Neil Janes
Rabbi, Executive Director, Educator, Academic, Writer

Celebrating love means accepting change

A couple poses for photographs after their same-sex wedding in north London on March 29, 2014 (photo creit: AFP/Carl Court)
A couple poses for photographs after their same-sex wedding in north London on March 29, 2014 (photo creit: AFP/Carl Court)

Our rabbinic work in the oldest Reform Synagogue in the UK is some of the most forward thinking for the 21st century. And this week, my work became personal. I flew to Melbourne, Australia, to offer rabbinic input in a country-wide first with a blessing ceremony after a same-sex marriage for a mixed faith couple.

With the momentous equal marriage law change in Australia in December 2017 an aunt and partner were finally able to marry after 34 years together. The personal is also political.

Shortly before flying, I ran a study session at West London Synagogue of British Jews with our Bat and Bar Mitzvah students.

Studying the tenth of the ten commandments, a young person described her wish to retranslate the commandment not to ‘covet’. She rightly explained, the command was directed at a heterosexual man who regarded a wife as a possession.

It was an inspiring reminder that our young people are not seeking to abandon their Judaism, they are seeking to hear how it is relevant and meaningful in their world.

Our concepts of marriage, of what is expected of our most intimate relationships and of our ideas of justice and equality, have always been changing. Women were possessions in the Bible, acquired in marriage through sex.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, in the fourth century, marriage was a building block of society and means to ensure good lineage and inheritance.

In the Babylonian Talmud, in the fifth century, marriage was a mechanism to control sexual urges and had less to do with love.

So we see how our world has changed. Today marriage is about commitment, love, intimacy and family and Judaism should reflect that.

But it is only in the last twenty years that we could say that sanctifying relationships of same-sex and of mixed faith couples is part of that change.

From my first mixed faith blessing at which I officiated in a Liberal synagogue a dozen years ago, to my current position at West London Synagogue, where celebration of the LGBT+ Jewish world is a central part of our calendar, I have been fortunate that my rabbinate can be congruent with my values.

Australian progressive rabbis have also been behind the equal marriage law change – about which Australian progressive Jews can be very proud.

We should understand that arguments against homosexuality are immoral, insulting and of a bygone age.

It is a matter of justice and equality that equal marriage for people in the LGBTQ+ Jewish community exists.

Justice is at the heart of Judaism. And more than that, in its most universalistic sense, Judaism should be about raising up in holiness.

In a world where we give thanks for the end of the ghetto, mixed faith couples need to be offered ceremonies to raise up their relationship through rituals of Judaism to welcome them both, with open arms, and offer praise to God.

Judaism is not something which can be left ossified in the distant past, no longer able to adapt and change for our age.

We have a duty to ensure that it remains current.

To ensure a generation of Jews who have grown up more at ease than ever before with a globalised world, have ways to ensure their particular identity does not become obsolete or the preserve of the fundamentalists.

About the Author
Rabbi Neil Janes is part of the rabbinic team of West London Synagogue of British Jews and Executive Director of the Lyons Learning Project. He was ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006 and as part of his studies he learnt at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. From 2006-2010 he was the rabbi of Finchley Progressive Synagogue and from 2011-2015 he was one of the rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St Johns Wood. Rabbi Janes is researching for a PhD studying rabbinic literature and its representations of identity and culture. Neil is a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash and is also adjunct faculty of Hebrew College. In addition to his MA in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Neil also has a BA in Psychology and Education from Cardiff University.
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