I would like to start by asking Danny Rich a question, if I may. We have heard from a number of religious representatives who base their opposition to the Government’s proposals for equal marriage on their reading of the Bible. How and why has your reading of the Bible led you to a different conclusion?
Rabbi Danny Rich: I will try to give a short answer to that very difficult theological question. Essentially, we approach the Hebrew Scriptures not as though they are the word of God, directly dictated by God and written down by Moses, but as the record of our ancestors struggling to understand what God wanted them to do at the time. That means that they are a human document, which, by the way, makes them even more marvellous. If they were God’s document, we would expect them to be marvellous, so the fact that they are a human document makes them even more marvellous as far as I am concerned. However, that does mean that their authors are the products of their environment, with all the blind spots and other things that follow. That would be the first point we would make about Scripture in general.
The second point would be that, of course, Scripture has many gaps in it. It is debateable whether Scripture understood that lesbians existed, as it were. It certainly understood that a particular activity carried out by certain men existed, and that is how we would understand some of the prohibitions that are used in that context. I can go further, if you wish—I do not know if that is a helpful answer to begin with.
Rabbi Danny Rich: Indeed. We believe in progressive revelation. That is a very trendy title, but it essentially means that no individual or group at any one time can claim to know wholly what God requires. So our task in life is to try to be prayerful, of course, and to study our Scriptures and be respectful to them. We might say that Scripture has a voice but not a veto, if that is helpful.
What difference will the option to have a same-sex marriage make to how people in your faith feel, given that in legal terms there are very few differences between same-sex marriage and a civil partnership?
Rabbi Danny Rich: There is a lot of difference. One is that it does not have a religious aspect to it. What some of our members want is to have their union or relationship celebrated in the synagogue—or another building in a religious setting—by their rabbi, so they will be delighted. I suspect that for most of our other members it will be a matter of indifference, other than that they can see a justice matter here, because there are members who are not able to do something that other members can do.
In my constituency in Bristol, I have a liberal progressive synagogue and a more orthodox synagogue, if I can put it that way. What are the respective views of the two denominations within Judaism? If a same-sex marriage is celebrated in the synagogue in Easton in Bristol, what view will Jews who do not go to that synagogue take of that marriage—will it be recognised?
Rabbi Danny Rich: Well, of course, I inducted your new rabbi there only a short while ago, Rabbi Monique Mayer. The answer is that I can only speak for Liberal Judaism, which I represent, as it were, and I dare suggest—it might be that the Board of Deputies wishes to answer this—that other groups of Jews will not accept the validity of our marriages but, in a sense, that is their problem, not ours. We believe that this is the right decision for those of our members who wish it.
I cannot say that every single one of our members is supportive. When we first began looking at civil partnerships, I had just been appointed chief executive. We prepared this big PR and education campaign for our own communities, and it was a damp squib because none of them were that interested in it—most were quite relaxed about it. However, one of our synagogues took the view that it was not something that it wished to be associated with. It may well be that one or two of our rabbis, or one or two of our communities, do not feel able to do this themselves. We have made it very clear to them that, as a national organisation, we want to be permissive to our congregation, and we do not wish to impose on any of our individual members, rabbis or congregations things that they do not feel in conscience that they can do.
However, it would appear—I say “would appear”, because we have not polled every one of them—from the indications that we are getting that the majority of our members are content that for those gay men and lesbians who wish to do this, and when there are rabbis and communities that wish to be part of it, it should be allowed to happen. However, if I carried out a same-sex marriage in Bannerman road this week, I do not expect that our neighbouring synagogue would be whooping with delight, but that is not a matter that I can comment on.
Jon Benjamin: The Board of Deputies is a cross-communal representative organisation for the Jewish community, so it includes as affiliates members of all the different denominations. When they are not formally affiliated, such as the ultra-orthodox, we certainly work with those parts of the community and represent them.
There are many theological differences between different parts of the community. It is not necessarily acknowledged or recognised outside the Jewish community, but there is a huge diversity of opinion on all manner of issues, certainly theological ones, so there are all sorts of differences between the way in which practices are undertaken in different synagogues. I am sure that the two synagogues in Bristol would look at all manner of things, such as the way Scriptures are read and who they are read by, and whether men and women sit together. There are so many areas of divergence, and it really is a matter of live and let live: if you decide to be a member of that club, you adhere to those rules, and the synagogue—or the other golf club down the road, or whatever it may be—will not necessarily look to interfere.
