Balancing Tradition and Modernity, UK Masorti Judaism Allows Same-Sex Ceremonies

By Liam Hoare

Since same-sex marriage became legal in the United Kingdom in March 2014, it has been up to each religious denomination to decide whether or not to they wished to hold ceremonies in their places of worship. Until recently, it was just the Liberal and Reform movements conducting same-sex marriages within Judaism. At the end of October, however, Masorti Judaism – the European sister movement to American Conservative Judaism – announced it would allow its synagogues to host partnership ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.

Within the spectrum of Jewish movements in the UK, Masorti Judaism is comparatively small, with twelve synagogues catering to around 4,000 members. It did, however, double its membership between 1990 and 2010, at a time when affiliation with Orthodox synagogues fell by a third and membership of the progressive streams stagnated. Masorti Judaism is present across Europe, west and east, including in France and Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg has been Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK since 2008, and the rabbi of New North London Synagogue in Finchley for over twenty-five years. I sat down with him over tea in his home near the synagogue in order to discuss the recent decision on same-sex partnerships and the state of the Masorti movement.

What was the background to this decision on same-sex partnerships?

The question of the status of people who are gay within the Jewish community has been a matter of concern and debate for many years.

The film Trembling Before God – which portrayed the dilemma of Orthodox Jews whose Judaism is deeply important but were trying to find a place as young gay people within the community without being told that therapy will get them out of it or that it was a sin – was a landmark. For Masorti Judaism, the publication of a number of responsa including two key ones in 2006 was another landmark, and as a result eventually all seminaries admitted gay students to their courses for the rabbinate openly. It was feared there would be a huge backlash to this but actually it didn’t materialize.

What prompted the decision here wasn’t so much the Jewish but the national agenda, opened by the Prime Minister David Cameron to enable gay couples to get married. The Jewish community has been debating this and we couldn’t ignore it, because to ignore it is to also make a decision. The Masorti rabbis discussed this many times and while there were a range of opinions, there was a broad area of consensus that discrimination in this area is as wrong as to discriminate against people for their color or their faith and gay people should be fully welcomed into our communities. Part of welcoming people is welcoming their partners and their relationships and we came to the view that a model which could be helpful here was the shutafut partnership ceremony.
[Editors note: The shutafut ceremony, also known as a brit ahuvim or brit ahuvot, is egalitarian and differs from the traditional kiddushin ceremony. It has been become increasingly popular within Masorti movement for both heterosexual and same-sex couples in recent years.]

Other movements, including Liberal Judaism, have decided to say that all synagogues will host same-sex ceremonies. Why is Masorti Judaism allowing each synagogue to make its own decision?

In a way, the Masorti movement is in the most complex of positions over this, because it would be fairly clear that the movements to the left would embrace this and it was fairly obvious where things would go to the right of us because no-one can maintain that traditional Judaism has seen homosexuality and heterosexuality as equal.

The Masorti movement has this challenge of trying to be faithful to Jewish tradition and yet allow Jewish law and practice to develop in line with enduring Jewish values. That’s a hard place to be.

In terms of the ongoing argument between Orthodoxy and modernity, Orthodoxy values and progressive values, does this issue present a greater challenge than any other?

I think the role of women has also been a challenging issue but, very significantly, the leadership at least of the Masorti movement has understood that these are enduring changes in the very structure of our society [to do with] the place of women. Although there are misogynistic voices within Jewish tradition and in the Talmud, the reasons why women were prejudiced against were probably socio-economic, not principled reasons of values. Perhaps [same-sex marriage] is more challenging but it’s not the only challenging issue.

A value of Masorti Judaism is to allow authentic differences of opinion when they are validated by Jewish tradition.

Do you worry that, where you have clear answers in Orthodox and progressive Judaism on the place of women and gay people, Masorti Judaism in trying to bridge the two becomes irrelevant?

Well what’s interesting is that Masorti Judaism in this country is growing, not in leaps and bounds but steadily, so it’s not being pushed out or found to be irrelevant. There is an advantage in a clear-cut position, but it you think about things more deeply, there is something to be said for the integrity of an honest position that grapples with issues and which shows and shares the process of grappling with issues.

What is the place of Masorti Judaism in the UK?

Orthodox Judaism goes back to the re-entry of Jews into the UK under Oliver Cromwell and Reform Judaism has a long, venerable, and important history and contribution to this country. Masorti Judaism emerged out of an argument between Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs and the United Synagogue and its Chief Rabbi in the early 1960s, where one independent synagogue emerged. A movement, driven by the importance of cooperation, emerged in the late 1970s, and became substantial only in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m glad that there is a large spectrum of options within the Jewish community in this country because, given the challenges we face as a whole Jewish community – attractive secular cultures, assimilation, growing fundamentalism – to have many doors into Jewish life really matters. As well as synagogues, there’s the growth of tikkum olam social action – I think the Jewish environmental movement will grow in this country in the next few years.

Why do you think Masorti Judaism is growing in this country at a time when the sister movement in the United States is dying on its feet?

‘Dying on its feet’ is probably too strong. Here, I think it’s growing because there are things it offers that people want. I think there are people who are looking for a Judaism that has a traditional liturgy, aspirations of observation and concern for Jewish law, and the upholding of discipline of Jewish traditions around kashrut, prayer, and learning, with the depth that that entails. They don’t see themselves as represented by Orthodoxy and they’re looking for something more embedded in tradition than the Reform movement is.

Is the main challenge to British Jewry today that the community will be pulled apart by assimilation on the one hand, fundamentalism on the other, and a weakening of the center?

I look at the community partially in terms of challenge and I don’t disagree with what you said, but I also look at it in terms of creativity and opportunity. If you compare the British Jewish community now with fifty years ago, it’s improved almost beyond comparison in most areas. There’s Limmud, there the Jewish Film Festival, there’s Jewish Book Week. There is the success of the London School of Jewish Studies and the London Jewish Cultural Centre which is now amalgamating with JW3. So, on any night of the week you have a rich menu of different kinds of Jewish activity that you can choose from which didn’t exist before. They will enable people to find and develop their relationships with Judaism.