Monday, 30 March 2015

Slavery - Them and Us, Then and Now

Pesach comes closer


I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a panel on freedom at New North London this week. The tales of oppression and bondage were heartbreaking. The notion that slavery is a thing of the past is absurd.

The question is –where are we in all this?

Hillel suggests the perfect balance, almost 2000 years ago. ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?’

The most frequently articulated command of the Torah is the obligation to love or not oppress the ‘ger.’ The word – ‘ger’ – is often used today to describe a convert. But in the Torah it refers to an outsider to our society, someone who wants to be part of this society, but is apart from it. The insistence on paying attention to the ‘ger’ is surely due to the ease with which we look past the new immigrant, the asylum seeker and the like, especially if we perceive they don’t embrace every element of our societal values.


The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate there are between 3-5,000 victims of forced labour in the UK alone, let alone the cotton pickers of Ukraine, the domestic workers enslaved to debt-bondage in so many countries, and so many others. In a recent report they suggest that Forced Labour is the less an isolated crime, and more one extreme of a spectrum of labour abuses. These are abuses we can focus on, and act upon, or ignore in search of ever cheaper, ever less regulated goods and services. We live in a much more confusing world; the very terms ‘modern slavery,’ ‘forced labour,’ ‘human trafficking’ are awkward, conflated and confusing. But the message is clear. There are human beings, created in the image of God, who are being oppressed to produce for goods and services which we consume. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, speaking as part of the same panel as I, reminded us of the Jewish insistence on asking questions; at the Seder table most especially. It’s all too easy to consume behind a veil, not asking questions about how and by whom the things we consume came to be. It’s not good enough.


The verse that begins, ‘do not oppress the “ger”’ so often continues, ‘for you were “gerim” in the land of Egypt.’ Our own experiences, and not just the experiences of ancient millennia should sensitise us to the awfulness of slavery, in all its forms.


More information on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on modern slavery, in this country at;

Tzedek is a Jewish organisation working, among other projects, to provide fair trade employment possibilities in the poorest countries in the world. 

Truah, ‘the rabbinic call for human rights’ campaigns, among other things, for tomato pickers in Florida. The organisation has a Haggadah available for download at



Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

0207 328 1026


Sermons and other stuff on the blog,uk



Friday, 27 March 2015

Shabbat Hagadol - that which justly belongs to the stranger

In the Haftarah we read on the Shabbat before Passover is this verse;


At that time I [God] will put you on trial for judgement. I will be a swift witness against you, against those who turn away from the stranger that which is their right.


That last piece is a little tricky, ‘turn away from the stranger that which is their right.’ The Hebrew is umatei ger


The ger piece is easy to understand.

The ger is the stranger, the outsider to a society. In Biblical times it was the non-Israelite living amongst the people of Israel. The thing about the ger was that they didn’t get access to the land.

The land was divided between the tribes of Israel – and if you had land you could take care of yourself. And if you didn’t have land you had to rely on the kindness of others.

The ger, the landless of Biblical times are perfectly brought up to date with some combination of those challenging words of contemporary political discourse. Biblical ger is the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the refugee, the economic migrant, the undocumented worker, the person who comes to clean your office late at night for £6.50 an hour, the person who is too scared to go to the police to complain they’ve been mistreated by their gang leader, or made to work in unsafe conditions or for inhumanly long hours because they don’t see the police as there to support them.


The Bible – this ancient document – and the prophet book of Malachi is dated to 2,500 years ago – knows all about these unseen, unsettled, undocumented, unlanded strangers. Don’t cheat the labourer of their hire – Malachi warns. Just like so many of the other prophets.


But here’s the thing.

What is matei ger? Actually no-one quite knows, and there are as many different translations as there are translators.

There is a passage in the Palestinian Talmud, Chagigah suggesting the word has something to do with turning away - mateh. You bring on God as a witness against you if you turn away from the stateless. The Hebrew word mateh which sounds a little like matei, but is spelt a little differently. Actually, that passage in the Talmud does something very special with the spelling difference. Matei is understood as mateh mimeni or matei turning away from Me.

You mateh or turn away from the stranger, God warns, you turn away from Me, God.


God’s on the side of the powerless, the landless. To turn towards God is to turn towards the edges of society, where there is no safety net and a person can just drop off into penury.


The great Biblical commentator on Prophets, Metzudat David says that this strange word matei  means justice. That which justly belongs to the ger. You bring on God as a witness against you for taking away from the ger what is justly theirs.

Now that struck me.

Matei ger – that which justly belongs to the stranger.

The thing is the stranger doesn’t have anything. The whole test of being a stranger is being landless, being without the most important thing a person could own – in the old days.

Maybe that’s precisely the point.

The ger has only the clothes they stand in, the food they are given, the result of the kindness they are shown.

Mistreating a stranger might sound like easy pickings. After all who is going to stand up for the undocumented among us, the asylum seeker who has been told they a have to go home.

But, Malachi warns us, God is watching.


And this stark warning comes in the Haftarah for the week before Pesach.


It’s so apt.


This is from the Book of Leviticus

The stranger who dwells with you – it sounds better in the Hebrew – hager hagar itchem – The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a citizen to you. You shall love them as you love yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.


And now this story – of Passover, the whole purpose of this journey from slavery into freedom becomes apparent – it’s an ethical training in empathy.

It’s a training in knowing what it is like to be the outsider, the foreigner, the unloved, mistrusted, persecuted outsider.

And you shall love that person as you love yourself.


It’s the deepest moral lesson in Judaism.
Deeper even than the verse that often gets proffered – by luminaries as august as Rabbi Akiva or Jesus, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

You should love your fellow as you love yourself.

I admit, it’s a good verse. But what if you don’t consider the benefit scrounger your fellow. What if you only consider your fellow the person who was born with the same passport, or comes from a country at the same level of socio-economic development.

What if, God help us all, we got to chose who is and isn’t our fellow.

That, of course, is what the Nazi’s did. Their ideologue, Heidegger, thought that persecuting Jews was perfectly ethical since we weren’t really proper human beings. Thanks.


The Bible, of course, countenances none of that self-justificatory racism. Every human being, male and female, black and white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or faithless, is created in the image of God, you oppress any of us and you oppress God.


But the ethical demand of the Torah isn’t merely that everyone should be treated equally.

We are bidden to focus especially on the ger – the stranger, the outcast.

The test of our humanity is how much we take care of the person it is most easy to offend, the least popular kid in the playground, the one who can’t speak English properly, or doesn’t know which football team to support, or doesn’t have the right kind of passport – so can be employed on wages, or with standards that would approximate slavery.


And it’s all to do with Passover – the ethics are driven by our personal experience of being that person.

Even if we are now comfortable in the country.

Each year we intone at the Seder night – bchol dor va dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo ...

In each and every generation a person should see themselves as if they personally went forth from Egypt.

We need to touch, each and every year, what it means to be the ger.

We need to remind ourselves of the test of humanity which is how we treat not our friends, not even our family members, but the one person we are disposed to like least.


So what should be done.


It’s Passover in less than a week’s time.

And there is plenty to do.

But I urge us all to find a time to find some tale of contemporary strangerness, and bring that tale to the Seder table.

You won’t struggle to find examples.

Cotton pickers in the Ukraine, sex-trafiked workers all over the place, domestic help imprisoned by debt structures. I met, this week, with one of the Chaplains at the detained asylum seeker centre in Gatwick – the place they take the most strange of strangers and keep them under indefinite detention for no crime at all – ‘they just want people to hear their stories’ he told me.

Tell that story.

We believe in the value of telling stories.

We believe in the value of asking questions about stories of slavery.

Even if we don’t know all the answers, especially if we don’t know all the answers, we believe in the importance of asking the questions.

Tell the story and ask away at the Seder.


And one other thing.

For the last nine years our sister Synagogue, New North London, has been running an asylum seekers drop in. It started with one ger. They are now up to 800 – too many for their space. The heroic organiser behind this incredible venture has turned to us, at New London, and asked us if we could find 20 volunteers to support an overflow venue, once a month in north London. The job involves packing and distributing clothes, food, travel vouchers and shopping vouchers. No special skills needed. Just a refusal to look away from the pain experienced by gerim; just a refusal to let our experience of being oppressed and enslaved into our contemporary consciousness.

We can do this.

There will be an email in the week.

Or drop me a note if you want to know more.


Tell a story.

Think about volunteering.


So we have a defence when the time comes when we are charged with turning away that which justly belongs to the ger.

So we can claim that our own experience of suffering has indeed made us better, inspired, within us an ethics and a commitment to justice.

So we can truly be proud of our journey from slavery to freedom – because we are not quite there yet.


Shabbat shalom


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Suppose there weren't four children - A Pesach Message

Suppose there never were four siblings who just happened to be different despite the parents’ best efforts to love each equally. Suppose it was four different parents. Suppose it was the parent who knew how to stimulate a child to the extent that they would stay rapt even while she explained the technicalities of what you can and can’t eat after the Afikomen. And there was the parent who would set the teeth of their child on edge, and the child wanted nothing to do with any of it. Then there was the parent who didn’t know so much, but could convey the singularly essential message that the Pesach story - ‘because of this that the Holy Blessed One did for me.’ Or finally the parent who, perhaps, was just too busy to stimulate any enquiry from the child at all.