One of the things that the board tries to do is not only to keep peace, but to make sure that we have sensible conversations among the different denominations on things that impact on the community generally. In response—obviously, there is divergent opinion on this as much as on anything else—we have put in a submission, as you have probably seen, that says that we want different parts of the community to be able to do what they want, or not to be compelled to do what they do not want to do. That is the very simple consensus and acceptable position that we hope to adopt for everyone.
Obviously, the civil authorities will legally recognise a marriage, so no one from a more orthodox synagogue will say, “You’re not married,” and I think that the fact that they were not married in a ceremony that they would recognise in their own synagogue or according to their own practices would not really be a matter of great issue.
Rabbi Danny Rich: Live and let live must go both ways. We are not seeking to impose on members of the Jewish community or anyone else things that they do not wish to do, but we hope that the legislation will permit those members of ours who do wish to carry out what the legislation will allow them to do.
Sarah Anticoni: We are in a slightly anomalous position to the extent that, as with the Quakers, we have a combined religious and civil marriage service. So unlike members of other communities who have to have a civil marriage followed by a religious blessing, or the other way around, we have a combined service. By supporting the Government’s position and allowing this to take place for those who wish to opt in, with those who do not wish to not being compelled to do so, we are fortunate that the breadth of our community can be accommodated.
Thanks for coming along.
May I ask you a couple of questions? The first one relates to Liberal Judaism. I just want to get my head round the numbers that you represent. How do your numbers today compare with, for instance, 10 or 20 years ago? The second question relates to the fact that I have been in touch with some Orthodox Jews who have stated clearly that they are opposed to the redefinition of marriage. I wonder how you would reconcile your opinion, which you have presented to the Committee today, with those of the Orthodox Jews, who have a very different opinion, given what they have told me.
Jon Benjamin: In terms of the numbers—Rabbi Rich will put me right—I think that Liberal Judaism currently counts about 10,000 members. Obviously the census figures came out recently—not for Scotland and Northern Ireland—but there are about 260,000 to 270,000 people who admitted to being Jews in the voluntary question in the census, so that gives you an idea of the proportions.
And how would those numbers for Liberal Judaism compare with, say, 10 years ago. Would you have had more numbers 10 years ago?
Rabbi Danny Rich: I can answer on Liberal Judaism. I am delighted to say that the statistics—in fact, this was carried out independently by the Board of Deputies—show that we are growing slightly. Synagogue affiliations as a whole, except in one section of the community, are probably dropping—the board will comment on that—but ours are growing slightly. I cannot say that we have overwhelmingly converted either the whole Jewish population or indeed others, but we are seeing good growth in our communities.
Ten thousand out of 270,000 Jewish numbers would not be representative of all the Jewish people.
Rabbi Danny Rich: So they might equally be affiliated to ours as to any other one, but they choose not to be affiliated to anyone. I agree that we are the third largest synagogal organisation after the United Synagogue and the Reform movement, and our sister Reform movement, which represents about 25,000 people, has indicated supported for the Government’s measure. So I would say that something like a third of Jews who affiliate to synagogues are supportive, but I accept that how you cut the statistics is always a difficult one.
Mr Shannon, the witnesses are more fortunate, in that they are nearer to you and can hear you, but I cannot. Please speak in the direction of the microphone.
Jon Benjamin: We have something of a mandate to speak for the Jewish community, including the majority who are Orthodox Jews. In relation to this consultation, I think submissions were made by parts of the Orthodox community, while other parts chose not to speak out. We have deliberately not adopted a view that would cause any problem or controversy within the Jewish community because there is simply no single view, so our submission and our position have been that those who wish to opt in should be able to do so and that those who choose not to should also have that freedom. If you were to go to any Orthodox synagogue—mainstream Orthodox, which is possibly a confusing term, but fairly middle of the road and not ultra-orthodox—you would find people of varying opinions who are very accepting of the proposals, even as, as Rabbi Rich said, in a liberal synagogue, you may find people who are not so comfortable. There is a vast range of opinion.
