September 2017, Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite

Dear friends,

Yesterday, ARK Centre released a response condemning the deplorable statement by the RCV urging the Jewish community to vote ‘no’ in the upcoming postal plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage. Given that such a response must necessarily be brief allow me to expand on what I believe are a few key issues that must be addressed more fully.

The argument that the Torah forbids homosexuality and as such we should vote ‘no’ is outrageous on many levels. By such reasoning we should be lobbying to revert to a time when homosexuality was considered a crime under state law – something that was, thank God, repealed in Victoria in 1980.  If we were to revert to an argument that state and religious law should be intertwined, then why not focus our attention to lobbying the government to make the sale of prawns and bacon illegal?

Which brings me to the fundamental point: the plebiscite is about secular law not religious law. Civil marriage is not about sanctity. It is about legal realities. Civil marriage means the parties are partners in the legal sense with major ramifications for instances of severe illness, divorce or death. Marriage means you can get your partner’s name on your Medicare card. And of course marriage means lots of signatures and old-school paperwork.

The argument that voting ‘yes’ will lead to loss of religious freedom, makes one’s insides churn violently. Fancy the idea that any religious group would try to impose their religious beliefs on millions of people who don’t share the view or religious beliefs, and then argue that it is in the name of religious freedoms?!

And then comes the clincher. ‘And we will continue to advocate for same-sex attracted individuals to be treated with compassion…’ The preceding statement lends one to believe that this is merely paying lip service to the concept of compassion.

Plenty more can be said about the minutiae of the RCV statement but then I’d miss the opportunity to address the most vexing issue facing the Jewish community today, one that threatens its very survival; the problem of assimilation.

We can only begin to address any challenge when we identify precisely what the problem is. I believe the issue is not assimilation per se but rather the lack of retaining interest. Once interest has been lost, assimilation is the consequence. So the question is not how can we stop assimilation but rather how can we combat disinterest and disaffection?

I’m not marketing expert but I take it as common sense that if there is a product that once-upon-a-time dominated the market but is now, and has been for some time, on a steep and accelerated downward spiral of consumer disinterest, then the solution to the problem is a change how the product is perceived.

To extend the adage of product, supply and demand – the supply of a certain brand of Orthodox Judaism is plentiful. The demand, however, has shifted toward a purveyor who can deliver the authentic product in a relevant and meaningful manner.

If ever there was tangible proof for this, this week the unfolding saga of the RCV statement brought this home crystal clear. The innumerable responses trending on social media, some of which have been forwarded to me, reflect a consistent sentiment: You can preach your religion to your club but I’m not interested and that’s why I left. Many have expressed hurt and outrage over the past 48 hours which is itself testimony to the need for rabbis, myself included, to stand up and demonstrate genuine compassion, relevance and inclusion to our community.

Those of you who know me know that I do try and look for the positives. This situation we find ourselves in has a silver lining in that it clearly highlights what needs to change if Jewish continuity is to be guaranteed. We need a religious leadership that is a light unto our communities.

The Torah says that if we keep the laws of the Torah all the nations of the world will proclaim ‘oh what a wise and great nation this is which has all these righteous laws’. According to the Rambam in More Nevuchim this is the basis for his belief that every law in the Torah can be rationally explained. If others are going to say how wise it is, obviously it is because they intellectually appreciate its value. For outsiders to be wowed by Torah’s righteousness, the laws must be truly righteous.

I believe in the universal message of Judaism, and in the beauty of Orthodox Judaism. My preoccupation is to promote an authentic, inspiring, enriching, and compassionate religion to our own Jewish community. The point of Judaism is not to act as the antagonist to progress. In fact, Judaism is all about progress. Before the Torah was given societies burnt their children to the gods, killed child rape victims, believed in witchcraft, and didn’t have laws protecting women. The Torah does not just denounce these states of affairs but provided a moral framework for us to live by. One that espouses that each and every person is made in God’s image.

This is the message that needs to be heard. The Torah is never and can never be at odds with things that we know to be true and right. If it appears to be, it is the result of bad interpretation.

And to leave off with the prayer we sing every time we lift the Torah: Dracheha darkei noam, vechol netivoteha shalom – all the Torah’s ways are pleasant and peaceful. Genuinely adopting this is not only the greatest survival strategy, it also gives us the very reason why Jewish continuity is important in the first place. To promote peace and love in the world through wise, evolved, and compassionate laws and opinions.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur