Canadian Rabbis Split on Gay Weddings

By Sheldon Gordon, Forward Correspondent

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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TORONTO — With Canada poised to recognize gay marriage, liberal Canadian rabbis are divided over whether to perform religious wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced last week that the federal government would draft a legislative amendment giving same-sex couples equal access to marriage under Canadian civil law. Chretien said the legislation would be put to a parliamentary vote within weeks; the legislature, dominated by his Liberal Party, is expected to pass the measure. Canada would join the Netherlands and Belgium as the only countries that recognize same-sex marriages.

Chretien’s move followed a June 10 ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal that the country’s Common Law rule invoked in Ontario to exclude same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional. The verdict — following similar decisions in Quebec and British Columbia — prompted the federal government to bring its definition of civil marriage into line with the provincial court rulings.

One of the first people to take advantage of the Ontario court ruling was a Jewish prosecutor in Toronto, Michael Leshner, who married his longtime partner Michael Stark in a civil ceremony the day the decision was handed down. The pair was one of eight couples who had been parties to the litigation in the province.

The Canadian Coalition of Liberal Rabbis for Same-Sex Marriage, comprising 25 Reform and Reconstructionist clergy, previously submitted a brief to the Ontario Court of Appeal in support of same-sex marriages, contending that homosexual couples are just as capable of fulfilling Jewish values as heterosexual couples, and that Jewish marital law is “not immutable.”

Rabbi Debra Landsberg, the coalition’s chairwoman, said the change in civil law would likely force more of the country’s liberal rabbis to take a stand on performing religious weddings for same-sex couples.

“There are many members of the coalition who support the civil right to marriage but differentiate that from the religious question of marriage,” said Landsberg, a rabbi at Temple Emanu-el, a Reform congregation in Toronto. “For some rabbis who were comfortably undecided, there’s going to be more pressure on them to take a position one way or the other.”

Some rabbis were already performing same-sex religious weddings before the court ruling. Last summer, Rabbi Justin Lewis of the Reform congregation Iyr HaMelech in Kingston, Ontario, officiated at the Jewish ceremony of two women in Toronto — although it was not in a synagogue. At the time, however, he was unable to have the marriage registered by the province.

Landsberg, who has officiated at a same-sex religious ceremony in the United States, said she too was already willing to perform same-sex religious weddings in Canada, but has yet to be approached by her congregants to do so. “The greatest response from my congregants,” she said, “is questioning, not challenging, my position but seeking to understand my reasoning.”

The acceptance of same-sex marriages within Jewish ritual is a “radical turning point,” Landsberg said, comparing it to Reform Judaism’s adoption of equal status for women and patrilineal descent, which is accepted in Reform Judaism in the United States but not in Canada. The issue is so sensitive that the liberal coalition declined to reveal the names of its signatories.

“While this is radical, it’s part of a long history of looking at tradition, looking at some of the core values, and being willing to apply them quite differently than our ancestors did,” Landsberg said. “Those core values are a committed, monogamous, loving, holy relationship. For a number of us rabbis, the natural extension is whether this is to be recognized only between a man and a woman.”

Rabbi John Moscowitz of Holy Blossom Temple — the country’s largest Reform congregation, located in Toronto — said the government’s decision would not influence his interpretation of religious law. “What the courts do is their business. My only view is that the marriage ceremony meets the requirements of kiddushin,” he said, using the Hebrew, theological term for marriage. “Given that the tradition understands kiddushin solely in regard to a Jewish man and a Jewish woman, those are the marriages that I perform. We’ll continue to do what we do.”

Conservative rabbis welcomed the change to the civil law but ruled out the idea of officiating at same-sex Jewish weddings. Civil recognition will “take care of the civil needs” of homosexual couples on issues such as pensions, property ownership and tax treatment, said Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum of Beth Tzedec Congregation, Canada’s largest Conservative synagogue, also in Toronto. “This should have been addressed a long time ago.”

But Tanenbaum, who heads the Canadian wing of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, added: “I don’t see that every civil act is necessarily a Jewish act. No Conservative rabbi has had a same-sex ceremony, and I don’t know of any who are planning to.”

While liberal rabbis differentiate between civil and religious marriage, Orthodox leaders have come down against both. Rabbi David Novak, a member of the Union of Traditional Judaism and a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Toronto, denounced the move toward legal recognition of gay couples: “It’s one thing to say the state has no place in the bedroom, but now the state is radically redefining what is a family.”

Novak said he was not reassured by the government’s promise that the amended marriage law would exempt religious communities that objected to same-sex unions. “It makes traditional Jews and Christians look like the Amish: counter-cultural,” he said.

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