I think it is true to say—I have had this conversation with Anglicans and Catholics as well—being a relatively small community and one that enjoys a great deal of freedom and tolerance in this country, that we are not looking to say to British people generally and the social fabric that this is what has to happen in terms of marriage. There are certainly Jewish thinkers and theologians who will have a strong view about what marriage means, but we are not looking to impose our views on the wider public. As with so many things, we just want to be able to do what we want to do as a community, whether it is on kosher food or circumcision or, in this case, to conduct ourselves and our family lives as we can.
Jon Benjamin: Clearly the proposed changes in the law go further, and I suppose that freedom is in the eye of the beholder. If the law changes, people will be able to do things in the future that they cannot do at the moment, so I suppose that that accords greater freedom. It has not been a major issue within the community, which is possibly why we can adopt such a “sitting on the fence” or “trying to be all things to all people” kind of view. There has been a great deal of angling for a change in the law. There are obviously Jewish lesbian, gay and transgender groups that want to see this. If the opportunities come along, different parts of the community will embrace it or not as they choose to. I do not think that it has been a major campaigning point.
Rabbi Danny Rich: Religious freedom, of course, needs definition. For our members, we would see this as an advance in our religious freedom. Currently we are not permitted to do something and we do not understand why the law does not permit us to do it when, as far as we perceive, it does not have a harmful impact on anyone else. In some senses, it is a private matter that is brought into the public domain, if I may say that. I suppose, if you were really to push me to the brink and we were starting again, although we are not starting again, I would say that civil society ought to register marriages and allow religions—allow mad people and not mad people, if you consider religious people to be mad—to do whatever they like, within reason. That would be my ultimate. The state has a responsibility to register marriages, clearly for purposes of inheritance—there are all sorts of purposes that would require the state to do so—and, as you know, on the continent you get your certificate from the registering authority, which I think is the mayor in many places, and then go off and have a synagogue wedding, church wedding or any wedding you choose. But we are not there, partly because we have an established Church, which is not my issue or problem, so we are faced with a different situation. In the current situation, I would argue that what is being proposed does increase religious freedom for those who wish it.
Sarah Anticoni: There are concerns, which we have raised in discussions with those drafting the Bill. It is quadruple, although some of the locks do not impact on our community. I think we probably have a triple lock, rather than a quadruple lock. I am afraid it is one of those things where time will tell. We are going with what is drafted and we have suggested some additional drafting on who will effectively be the supervisory governing body but, other than that, we will have to wait and see. We are reassured that to date there have not been those tests in European courts.
In the evidence we heard today from Lord Pannick, he wanted to give the impression of being categorical. He was effectively saying that if anybody wanted to come to him as a client, he would say, “Look, your case is hopeless. It is not going anywhere, either now or in 10 years’ time.” In the six years I was a vicar in the Church of England, I married about 120 people. It seemed to me that the bit that was truly valuable to people, apart from the individual commitment, was the moment of ceremony. You are the first people who have referred at all to ceremony today. For people who enter into civil partnerships, it is very difficult to come across suitable material for ceremonies. I presume that you would use the chuppah and the breaking of the glass and all those similar things. Is that right?
Rabbi Danny Rich: The answer is yes. If you read my introductory note, which I am sure you and all Members did, you will have seen that we produced a covenant about the liturgy for such circumstances. We created a liturgy. We are probably, although we cannot prove it, the first synagogual organisation in the world to produce such a liturgy. We are trying to get ourselves ahead of the game, but you are absolutely right; that was the distinction I tried to make between civil partnerships and marriage. Marriage is about having God, and their rabbi and community, involved for those who want it. It is very different from a civil partnership, and we have sought to reflect that in our liturgy and, as you rightly say, in some of the symbols that we would wish to use.
In fact, when civil partnerships were going through, some of us tried to get the Government to allow ceremonies as part of the civil partnership; it is, in theory at least, not allowed, although most registrars will allow something. It is one of the things that I hope will change significantly.
You referred to live and let live, which is a great principle. You could say that it is one of the fundamental principles, in a way, of the Bill as a permissive Bill. I wonder how you manage that, because one Jewish friend of mine told his family that he was gay, and his sister, who in the terms that you have used would describe herself as ultra-orthodox, has now performed a funeral service for him. She no longer believes that he is alive. How do you ensure that you have that principle, if you are going to cover such a broad set of opinions, from yours to that extreme?