Or maybe it’s the same child and the same parent and the Haggadah documents just different days, different moments. There are moments, in parenting, when I stimulate and moments, in parenting, when I push away - and the difference is less some objective difference between the subjects of my storytelling, and more my own ability to become share these narratives with grace and passion.


The question is - how do we tell our stories? Do we do so with the personal twist the Hagadah demands (‘Everyone is obliged to see themselves as if they themselves have left Egypt.’) Do we snap our way through a narrative, setting the teeth of those we encounter on edge?


It’s not really a question about Seder night where most of us can put on a good show for one night in a year. How do we talk about Judaism when there is no script? Do we turn those around us into Wise Children or Ones Who Do Not Know How to Ask? How do we talk about Judaism in the immediate aftermath of the French supermarket attacks, or the Israeli elections?


It’s not really a question about parenting. We are constantly engaging with those around us, tweaking and shaping how they see Judaism through the way in which we present ourselves and tell our stories; the non-Jewish work colleague, the office cleaner who may well come from some other ethnic minority, even the person we sit next to in Shul. Every story we tell shapes those around us – even when we don’t imagine we are telling a story at all.


Maybe there are primordially destined wise, wicked, simple and dumb members of the human race, but we make a grave error if we forget our own ability to shape those around us by our own behaviour; especially when it comes to the way those around us see Judaism, especially at this time of year. Tell our stories well.


A joyous and Kosher Pesach to all


Rabbi Jeremy


Friday, 20 March 2015

Pesach - Why Bother

Pesach - Why Bother


Pesach, a lot of work, an expense – for what purpose? Surely if the holiday is supposed to be about freedom we would be better served ordering in a take-out, and putting our feet up infront of the television?


Thus a new question for the 21st century. It’s not the classic question of the wicked child. The wicked child of the Haggadah - who doesn’t want to be part of the Jewish journey simply doesn’t ask the question, they’ve wandered off already – it’s one of the ‘gifts’ of the Enlightenment. Nothing forces the Jew into identifying against their desire. So we are left with the Jew who wants to identify Jewish, but doesn’t want the perceived burden of the hard work, they don’t want the institutionalised aspects of an institutionalised religion. They want Jewishness to be simply the desire to identify.


In part there is the belief that getting something out requires something be put in, ‘as the effort, so the reward,’ teaches the Talmud. In part there is the belief that more important that the easy joy of freedom is touching the nature of oppression – you need to taste the Marror to taste freedom. In part Pesach is about realising we aren’t ‘there’ yet – we live in a world where too many are oppressed, Jews and non-Jews alike. In part there is the belief that the opposite of enslavement to Pharaoh isn’t the freedom to do nothing at all, but rather the call to enter into a relationship of responsibility, accepting the price of freedom as a covenantal obligation to serve. In part there is the belief that Pesach is about more than freedom, it’s about experiencing Spring as new beginning and that becomes ritualised as a clean out of the old. Pesach is also about the generation by generation quality of Jewish existence – we clean and switch around and cook and the rest of it, to take out places in a narrative of Jewishness that echoes back through the millennia. In part there is the sense that somehow, folded into the rituals and the disciplines that echo back through the ages, we can encounter the will of God.


There is plenty to enjoy in the songs about the goat and favourite recipes (egg in salt-water – yum, we should do this more than once a year). But without engaging seriously with the rigmarole of Pesach Kashrut I don’t think it’s possible to understand the sheer breadth of the sophistication of a Jewish sense of freedom at this time. Please do engage.


My guide to Pesach kashrut is on-line [here ] and this Shabbat, after the services I’ll be sharing some observations on Pesach kashrut and answering any questions.


Shabbat shalom,



Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Religious Problem With the Results of the Israeli Election

A note in my personal capacity.

Do Rabbis have personal capacities? I don’t know, I suspect that for some this will seem to be an abuse of my position, either as a Rabbi or as a ‘foreigner’ or both.

But there is something I feel, religiously, about the recent Israeli election that is, I hope, worth sharing.


It’s remarkable that Israel is a democracy.

It’s remarkable that there Jewish MKs, Arab MKs, and MKs representing a vast range of political positions elected to a Kenesset that represents a country whose capacity to engage in vigorous debate is exceeded by none.

It’s remarkable that an election is called, no-one dies, no-one levels accusations of vote-rigging and no-one doubts that had the will of the Israeli people been so manifest, elected officials would have packed up and moved out without tanks or protests. But that is not what happened.

What happened is that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership and his electoral strategy were vindicated and while I respect the decision of the electorate, that makes me sad.


