Saying yes to the sound of the Shofar
Thursday, 07 September 2017 | 16 Elul, 5777
It’s just two weeks to go until Rosh Hashanah, a time of reflection and introspection. A period that calls for restraint and thoughtfulness, compassion and concern for others. The Chafetz Chaim, when writing on the beautiful food customs (the so-called ‘simanim’) associated with Rosh Hashanah – the apples dipped in honey, the pomegranate seeds and the other sweet reminders – cautions these are all lovely symbols but the critical thing is to focus on restraining your anger, cultivating your goodness, promoting peace… So it is with a heavy heart and a deep sadness that I write about the decision of the RCV (Rabbinical Council of Victoria) to issue a statement urging the public to vote “No” to the upcoming postal plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage. I write more out of sorrow than anger for as a senior member of its executive I was an unwilling partner to that statement. I argued with all my heart and soul about the judiciousness of such a statement; some of my colleagues argued with equal passion but the majority prevailed. They are all good men, motivated by a love of the Torah and a fealty to Halacha, driven by what they see as a responsibility to articulate a Torah position on same-sex-marriage. In one sense I don’t disagree (with the majority): You would be hard-pressed to justify a same-sex religious marriage ceremony or chuppah within the Orthodox Jewish tradition. However the proposed vote does not force ministers of religion to go against their teachings and officiate at a same-sex religious ceremony.
Even good men make bad mistakes. And in this case I think that these wise men made a very unwise decision; one that fails to distinguish between civil and religious marriage and fails to recognise that a plebiscite is a secular issue to be settled by the free vote of its citizens. This is a secular, civil matter not a religious one; rabbis tread on dangerous ground when they tell people how to vote. We don’t do that in democracies! I do, however, call on the Yes advocates to be equally respectful, honest and restrained in their response to the religious voices. To borrow a phrase of Greg Sheridan we don’t need “intemperate, moralistic fury” on either side.
At this time of the Jewish year when we are blowing the shofar and trumpeting about unity and God’s closeness to us, we should not go out and blast those who feel so marginalised and excluded from the Orthodox Jewish community. We seem to have lost our “rosh” our head, our seichel, our way when we confuse moral leadership with patronisation, confound moral duty with negligence towards the vulnerable.
We should spend more time with the gay couple who is struggling to find a shule where they feel accepted, with the dati vulnerable gay teenager who is hurting and confused by their sexuality and the judgemental words coming from their rabbis. We should sit a little longer with the parents agonising over their gay child’s mental health and future in our community. And we should listen, not only to the sound of the shofar, but to the voices of our young Jews who overwhelmingly accept the reality and unchangeability of being gay. This statement is no way to reach them. In fact it further distances them from the beauty and wisdom of our Torah and further convinces the doubters and detractors that religion is irrelevant and out of touch.
To all those outraged and hurting from the RCV statement, be reassured that there are many Orthodox rabbinic voices across this country who don’t agree with it. I for one have resigned from the Executive of the RCV. There are numerous rabbis out there who care deeply and profoundly about finding a way for gay couples to celebrate their love with dignity, sanctity and fidelity.
In these days before Rosh Hashanah we affirm our love and acceptance of all Jews. We look to ways to bring them all into the “House of the Lord” so that they can appreciate its beauty and joy, its wisdom and its wonder….