Rabbi Danny Rich: One can always take extreme examples to try to create a scare. I did not get an opportunity to answer the previous question, which was similar. Those Jews who want this type of ceremony will not be knocking on the doors of synagogues and rabbis that reject them. The answer is to go to synagogues and rabbis that want you. I do not quite understand why that is not the response in every case. If your church does not want you, does not recognise you or has an issue with you and you cannot resolve it through your theology, your vicar or your liturgy, there are plenty of other churches you can go to where that is possible.
Similarly, it is very tragic when families are divided. We do not want that, over any of these issues, but they will be, because people have strong views and people in families can have strong views. None of us here would support the idea that if your brother is gay, you have mourning prayers and somehow discount them. We can only hope that eventually the community will learn. At one time, when Jews married non-Jews people sat shiva for their child. I think that is not very common in many of our mainstream communities. We learn to live with new situations. These extreme cases are often used to create moral panics and scares.
One of the fears in our community was that we would suddenly be swamped by every gay Jew wanting a ceremony—it would be delightful if they would, and everyone else who wants to convert likewise—but in reality it was not going to be true and it was not true. Once we went to civil partnerships, a number of the people who had civil partnerships came to us and had ceremonies, but they did not overwhelm the rabbis. Would that any rabbi were overwhelmed with pastoral demands. They were not, and that was the reality. I think the reality here would be that those who want them will find synagogues and perhaps churches and other places where they can be made to feel comfortable. That seems to me right and proper. The state should not be preventing people from doing what they find comfortable, and what the local rabbi and local community think is right in their own context.
I am very grateful for your full answer but I would like to get back to the question that was posed earlier with regard to the legal basis of the Bill. We have had Lord Pannick’s view, but we know that lawyers are very litigious and other lawyers will give other views. How comfortable are you that you will not be faced by any legal challenge, given what is written in the Bill?
Rabbi Danny Rich: I am not a lawyer, of course, and I can go to two lawyers and, certainly if they are Jewish, they will give me three different opinions. You have lawyers sitting to my left who may be able to answer that question. My own organisation is not fearful of that. We believe that if there are rabbis and communities that feel unable to take up this legislation, we will find a way to get those congregants to go to different rabbis and different synagogues. We do it now. We have ceremonies that involve a Jew and a non-Jew. One of our rabbis is opposed to that. We have a perfectly reasonable agreement with him that he refers couples to one of our other rabbis.
It seems to me that with a bit of common sense and people who are not over-litigious, and want to prove something against a church—I accept it may well be a church or a synagogue—we certainly in our organisation will find a way to deal with those people. A small number of our members do not find this very comfortable. Our task must be to try and respect their opinion and make them feel as comfortable as possible, but not to deny others on the basis that they feel comfortable about something that others feel is legitimate. That is the only answer I can give you, but the lawyers on my left might want to give you a different answer.
Jon Benjamin: The capacity to refer someone, or a couple, to a part of the community—they probably would know this anyway—will help to deal with the problem. I am encouraged if Lord Pannick this morning said that any claim would be next to hopeless. As someone who used to be a litigation lawyer, I am aware that the mere fact of a vexatious or nuisance claim could cause a lot of problems for some of our institutions. Even if they were ultimately likely to win, they would still have to instruct lawyers and incur expense and so forth. If there is the capacity to find a part of the community that would be accommodating to you, and for people to understand that if you are talking about an Orthodox synagogue where there are certain practices such as men and women sitting separately—very traditional Judaism in that respect—it is quite likely that someone who is gay will possibly embrace that mode of Judaism and would want to have some kind of recognition of their relationship in that kind of synagogue, but quite possibly would be more liberal progressive in outlook and would find a home in a different part of the community. There are different gradations of the community as well; there is also reform liberal progressive, so I think the chances are they would find a home.
In terms of the technicalities of the triple or quadruple lock, as Sarah Anticoni said, we will just have to see. We cannot be sure, and our concern would simply be that there are not nuisance claims thrown against synagogues or synagogue movements that they would have to investigate and defend, even if ultimately they were not successful.