It makes me sad because the leadership and the strategy were driven by something I oppose – the creation of factions and the othering of those who disagree with me. Likkud’s election posters - banner headline ‘it’s us or them’ –captured the mood of the Netanyahu campaign perfectly. Who were the ‘them,’ was it the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Zionist Union, reds under the bed? All of the above, and more (possibly not the reds under the bed). Netanyahu accused outsiders of trying to bring down him and his government, ‘There is a huge international effort, with major money and also media figures, in order to bring down the Likud government,’ he said, ‘Whether legal or not, it certainly is not legitimate for foreign governments and all kinds of donors to meddle here.’ That’s the same Netanyahu whose most significant speech of the campaign was given in the US Congress and whose most significant supporter is the American media figure Sheldon Adelson.


On the day of the campaign the warning went out, ‘Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot box.’ The message, again, is that someone else is the enemy. The Arab communist party twitter-feed captured the intent with a witty play putting Netanyahu into the mythology of the TV show, Game of Thrones.

If, in Game of Thrones, the enemy are flesh-eating zombies who will stop at nothing to breach a wall that is the only thing keeping the Kingdom from destruction, then the Arabs are ...


But perhaps the most significant moment of the campaign came with Netanyahu rejecting the two-state solution. In this new Kenesset, the Palestinians are not potential (if hard-to-win) peace partners, they are to be excluded, ‘othered.’


These last-minute otherings of Arabs and Palestinians brought the electoral cycle back in a full circle. The election had originally been called following a coalition fall-out over a bill that would define Israel as ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people.’ The row was predicated on a perceived abandonment of the intent of Israel’s Declaration of Independence which spoke of the foundation of a ‘country for the benefit of all its inhabitants [ensuring] complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion.’ The bill was designed to indicate to the Arabs that they were to be tolerated as ‘others,’ allowed to sit quietly on the fringe of Israeli society, but no more. More crucially it was designed to indicate to Netanyahu’s own right wing that he was ‘one of them’ and that the peace-mongers, the non-Jews and everyone else who harboured hopes for a two-state solution were other.


This is my religious point.

Othering people is not good. The central message of the Torah is, according to the Talmud’s dominant Rabbinic leader, Rabbi Akiva, loving your neighbour. As one teacher put it to me, if you only count as neighbours people you like already, you’ve missed the point. Another of the Talmud’s greatest teachers, Ben Azzai, disagrees with Rabbi Akiva. For him the central point of Judaism has something to do with recognising that all humanity is created in the image of God, Jew and Arab alike. The Bible itself, on 36 occasions, warns against oppressing the stranger, the powerless, those who sit on the fringes of society. We are, as the People of this awesome Book, commanded ‘to love the stranger,’ precisely because we, as Jews, profess an understanding of what it is to be treated as others, kept on the fringe and tolerated as outsiders – at best. Looking for opportunities to create division, even for the sake of political advantage, is not good enough. Creating a culture of ‘us vs them,’ when we are going to have to work out ways to live together one way or another, might be good short-term politics, but it’s counter-productive in the long term and religiously unacceptable.


The leader of one of those ‘foreign NGOs’ who Netanyahu so criticised in the run up to the election, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street, sent out a disappointed, but unbowed, reflection on the election, calling on its supporters to continue to make the case for a two-state solution, for breaking down the culture of fear and otherness. It’s a call I echo, for religious and ethical reasons, as well as political ones.


Those interested in practical ways to do this work are invited to investigate further and support organisations such as –educating and lobbying on a pro-Israel, pro-two-state solution. - supporting democratic, progressive, tolerant and inclusive NGOs in Israel.



Friday, 13 March 2015

On the Making and Meaning of Community

We have an exciting Shabbat ahead. I’m delighted that Joey Weisenberg is joining us from Machon Hadar. Joey’s work is in building community through song. It’s an appropriate week. Our Torah reading opens, ‘and Moses brought together the community of all the citizens of Israel.’ Hebrew grammar is so delicious – vayakel – is a verb, to make a community, a kehillah. How do you make community? Here are three thoughts.


It takes underlying shared sensibilities so when strangers come together they are already beyond the point of being strangers. You take a Sephardi Jew from Morocco who speaks Arabic, and a Ashkenazi Jew from London and .... well, you wave your hands around a bit, and laugh a bit – and that’s because there is something already there. The shared narrative allows for shared existence.


It takes structure. Two strangers can pass on the street and pause for a moment and experience something powerful, but then the strangers pass and the moment is gone. Coincidence – as beautiful as it is – isn’t the same as community. Community is only possible when there a rhythm for interaction; same time, same place ... community building takes time, it creeps up slowly, it can take a generation. The Hebrew word is keva –structure –structure is the scaffold for a community to find its soul.


