Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio. Photo: SBS
I will always remember the day I stood beneath the chupah (the wedding canopy) with two men who care for and love one another deeply, and for the first time was able to consecrate their union within the religious traditions that meant so much to them.
We all had tears in our eyes as we recited the ancient words which would formally unite their lives. They were a couple, like any other, celebrating their love in a public, religious ceremony.
Since that day, I have been honoured and blessed to stand with other same sex couples celebrating the sanctity of their relationships and I never cease to be struck by how beautiful and significant these ceremonies are. For many, it is the first time they have been embraced and publically affirmed for all they are – there is no hiding, no pretense, as we celebrate their relationship and their love as a community.
I wish I could call the ceremony I perform at my synagogue a ‘wedding’ and I wish I could celebrate the couple’s relationship as a ‘marriage’, but until the secular law changes I can’t to do so without the risk of prosecution. So I officiate at commitment ceremonies, which I call ‘brit ahavah’, or ‘a covenant of love’, inspired by the Liberal Judaism ceremonies currently performed in Britain. I know the day will come when I will be able to perform ‘marriages’ and they will be recognised by both the state and my denomination of Judaism.
I have been an advocate for same sex marriage within Judaism and even more so in the secular community from the very beginning. Progessive Judaism in Australia, as indeed in the world, wrestled with the issue of whether or not the clergy could or should officiate at same-sex ceremonies. After much discussion of Jewish texts and with the gay and lesbian members of our communities, five years ago the Rabbinic Council of Progressive Jews and the Australian Progressive Movement in Judaism endorsed its rabbis to officiate at same sex ceremonies between two Jews. It is time for the Australian government to follow so many in the rest of the world and legislate for marriage equality. It is a basic issue of human rights and providing equal treatment under the law for all people.
It is extremely important that the legal unions be called marriage and not another term, as I believe the coming together of same sex couples is just as much a marriage as unions between men and women, and they should be afforded all the legal rights of marriage. If religious and other communities do not wish to perform marriages between same sex couples, that remains their right and their choice, but that objection cannot be the grounds for denying couples the legal right to marry in civil law.
The position in Jewish law has become equally as clear to me during my years of wrestling with this question. We are taught that we are all created in the image of God, and I believe that sexuality is a part of that reflection of God within us. We are also taught human beings are not meant to be alone – we are created to be in relationships, to find a life partner and join together with them in sacred union. It would be a cruel God, and not one I could easily accept, who would create people that are same sex attracted and then deny them the fulfillment and happiness of a life partner. The God of my belief is not so cruel and wants people to live full, rich lives in partnership, not suffering from hiding or fighting against who they really are.
Marriage has changed and evolved over time as our understanding of relationships and partnerships has changed. Marriage in Judaism was once defined as the union between one man and more than one woman. The age at which it was permissible for marriage has changed as our conception of childhood has shifted. As our understanding of sexuality has changed, it is time for us to broaden our definition of marriage to include same sex couples. Marriage is not about gender, it is about the relationship between two people who wish to publically, before community, family and in the religious context, God, commit their lives to one another. I look forward to the time when I will have the opportunity under Australian law to officiate at weddings which are both Jewish and legal.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio is a guest on SBS's Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE which explores the cultural, religious and political barriers to same sex marriage being accepted in Australia. In the lead up to the federal election, Labor Senator Penny Wong joins religious leaders, Liberal party supporters and community members in a fiery and emotional debate.