In terms of Jewish schools, what impact do you think the Bill may have on some of the schools in my patch, such as Wolfson Hillel, which is linked to the United Synagogue? There may well be a view that they will only recognise the traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman and that is what they would want to teach as well. How do you think that would be impacted by the Bill?
Rabbi Danny Rich: Faith schools also have religious authority to which they can defer when determining who is or is not of the faith. Several years ago—Lord Pannick was involved—there was a case involving the Jewish Free School, and I gave evidence. Again, it was another incidence when although there were some inter-communal difficulties, the Board of Deputies managed to play what was hopefully a positive part in helping the court understand the different traditions within the community without taking sides. But depending on how the question is phrased and which religious authority is making the determination—
Sarah Anticoni: Perhaps I could answer that. I am a governor of a faith primary school. I think that the answer is that the curriculum will always be reviewed on a regular basis but in line with the ethos of the school. I think that the recognition of the reality of other ways of forming friendships is something that will have to be addressed. Whether or not the school—as Jon mentioned—was under the auspices of the religious authority and whether, in their community, those marriages would in fact be carried out may or may not be the case, but the spectrum of possibilities, certainly at secondary school, would be covered.
Rabbi Danny Rich: We are involved with schools that have a number of different movements across communal schools, so there clearly are differences in some of those. I think that the difference is that, of course, teachers can teach that there are a wide range of practices, but it does not mean that they have to support them. That is an important distinction.
I defer to my lawyers again, but teachers must have some protection. They clearly have obligations to teach about a wide range, so in the schools that are Reform, Liberal and Masorti, for example, they teach across a wide range of what Judaism represents, but the teacher him or herself may be a Masorti Jew, a Reform Jew, a Liberal Jew or something entirely different. Indeed, on matters of Jewish status, they may have to say that Liberal Judaism takes a different view about who is a Jew. If they are then asked by a parent, a child or somebody else, “Are you a Liberal Jew who believes in that?” the answer may well be no and we would not have a problem with that provided that our view were fairly represented. There is a distinction between what teachers have to teach, which can be wide ranging, and their own personal views, which they are entitled to express.
You mentioned earlier the concerns you have been addressing to officials in relation to the Bill. As we are the Committee who are looking at the Bill, could you amplify some of those concerns in terms of drafting?
Sarah Anticoni: It was a very specific issue relating to drafting, which has been submitted, but it related to the definition of “relevant governing authority”. I go back to the answer I gave about how Jewish marriages are slightly different from other religions, other than Quakers; we have a combined ceremony, so when one wishes to marry in accordance with the Jewish faith but as part of a civil marriage as well, you register under the auspices of the relevant governing authority; currently there are three. We are using now as a good opportunity to clarify them into five, because there are different strands. When we originally had the exception to the Marriage Acts, we are talking about 19th century marital legislation—1836 onwards—so with it now being 2013 we thought that clarity was probably a good thing. Certainly, in terms of chain of command, it would assist in that if there were challenges—subject to Lord Pannick’s view; it would be clear under whose auspices the particular marriage would have taken place.
Currently, most marriages are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation and there is also the west London synagogue, now known for purposes going forward as the Movement for Reform Judaism. Then, as Rabbi Rich points out, the liberal community and Liberal Judaism will have a separate entity and it will be under their auspices.
Can I ask Sarah and Jon a couple of points? Returning to the issue of the fear of litigation, has there been a successful challenge in Spain or any other European Union country on a synagogue forcing—there have not been any?
Sarah Anticoni: Not so far as we are aware. The trouble is the reliance upon no other precedents; as a lawyer one never feels particularly reassured by that. But it is quite right that there has been same-sex marriage for years in Holland and other European countries, and there have not been successful challenges against those religious authorities.
Benjamin Cohen: We are not opposing it, as I said. Liberal Judaism is part of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Another rapidly growing part of the community is the ultra-orthodox community, who tend to have many more children than Liberal or any other type of Jews. The Board of Deputies encompasses all these parts of the community, so it is not a challenge to us. We have embraced the practices that every different denomination within the community wants to pursue, including those of the Liberals, the Masorti, the Reform and the Orthodox.