It takes risk. Two strangers than sit side-by-side on the pew, week after week, nodding a Shabbat Shalom at one another remain nothing more than strangers who share Kiddush. It takes the moment when one person turns to another and opens up to the possibility something other than being strangers in the same space. Perhaps this is where we are, as a New London Synagogue community, at our weakest, a little too English, a little too worried lest we offend by being too forward. We should be bolder. Perhaps this is where the music can come in. Singing in risky. We open up our voices and who knows where it could lead? I look forward to taking the risk with you. Do come and join us for services. It’s a very special opportunity.


Shabbat shalom


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masorti Paper on Same-Sex Partnership Ceremonies


1 The statement by Masorti Judaism UK

2 Introduction: a consideration of values

3 A summary of the arguments of the Law Committee’s responsa on which the UK Ruling is based

4 The conclusions reached by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK, and their ruling

5 What a shutafut ceremony might include (a fuller discussion will follow at a later date)

6 A reflection on the meaning of welcome and inclusion


(1)    This document has been kept brief for reasons of clarity, but fuller arguments are given in the endnotes

(2)     References in this paper to “The Law Committee” are to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement in the United States of America.

(3)    References listed at the end of this paper include links to the full texts of the Law Committee’s responsa discussed below.


1        The statement by Masorti Judaism UK

This paper provides the background to the following statement issued by Masorti Judaism UK in October 2014:

After much learning and discussion, the Masorti rabbis have ruled that communities may carry out ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples based on a ‘shutafut,’ or partnership, ceremony. We recognise that our movement encompasses diverse views on this important subject. Each Masorti community, together with its rabbi, will be free to decide whether to carry out these ceremonies and, if so, whether the relationships sanctified by them should be registered under English law as same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. Masorti Judaism is proud to be taking this opportunity to make our communities ever more welcoming and to realise our values of inclusion, equality and diversity within the framework of halakhah (Jewish law).

The rabbis

The Masorti rabbis referred to are: Mijael Even-David, Jeremy Gordon, Rafi Kaiserblueth, Daniella Kolodny, Joel Levy, Chaim Weiner and Jonathan Wittenberg. Their discussions took place over the course of several of their meetings in their capacity as the rabbinical body of Masorti Judaism UK

2.  Introduction: a consideration of values

It is a core teaching of Judaism that every person is created in God’s image and deserves to be treated with equality and respect as God’s creation. Some years ago an orthodox gay man spoke about how he felt as he stood before God: ‘Am I, too, made in God’s image? Does God want me as I am?’ If so, he concluded, he had to accept himself for who he was. That struggle for acceptance, before self, parents, peers, community and God has often brought great pain, shame, and deep loneliness to gay people and has driven some to suicide. Judaism has often had a part in that suffering by offering, if not outright rejection, then what has been described as ‘at best a cold welcome’, a response which has been experienced as isolating and cruel.

Attitudes towards homosexuality have changed profoundly, not only in secular society, but also within the Jewish community. One milestone was the film Trembling Before God, which brought the pain and isolation of many gay people to the attention of rabbis and communities of all denominations. [1] It made clear the destructive effects on gay people of blame, rejection or the suggestion that being gay was an illness of which a person could be cured by therapy.

It is thus not only a matter of compassion but of justice to include gay people within the community, without discrimination and with full equality. To welcome another person in this manner also means to accept and respect the relationship formed with the partner together with whom he or she seeks to build a Jewish home, based on a loving, enduring and exclusive relationship. This is especially important at a time when so many Jewish people feel alienated; the Jewish community gains not by driving away but by including those who want to belong.  

It cannot be disputed that Judaism, both in the Torah and rabbinic teaching, has understood the ideal human state to be within heterosexual marriage. [2] Yet, for many with a strong commitment to the Torah and its values, there is now a widespread understanding that it cannot be right in the light of our current awareness to exclude from the community people for whom this is not a possibility. [3] There is an appreciation that, since Judaism regards faithful and loving partnership as the surest basis for creating Jewish homes and communities, a way needs to be found not only to sanction but to honour and celebrate the enduring commitment a gay couple may choose to make. From the perspective of the community, it is important, especially in a period of attrition, to support those who wish to create a bayyit ne’eman be’Yisrael, a true and loyal home in the people of Israel. 

3. A summary of the arguments of the Responsa of the Law Committee

It was with these concerns in mind, and prompted by the widely publicised debate in Britain following proposed, and later accepted, changes in civil legislation to allow same-sex marriages, that the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK turned for guidance to the responsa of the Law Committee. In the early 2000’s that committee was asked to consider the key issues concerning the status of gay Jews. [4] The questions placed formally before it were: ‘What guidance does halakhah offer to Jews who are homosexual? Which intimate activities are permitted to them, and which are forbidden? How shall Conservative Judaism relate to gay and lesbian couples?’

