Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Canadian Rabbis Divided on Ruling About Same-sex Marriage

June 24, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Reaction among Canadian rabbis to a recent Ontario appeals court ruling in favor of same-sex marriages has been sharply divided along denominational lines.

Support has come mostly from the Reform and Reconstructionist factions, with criticism coming mostly from the Orthodox sector.

“We think that this actually strengthens the Jewish community and our society, and that it’s the right thing to do,” said Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, outgoing head of the Canadian Coalition of Liberal Rabbis for Same-Sex Marriage.

For the past 18 months, Rabbi Zeplowitz was chair of the ad-hoc national coalition of 25 Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, which attained official intervener status in the case and submitted a brief to the provincial court of appeals.

The court’s June 10 ruling made same-sex marriages legal in Ontario.

Marriage laws in British Columbia and Quebec also are under review after courts in each of those provinces struck down current marriage legislation as being discriminatory toward gays and lesbians.

The coalition’s incoming chair, Rabbi Debra Landsberg, told JTA that she is aware of only one Jewish same-sex marriage that has been performed here since the ruling.

“Among the rabbis in the coalition, there’s a diversity of opinion as to whether to officiate at same-sex ceremonies,” she said. “But all of us were able to agree that the civil law should be based on equality.”

Toronto constitutional lawyer Ed Morgan, who acted as the coalition’s legal representative, applauded the court for “getting it right.”

“This is the proper interpretation of equality of rights,” said Morgan, who also is chair of the Ontario region for the Canadian Jewish Congress. “Our understanding of equal rights was inevitably pushing the courts this way.”

Within days of the ruling, a flood of same-sex couples legally tied the knot here, including many from the United States.

Known to their friends as “the two Michaels,” Torontonians Michael Leshner and Michael Stark were the first couple to be married under the new law.

Leshner is “definitely Jewish,” according to Morgan. However, the couple were married in a civil ceremony without rabbinic involvement.

Toronto rabbi David Novak, who appeared before a parliamentary committee studying same-sex unions earlier this year, said that marriage is meant to be the union of man and woman and derives from the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

He has challenged Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis to “show me one classical Jewish source to show what they are advocating is justified.”

Rabbi Dovid Schochet, head of the Lubavitch movement in Toronto, called the court ruling a “chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name. He compared it to state sanction of abortion or euthanasia, or for a Jew to publicly enjoy a “pork cookout.”

The normative Jewish view is that homosexual practices are forbidden even to non-Jews under the seven Noachide laws, Schochet said, adding that Jewish law makes a distinction between a sin committed in private and one committed in public.

He compared the state’s endorsement of same-sex marriage to gay parades such as those that took place in Toronto and Jerusalem this month.

“It becomes a confrontation with God,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘I don’t give a hoot what God says.’ “

Other rabbis have criticized the notion of same-sex wedlock as being antithetical and even harmful to Judaism.

“I think we can all acknowledge that it goes against halachah,” or Jewish law, Rabbi Landsberg observed. “But there was a group of 25 rabbis who said that not all of us agree that it is antithetical to religion.”

As always, rabbis are free to decide what marriages they will perform, Rabbi Zeplowitz said. Just as many choose not to perform interfaith marriages, many will choose not to perform same-sex marriages, he said.

“We’re saying that the government should recognize all unions, heterosexual and homosexual, and leave it to each rabbi’s conscience to decide whether or not to perform the ceremony,” he said.

According to Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, outgoing president of the Conservative-allied Rabbinical Assembly of Ontario, a gay or lesbian union is irrelevant under Jewish law because it cannot, by definition, be classified as a Jewish marriage.

“None of our rabbis would do such a thing. It doesn’t exist. It’s not part of Jewish marriage,” he said.

However, he emphasized that gays and lesbians must be welcomed into the congregation “in every way possible, just as any human being is welcomed.”

“None of us completely follow all the laws. Maybe there are people who have committed some business practice that we don’t approve of. All of us are constantly striving,” Tanenbaum said.

“We would argue that Judaism is open to new insights and new interpretations, both scientific and social, and that the reality of how we understand homosexuality today is not how we understood it in the past,” Rabbi Zeplowitz said. “The couples that I meet are trying to find a way back toward God and toward Jewish commitment, and I want to encourage that.”

According to Landsberg, the coalition already has started discussing the inevitable topic of Jewish divorce among homosexuals and the process of issuing gets, or divorce decrees.

“A few of my colleagues are looking at the language of the get and how to adapt it for a gay or lesbian couple,” she said.

Recommended from JTA