Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:19 pm on 3rd June 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Neuberger Baroness Neuberger Crossbench 7:19 pm, 3rd June 2013

My Lords, I rise to support the Bill. I want to make three discrete points in this debate, which has had so many speakers and such high running emotion. First, despite many views to the contrary, marriage is in fact a social construct. It was not always one man and one woman. Indeed, polygamy was widespread in the ancient world, and its reasons were many. To quote from the Hebrew bible, as we call the Old Testament, Solomon was reputed to have a thousand wives. I do not know how he managed. Many people will also know the story of Jacob and how he got the wrong wife first, with Rachel and Leah.

I also want to give a bit of history, which your Lordships may not know. There was a great rabbi, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, who in around 1,000 CE, which we call AD, was responsible for what is known as a takkanah, a legal pronouncement which is technically valid for 1,000 years. The takkanah of his that concerns us prohibited polygamy. It applied only to Ashkenazi Jews, those in Germany, Poland and Russia and so on. The Sephardi Jews—North African, Spanish and Portuguese—continued to practise polygamy in some areas, and that continued among Yemeni Jews until the 1950s and 1960s. So for us, marriage was not always just between one man and one woman, nor was it always for the procreation of children. When Rabbenu Gershom’s takkanah ran out in around 2000, 13 years ago, you might have expected a wild rush of Ashkenazi Jewish men seeking second, third and fourth wives, but because marriage is a social construct as much as a legal one, curiously that did not happen, and we would not have wanted it to.

These days we believe in marriage between two people, not more, although serial monogamy is commonplace. Marriage has changed dramatically over the millennia and over recent centuries. Divorce, which we Jews have always accepted, has become widely accepted and no longer a disgrace; married women now have property rights, although that took its time; infertility is no longer blamed only on women—it used to be a reason for divorce in Judaism after 10 childless years; and so on. Why, then, can we not change this social construct once again, while still maintaining respect for those for whom marriage is about sacrament, but cannot accept such a change? I think it is important that we do.

Secondly, I want to say something about numbers. In my congregation at the West London Synagogue—the oldest reform synagogue in the UK—where I am senior rabbi, we have about 3,000 members. We also have around 30 gay couples, most—but not all—in civil partnerships now, waiting for the day when they can marry under the chuppah, the wedding canopy, with their parents under that canopy, witnessing them make their vows. For me and my fellow reform and liberal Jews, like the Unitarians and the Quakers, this is about parity of esteem. We see no reason why gay people should not marry as heterosexual people do. We see all human beings as made in the image of God. That means gay and straight. We also believe that human beings are created with the need to seek out and look for a helpmeet in life. That person could be of the same sex, or not. Whichever it is, they deserve the right to be able to create a life together permanently and to celebrate it in marriage.

Thirdly, as several noble Lords have said, this is about righting a wrong. It is about accepting that social conditions and attitudes change and have changed. I hope that noble Lords will accept that that is true. We have heard that no court of any kind, domestic or European, would force a religious organisation to perform such marriages against their will. But those of us in religious organisations which are in favour of equal marriage are longing for the day. I expect the first days after it becomes law, as I hope it does, to consist of marriage after marriage in my synagogue, bringing joy, equality and renewed commitment to people who, until this point, have been denied it. It needs to happen soon. It is a moral imperative to right this wrong.