One of my earlier questions was about British practices and the international situation. Rabbi Rich, you said that you were developing what you thought was the world’s first liturgy ceremony for same-sex marriages. Does that mean there is nowhere else in the world where a Jewish man marrying another Jewish man—
Rabbi Danny Rich: I said that we did so as an organisation. We are part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which is in fact the largest synagogual organisation in the world, representing about 1.8 million people, most of whom are within the United States. We have a very large sister organisation in the States, and different things happen in the States. There is a lot more autonomy for synagogues, a lot less control over marriages. There are synagogues that are doing them, but they have not produced a national liturgy for that purpose. That is the point I was making.
Rabbi Danny Rich: The problem is that the legal question is slightly different, because I think that in the States you get married by your local state, and then have a synagogue—when I carried out a marriage in the States, I simply had to sign a bit of paper when I got there, so the answer is that I do not know.
I am probably missing something obvious here. I am trying to understand the process, in terms of governing structure—how a mainstream part of the faith would potentially go through a process that led to them opting into the legislation. Could Sarah or Jon briefly talk me through that? I then have a short question for Rabbi Rich as well.
Sarah Anticoni: Without leading you through the specific drafting, which would be somewhat dull, it is done by effectively dividing the community into different ecclesiastical authorities that would supervise religious and civil marriage. Those within Liberal Judaism who wish to carry it out have already indicated that they would wish to do so; they would opt in, and they would carry out such marriages. Other parts of the community that have indicated that they do not wish to do so at the current time would not, and therefore would not be forced to carry out such marriages. But the legislation would be sufficiently flexible that if their positions changed at any stage—I think we have all seen that positions within a broad Church can change from time to time over a period of years and as society develops—there could be movement. Different communities could opt in, if necessary.
That is helpful, because although I understand the point Rabbi Rich makes about the pick-and-mix approach from a consumer’s perspective—if you do not like the synagogue or they do not like you, then do not go there, go somewhere else—what assessment have you made of protections for members of staff? That is, not only celebrants and rabbis, who are in the Bill, but other members of paid staff from different synagogues, who might not be so easily able to go somewhere else, because that is where the job is. I am keen to ensure that they are protected, too. Is your assessment that the Bill protects their religious conscience?
Rabbi Danny Rich: In practical terms, the people who are involved with our synagogue marriages are the rabbi and the marriage secretary, both of whom are members of our synagogue, so we do not see a problem. In theory, I suppose that a rabbi’s PA could be asked to do something. I cannot answer the legal question, but I cannot imagine that one of our synagogues would seek to force one of its employees to do something that in their conscience they did not want to do. That is the nature of our organisation. By the way, some of our synagogues employ Orthodox members of staff, who require additional time off that we do not count as Jewish holidays, for example, and, in all of our history that I know of, we have had no case of a member of staff having to take action on that basis. That is all I can say on that.
Sarah Anticoni: Answering legally, I would imagine that if you currently carried out the role of secretary of a synagogue with a registrar’s function and did not wish to carry out same-sex marriages, but were in a synagogue where they were to be celebrated, it would be an individual decision. I do not see, as a body, that that is an overall concern. We certainly have not taken particular soundings from the registrars.
Benjamin Cohen: In our response to the consultation, we specifically say that they would be internal matters. Although it obviously comes down to individual views, it may be a synagogue within a movement that is uncomfortable—perhaps a number of its congregants have voiced a concern. We looked at the issue, in drafting terms, of devolving down or devolving up—pushing up—the decision and whether it should be movement-wide or denomination-wide, but that is ultimately where we came down to, because they would be setting the kind of policy that they would like to apply, normally very much in tandem and consultation with their members and their member congregations. Beyond that, whether it is individual synagogues or even individual members of staff, those should be internal matters. Obviously, it is in no one’s interest to see people prosecuted, disciplined or losing their jobs. I do not think that employers will want to take that kind of view. They would be as understanding as they possibly could be.
Any other questions? Is there anything our witnesses would like to say that they feel would be of help to the Committee?
I sincerely thank you for your evidence today. I am sure that the Committee will make good use of it in its deliberations. Thank you for coming. I am afraid that we now come to the end of the session. Our next panel is available. Our evidence will come from Out of Marriage. [Interruption.] Out4Marriage—a Freudian slip.