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In Canada, Jewish Community Split After Country Oks Same-sex Marriage

July 14, 2005
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The legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada has polarized the country’s Jews in much the same way it has divided other religious denominations. For the most part, Orthodox Jews in Canada oppose same-sex marriages, while liberal Canadian Jews embrace the fact that gays and lesbians now can share in a central Jewish institution.

The controversial legislation, passed late last month, was shepherded through Canada’s House of Commons by Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, a former professor of law at McGill University.

The new law applies to civic weddings: Gay and lesbian couples now face no barriers to marriage in venues like city halls and courthouses.

However, as Cotler has said on numerous occasions, no religious group will be forced to sanctify same-sex marriage if such unions run counter to its beliefs.

The issue remains far from settled. Polls indicate that a majority of Canadians are opposed to a redefinition of marriage.

The leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, has said he’ll revisit the issue if his party forms the next government — and an election in Canada is expected within six months.

Nor has the debate ceased among spiritual leaders in the Canadian Jewish community.

For Rabbi Asher Jacobson of the Chevra Kadisha B’nai Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal, laws that violate Jewish tradition will be ignored.

“Within our shul, this law does not exist. The community does not have to say it’s kosher, and put a stamp on it,” Jacobson said.

Within society at large, Jacobson believes traditional Jews should speak out against the new law. He has done so himself as a member of the Rabbinical Council of Canada, which published advertisements in the national media stating that Jewish morality and custom allow only for the union of a man and a woman.

When two same-sex members of Jacobson’s congregation asked him to preside at their marriage, “I said to them, I love you both, but I cannot be part of something that goes against our tradition and our Torah, ” he recalled. “I explained that marriage in Jewish tradition is not just a civil union. Marriage is a sacred act, affiliated with holiness.”

In Toronto, one congregation that characterizes itself as “traditional-egalitarian” has come out in support of the right of gays and lesbians to marry.

The First Narayever Congregation uses an Orthodox liturgy and keeps a kosher kitchen.

“We do everything in a traditional way, except that men and women participate equally in the life of the synagogue,” said Rabbi Ed Elkin, the congregation’s spiritual leader. Elkin is a member of Canadian Rabbis for Equal Marriage, which lobbied on behalf of the new statute.

A group within the First Narayever Congregation studied the issue of same-sex marriage for more than a year, and the majority support it. However, the shul’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority for any major ritual change, so Elkin hasn’t yet conducted any same-sex unions.

“I plan to, but we’re at the point now of learning, and of educating, and of dealing with the exact issues,” he said.

A Reconstructionist congregation in Montreal has long since dealt with the issue: Diarchy Emet produced a position paper on gays and lesbians more than 10 years ago.

The document asserted that the biblical taboos regarding homosexual acts should be reconsidered in light of the modern understanding of sexual orientation as of biological origin rather than a willful violation of communal norms.

“We fully welcome gay and lesbian Jews and their families into our community,” said the congregations’s rabbi, Ron Aigen. “As Jews, we encourage monogamous committed relationships rather than celibacy. While we feel the traditional, heterosexual marriage ceremony would be inappropriate for same-sex couples, we nevertheless want to sanctify these relationships with new, alternative language and rituals that will function to promote the welfare of the couple, any family they may have, and the greater good of society.”

Aigen has not yet presided over a same-sex union — “but I am certainly prepared to do so,” he said.

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