Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Canadian Jews Taking Sides As Same-sex Marriage Bill Introduced

February 4, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Rabbi David Mivasair of Congregation Ahavat Olam in Vancouver has performed marriage ceremonies for several same-sex couples — provided that both are Jewish. “If one is not Jewish, I don’t do it,” Mivasair said. “I don’t officiate at intermarriages.”

But Rabbi David Novak, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, believes same-sex marriages are anathema.

Novak has joined an interfaith lobbying group called Enshrine Marriage Canada that is fighting a same-sex marriage bill introduced by the Canadian government this week.

“Same-sex marriage is something that the Jewish tradition regards as unacceptable,” he said.

Mivasair and Novak’s opposing stances reflect the divisions the issue is causing among Canadian Jews.

Mainstream Jewish groups in Canada aren’t dancing a hora over the same-sex marriage bill, but more liberal Jews have embraced it.

Indeed, some of those Jews are lobbying for the initiative introduced by Prime Minister Paul Martin’s government. If successful, the legislation would make same-sex marriage ceremonies legally binding in every province and territory of Canada.

Approved in principle by Canada’s Supreme Court last month, the government initiative is being championed by Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Canada’s most prominent Jewish politician.

“Canada is a land built on a tradition of tolerance and respect rooted in a charter that respects the rights of all Canadians, including minorities,” Cotler told reporters Tuesday.

The legislation, which would not compel any clergy to perform same-sex marriages in violation of their faith’s teachings, ultimately will be subject to a parliamentary vote later in the year.

So far, only two countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, have legalized same-sex unions.

Some 3,000 gay and lesbian couples already have been legally married in British Columbia and Ontario, where same-sex marriage was approved in principle by provincial courts.

A poll published in the National Post newspaper indicated that two-thirds of Canadians oppose the bill, and observers believe that the views of Canadian Jews likely mirror that result.

Neither of Canadian Jewry’s most mainstream groups, the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith Canada, has taken a stance on the issue.

But for Mivasair, the issue is clear.

One of the first gay couples he married was a rabbi and cantor from separate Reform congregations in California who had been together for 18 years. He has performed the ordination for numerous other American same-sex couples, including two Chicago men on their 30th anniversary together

“This is real life and real people, many of whom have real relationships that far outlast the average heterosexual marriage,” Mivasair said. “It feels like a very right and holy thing to do. It’s based on my own thinking that marriage is kiddushin — holy. That’s the highest value in marriage.”

Mivasair is among a group of 25 Reform, Reconstructionist and other Jewish clergy to form the Canadian Coalition of Liberal Rabbis for Same-Sex Marriage.

The coalition’s lobbying efforts are “consistent with Jewish values as a matter of tikkun olam,” said the coalition’s coordinator, Joanne Cohen, referring to the Jewish concept of healing the world.

Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis of Iyr Ha-Melech Congregation in Kingston, Ontario, supported same-sex marriage before a parliamentary commission two years ago, and has organized a panel discussion for his congregation related to the film Trembling Before God, which focuses on gays and lesbians in the Lubavitch community.

“It’s often asserted that the Torah has a prohibition against homosexuality, but it does not,” Lewis said. “It has a prohibition only against one particular sexual act between men. And the Torah says nothing about sexual acts between women whatsoever.”

Many Reform Jewish leaders perform same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries, but others, including those at Holy Blossom, Toronto’s largest reform congregation, have decided not to do so.

The Rabbinical Assembly of Ontario, representing the province’s Conservative rabbis, also has a policy against same-sex marriages.

The Martin government missed a golden opportunity for compromise because it could have granted same-sex couples the right to civil unions without attempting to redefine the institution of marriage, Montreal Rabbi Reuben Poupko said.

“Governments do not have the power to change the English language,” he said. “Everyone knows what marriage means. For them to presume they have the power to change the definition of an old and established institution is hubris.”

“It’s a very difficult issue,” he added. “On the one hand, we are compelled to be as inclusive as possible. On the other hand, we do believe that in many ways the value of the traditional family, which is the bedrock of our community, has been diminished, and that it’s necessary to do whatever is possible to strengthen it. Nobody wants to be intolerant and nobody wants to be exclusionary.”

Rabbi Dovid Schochet, chairman of Toronto’s Vaad Harabonim, the city’s Orthodox rabbinical body, calls same-sex marriage a desecration of God’s name.

“I wonder why Orthodox Judaism is not more vocal in this matter,” he said. “I assume that everybody thinks it doesn’t affect us.

“The Orthodox are usually more reserved — not to make waves, not to be in the limelight — and they are reluctant to speak to the press,” he said. “But I think they should be much more vocal. Otherwise, it gives the world a completely wrong picture of what Judaism is about. The public should know that Judaism is completely opposed to same-sex marriage.”

Canada has exported the debate abroad, even as far as Israel. Two Israeli men who were married in Ontario last summer have challenged the Israeli government to recognize their union.

Recommended from JTA