The committee spent two years studying, debating and writing; their work included consultations with leading researchers, retreats devoted to the topic and painstaking analysis of the sources of Jewish law. The process led to the preparation of two responsa, both of which were accepted by majority vote on December 6, 2006. After many discussions, the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK agreed that these decisions should be acceptable in our congregations in Britain and that congregations together with their rabbis should be allowed to choose their own positions on an individual basis within the bounds of what they prohibit and allow. We did not consider that we had the capacity to engage in a similarly searching and extensive process of our own, or that we would arrive at substantially different conclusions from our American colleagues.


3.1 The Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum

The following is a synopsis of the key stages in the halakhic argument presented in the responsum authored by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner (the link to the full document is given below).


The authors cite the key verses from the Torah, Leviticus 18:22, ‘Do not lie with a man the lyings of a woman; it is abhorrent’; and 20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male the lyings of a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them’. The authors note that these verses are almost universally understood to prohibit penetrative sex between men, the latter verse including the receptive partner as well. In upholding this prohibition, the authors conclude that ‘To strike this law from the Torah is a radical step. On the other hand, to expand [it] beyond what is actually written is unnecessarily harsh. The Torah forbids anal sex between men, nothing more, nothing less.’ [5]


The critical stages in the argument now follow. Considering the rabbinic literature on other forms of intimacy, the authors note that Nachmanides categorises them not as de’oraita, that is, Torah-enjoined, but as derabbanan, rabinically-enjoined, prohibitions. This does not of course mean that they should not be taken seriously. The division between de’oraita and derabbanan law is itself a rabbinic distinction and the numerous rules and decrees described by the rabbis as belonging to the latter category form the basis of our Judaism. But understanding a law as derabbanan does allow greater leeway for negotiation between it, other stipulations of Judaism, and practical and ethical concerns. Nevertheless, the authors conclude this section of their argument by acknowledging that ‘the established halakhah presents a comprehensive ban upon homosexual intimacy,’ and that only the most serious considerations should allow a reappraisal of this attitude. The question before them is therefore whether such considerations exist within the domain of Jewish law and ethics.


The authors now turn to the concept of kevod haberiyot, ‘human dignity’, a value on which the Talmud relies in a number of instances to explain why certain rabbinic and even Torah-enjoined rules should be set aside. They argue that since kevod haberiyot is invoked in the Talmud to prove that considerations of human dignity can, in certain circumstances, overcome prohibitions in Jewish law, the principle should be developed and applied to the situation of homosexuals as well. Kevod haberiyot should be understood to include acceptance of and respect for gay people, which entails respect for partnerships formed with the same enduring intentions as those of heterosexual couples. Thus considerations of kevod haberiyot should be allowed to override the rabbinical prohibition on other forms of intimacy, though not the Torah’s explicit ban on penetrative intercourse.

Their conclusions form an essential part of the ruling by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK. The relevant sentences are:

Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews. [6]


3.2  Rabbi Roth’s Responsum

In a strong refutation, Rabbi Joel Roth attacks two key steps in the argument of the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum. Firstly, he argues, even were it the case that the prohibition in Torah law referred only to penetrative sex, an assertion which he challenges, what has so long and so clearly been understood by rabbinical decree as forbidden cannot be overridden, however strong the wish to do so may be. Rabbinically enjoined law is, after all, a central and essential part of Judaism. Secondly, the concept of kevod haberiyot, human dignity, should not be invoked because, he maintains, it is basically applied by the Talmud only to a person’s loss of dignity in the eyes of others, not to the loss of a sense of self-esteem or self-worth in a person’s own eyes, as would be the case for a gay person seeking Judaism’s endorsement of the relationship with his or her partner. Rabbi Roth therefore accuses his colleagues of constructing ‘a tall building on a very shaky foundation’ and of allowing the ends for which they aim to dictate their halakhic argument. [7]

Rabbi Roth concludes by confirming the conclusions of his 1992 responsum, noting that ‘We affirm that gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools’; that they ‘will not be denied any honors within worship and regarding lay leadership positions’ but that Conservative rabbis and cantors may not perform commitment ceremonies for them. (See his responsum in full.) Rabbi Roth’s responsum was approved at the same session as that of Dorff, Nevins and Reisner.



3.3  Critique and Counter-Critique

Rabbi Roth’s argument is critiqued by Rabbi Richie Lewis, like Rabbi Roth a head of the Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem. Without declaring his own position on the question of gay relationships, he challenges the assumptions behind Rabbi Roth’s approach. Firstly, he argues that just as there can be no story without a story-teller so there can be no responsum which is not ‘a construction of the posek (the decision-maker). Thus every halakhic argument is not only bound to, but should, reflect the way its author understands the key Jewish values involved in the issue. Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner cannot therefore be blamed in principle for seeking a path through the halakhic material to support their understanding and attitudes.

