin COHEN.

Last week, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, told the broadcaster Sir David Frost he “will not allow intolerance” of lesbian or gay people in synagogue. He described a meeting he held twenty years ago with gay Jews as “one of the most moving” experiences that he had ever had and he claimed that Orthodox Judaism does not seek to impose its views on homosexuality on society, but the United Synagogue “don’t do” same-sex marriages.

Lord Sacks’ comments are both encouraging and disappointing, leaving more questions than answers and probably reflect the contradictory approach to human sexuality adopted by the United Synagogue. I didn’t know that Lord Sacks had met with this group, but 20 years ago, I was just a little boy.

As far as I know, he has never engaged with the blossoming Jewish LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) community since.

Twenty years ago, gays were banned from the military and from adopting children, there was an unequal age of consent and a ban on teachers talking about homosexuality in school. It was  also legal to sack someone for being gay and for businesses to ban gay customers.

Most importantly, there were no civil partnerships and certainly no prospect of a Conservative prime minister passionately advocating for the introduction of same-sex marriage. As British society has changed so, too, has the Jewish community, not least because in every synagogue, there are countless families with gay members. I’ve always felt welcome by my parents’ Orthodox friends, who were also particularly hospitable when my boyfriend attended our shul for the first time during Pesach. They’re happy, I’m happy and aren’t concerned about one particular law in the Torah against a private and harmless love no one can logically explain.

Given the changes in British society and our community, it seemed odd the Chief Rabbi would discuss such an old encounter. I wondered if he had perhaps had other meetings with Jewish gay groups since, so I called his office to enquire. The best I achieved was a “no comment” email – a strange way to try engage with a relatively influential member of the gay community.

Perhaps the decision not to expand on Lord Sacks’ comments lies with an important issue coming before the House of Lords later in June, that of same-sex marriage. Lord Sacks said the US does not seek to “impose” its religious beliefs on sexuality on wider society.  Yet, responding to the Government consultation on same-sex marriage, the Office of the Chief Rabbi said it was opposed not just to gay couples marrying in synagogue (fair enough, it has to keep to the laws in the Torah) but also gay couples being able to enter into civil marriages or as we have been able to since 2005, form civil partnerships that have nothing to do with religious organisations such as the US.

I suppose I should be grateful our Chief Rabbi hasn’t echoed the former Pope, who claimed that men marrying would cause more devastation to the planet than the destruction of the rainforests. Nor has he joined those who warn that two men marrying will soon lead to a man marrying a donkey or the legislation of polygamy.

However, unlike them, our religion’s figurehead has taken a seat in the House of Lords, giving him the opportunity to vote on my freedom to one day marry the man I love. Lord Sacks thus faces a choice: does he support freedom and equality for those who don’t subscribe to US doctrines and for the gay non-Jewish couples? Or does he vote against a form of same-marriage specifically designed to be one Orthodox synagogues will never be forced to perform? Or does he abstain?

Before deciding, he could visit my kosher home, dine with the gay Jewish community and learn how the issues have changed in the 20 years since he last met with the community. I don’t think this could change Orthodoxy’s approach to sexuality, but it might give his effective role as the voice of Judaism in Parliament a new perspective.

Benjamin Cohen is the publisher of and a former Channel 4 News correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @benjamincohen

  • Andrew Hawkins-Kennedy

    Excellent article. Very balanced and measured and hopefully thought provking for LordSachs.

  • d3clark

    He probably has other stock answers concerning other groups: “I once rode on a bus with a Muslim. When I was a child, I had a Black nanny. One time I bought a homeless man a cup of coffee. I think I met a Communist at a dinner I attended in 1980. I used to have a female secretary. I saw the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics on TV. All of these were deeply touching and profound experiences for me.”

  • Anna

    This is a response from Rabbi Joel (masorti rabbi)

    “Secondly he uses the weasel word – “respect”. The Chief Rabbi’s orthodox version of Jewish (biblical) Law calls homosexuality an abomination which is (biblically) punishable by death. It is hard to hold onto “respect for others” and condemning “all types of discrimination” whilst also upholding the death penalty for homosexuality.

    But the real question is this: why has the Chief Rabbi chosen to pick up on this particular aspect of Jewish (biblical) Law and to assert its significance on a national level? Are there, perhaps, other elements of Jewish (biblical) law that he would secretly like to see implemented nationally? Let’s be fair, maybe he is not calling for the national implementation of all Jewish (biblical) Law. Maybe it is only the Noachide laws, those laws applicable to all non-Jews that he would like to see implemented using the full weight of the British judicial and legal system. Would he then like to see the British courts administering the death penalty for such crimes as adultery, unsanctioned Sabbath observance, theft (even of a loaf of bread), and Torah Study for non-Jews?”

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