Secondly, Rabbi Lewis critiques what he calls Rabbi Roth’s “context-less” approach to textual interpretation’, arguing that ‘every text came into being in some context or other and every author is conditioned by the givens of the context in which he lived and wrote’. Thus it is not only legitimate, but necessary, to consider the meanings of the concepts underlying any halakhic argument in their historical and social contexts. The issue here is therefore not simply “What did ‘human dignity’ mean to the rabbis of the Talmud?” but also “What should ‘human dignity’ mean to us today?” [8] Hence, without commenting on its decisions, he upholds the key aspects of the methodology of the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner responsum.

Rabbi Lewis’s comments take us to an essential issue in the Masorti approach to Judaism, the impact of history on text and tradition. Once it is accepted that the Torah is sacred and constitutes ‘God’s word’ yet nevertheless reflects its social, moral, historical and legal contexts, then we cannot divorce our understanding of God’s will from the impact those contexts may have had on the human interpretation of what that will should be. [9] It is precisely this difficult path between faithfulness towards tradition and the impact of changing realities and values which the halakhic process has to tread. Such an appreciation does not of itself make the responsum by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner compelling, but it does show how it can be read as creative and courageous within the terms of halakhic argument.


3.4  The ruling by the Law Committee

The Law Committee voted in favour of both responsa. They thus allowed rabbis and communities to make their own choice between the different positions taken by them on same-sex partnership ceremonies.


4. The conclusions reached by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK and their ruling


The rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK endorse the position of their American colleagues. They thus rule ‘that communities may carry out ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples based on a ‘shutafut,’ or partnership, ceremony.’ Those who choose to do so will rely in full on the conclusions of the responsum by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner, including both what it permits and what it prohibits. Again, the relevant sentences are

Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews.


Those who choose not to conduct shutafut or partnership ceremonies will rely on the responsum of Rabbi Roth.

Since the choice of a shutafut ceremony is permitted, the question needs to be addressed of what such a ceremony might involve.


5.  What a shutafut ceremony might include

A shutafut ceremony is based on the same moral, emotional and spiritual premises as the public affirmation of heterosexual monogamous relationships in Judaism through marriage: the commitment to a faithful, enduring, exclusive bond, based on respect, love and the express intention to establish a Jewish home and live according to Jewish values and practice. As already noted, it is founded on the wish to create a bayit ne’eman be’Yisrael, a true home in the People of Israel. It is at heart a celebration of this commitment before friends, community and God. It marks a sacred bond.

It differs clearly from the kinyan and kiddushin, or ‘acquisition’, model which forms the basis of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. In the words of Rabbi Joel Levy, it is ‘rooted in the Jewish law of partnership, shutafut, rather than the law of acquisition. The central act of such a ceremony replaces the kinyan (‘acquiring’) of kiddushin, where the man gives an object of value to the woman, with a ceremony where each partner places an object of value into a bag which they then raise together, thereby indicating that they enter into a joint partnership. The terms of their contract are detailed in a “Covenant of Love”, one of the terms of which must be a promise of mutual sexual fidelity.’ [10]

A shutafut ceremony may include the symbols, songs and blessings which mark the creation of a loving and committed Jewish home. It is a joyous and sacred occasion, to be celebrated with wine and food, music, Torah and tsedakah.

The rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK intend to hold further discussions as to the full details of the shutafut ceremony, after which a further short paper will be circulated.


6.  A reflection on the meaning of welcome and inclusion

In a recent conversation a gay man explained that ‘the most painful thing is silence, the refusal to address the issue’. The position adopted by the rabbis of Masorti Judaism UK attempts to find paths through that silence which are considerate, sensitive, respectful of Jewish law and true to the Jewish principles of justice, compassion and human dignity. As Rabbi Jeremy Gordon writes, ‘I believe the desire to stand before God, families and friends and, in the name of a shared Jewish tradition, commit to a particular kind of loving bond, is rooted very deeply.’

The shutafut ceremony offers the opportunity to celebrate such commitments in a way which reflects awareness of Jewish tradition and faithfulness to Jewish values. By including those who want to create committed Jewish homes and who have for so long felt rejected, we believe we will also strengthen the Jewish community, the enduring vitality of which is rooted in faithful partnerships and close families whose lives express Jewish practice, learning, values and devotion.


End Notes

  1. Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s film Trembling Before God was first shown in 2001
  2. One of the reasons advanced for this through the ages is that the commandment to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ can be fulfilled through heterosexual relationships only. This requires two qualifications. Firstly, it has always been understood in Judaism that the purpose of marriage is also, if not more so, companionship and mutual support. Secondly, though the process is of course different, gay couples can and do raise children in happy and secure homes.

It is worth noting that Rabbi Chaim Rappoport writes in his important study of the issue from a strictly orthodox point of view that ‘it is reasonable to believe that a faithful Jew has no cause to reject the current appreciation of an exclusive homosexual orientation – developed by nature or nurture – as indicated by so much empirical, scientific and psychological evidence’ (Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, p. 20). This is indeed central to his argument, in which he maintains that what the Torah forbids is not being homosexual, but the homosexual act. He emphasises how Judaism demands of a gay person something it asks of no one else, celibacy, since, in his view, he or she is offered no possibility of intimacy within the sanction of Jewish law. He repeatedly stresses that the response this should elicit from the Jewish community is not homophobia but understanding and support.  

  1. The Committee had previously considered the question in 1992, when Rabbi Joel Roth wrote a responsum ruling that, while gay people were in no way to be excluded from the community, Judaism asked them to remain celibate. The fact that the question came before the Committee for a second time within little more than a decade also indicates that the 1992 decision did not provide what was felt to be an acceptable and workable response to the real concerns of the community.
  2. Steven Greenberg, a modern orthodox rabbi, describes how during the Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, when Leviticus 18 is read, he would stand and weep. Concerning being gay within the orthodox community, he writes: ‘The third option is to stay and tell the truth. To stay and tell the truth means to remain committed to the fulfilment and the study of the Torah while accepting and even celebrating one’s gayness. It means being generally honest about who one is, patient with those who do not yet understand, and ready to get on with the business of finding a life partner and building a Jewish home. This is surely a religious path, and despite its apparent disobedience to certain religious norms, it is in my view the most faithful.’ (Wrestling with God and Men, p. 239) 
  3. An approach which has often been taken is to contextualise the verses. Hence, they are understood as referring to sex as part of an idolatrous cult, or to sex between non-equals, or to coercive sex. These practices were indeed part of the Graeco-Roman world against which rabbinic culture and its values were formed, aspects of which rabbinic Judaism strongly rejected. Those who argue against such an interpretative approach note that the Torah itself offers no indication that the verses should be confined to such, or to any other, limiting contexts.
  4. The full text of the ruling, which also covers other issues is:

Our practical rulings: Gay and lesbian Jews may form intimate relationships, with the Torah’s explicit prohibition of anal sex between men remaining in force. Bisexuals with primary sexual desires for someone of the opposite sex should seek to create a faithful heterosexual marriage with another Jew.  Commitment ceremonies that avoid the legal mechanisms of kiddushin may be designed for gay and lesbian couples. There is to be no discrimination against gay and lesbian Jews. Should they exhibit the other criteria needed for ordination as clergy, they shall be qualified to serve as rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators.

  1. As the process of preparation of both responsa was fully open, each of them carries refutations of its opponents’ arguments. For further consideration, see the full texts of the responsa.
  2. This is similar to the argument made by Rabbi Louis Jacobs (though not in the context of gay relationships, which he certainly did not sanction) in a Tree of Life, in which he maintains that serious Jewish law has always developed not only in its legal but also within a social, economic, moral and intellectual context, and that halakhists often knew what the decision had to be before they commenced constructing their arguments.
  3. This issue constitutes the very essence of ‘the Jacobs Affair’.  From We Have Reason To Believe onwards, Rabbi Jacobs argues that the Torah is not a text which ‘dropped from Heaven’ and thus expresses the immutable will of God beyond all human historical, legal or social context, but is a revelation not just ‘to’ but also ‘through’ human beings. Torah is thus ‘the constant interaction of the divine with the human. That the Torah contains a divine element no religious supernaturalist will wish to deny. But the human element, too, is quite obviously present’. (God, Torah, Israel, p. 33) Contextualisation and interpretation are therefore inevitable. Hence Rabbi Jacobs argues in A Tree Of Life that Jewish law has always involved not in a vacuum, but in dynamic relationship with changing social, economic, legal, intellectual and moral realities.
  4. In her ground-breaking book Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler includes a full discussion of shutafut ceremonies. 



The key responsa referred to above can be found online at 



Other works referred to are:

Richie Lewis: CJLS Teshuvot on Homosexual Themes (unpublished)

Rachel Adler: Engendering Judaism (Beacon Press, Boston1999)

Steven Greenberg: Wrestling with God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Louis Jacobs: God, Torah, Israel, (Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, 1990)

Chaim Rapoport: Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (Vallentine Mitchell, London, Portland Oregon, 2004)

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