LIKE many within the Australian Jewish community, I was blessed with the gifts of an Orthodox upbringing and a Jewish education delivered by learned, passionate and inspirational teachers. Those dual gifts have shaped me as a person and directed the course of my life, leading me to follow in the footsteps of much more distinguished Jews to pursue law and social work.
In recent weeks, it has become evident that other recipients of those dual blessings, whose hearts and minds were similarly shaped by Yiddishkeit, are reluctant to vote yes to support marriage equality for LGBTIQ+ people. Some have considered it their religious obligation to vote no and encourage others to do the same.
I therefore feel equally obligated to explain – not as a rabbi or a person with any special religious, intellectual or moral standing, but merely as someone whose moral consciousness was formed by Judaism and who has taken a professional and personal interest in the issues at play – why my Jewish values compel me to vote yes.
I believe I must vote yes because in Parshat Shoftim, the Torah says “Justice, justice, you shall pursue!” While some commentators believe “justice” is repeated for simple emphasis, others, like Rabbenu Nissim, say it means we should champion both the law’s letter and the spirit of justice.
Right now, Australian LGBTIQ+ people are not legally equal in spirit or practice. Although de facto relationships are theoretically legally recognised and offered some protections, in practice de facto status does not confer the same certainty or protection as civil marriage.
Whereas marriage is an easily provable legal agreement and status, de facto status must be proven by investigating facts about the relationship, some of which are private, intention-based and hard to demonstrate.
After completing a thesis on the challenges of proving a de facto relationship under Australian family law, I saw the theory in practice while working as a Family Court legal associate.
There, I witnessed the devastation that followed when people could not prove their past de facto status, or could only do so after spending years embroiled in wrenching legal conflict, sacrificing thousands on legal fees, and revealing intimate details in open court.
This difference affects not only family law but also medical decision-making, superannuation and recognition of parental status. (For more, see legal academics Hannah Robert and Fiona Kelly’s recent article for The Conversation.)
These inequities do not result in fewer relationships of the kind that discomfit some religious Jews; they only cause suffering, denying the realities of people’s lives. In the Mishnah, closing legal loopholes in divorce law to prevent injustice following marital dissolution is described as a matter of “tikkun olam”, reparation of a fractured world.
If this were not enough, I believe I must vote yes because the Mishnah says “whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world”. Five of Australia’s peak youth mental health research and frontline service organisations have assessed the evidence and believe marriage equality will likely avert up to 3000 youth suicide attempts each year.
This estimate, published in their joint statement “#mindthefacts”, draws on earlier compelling research from the United States published in JAMA Pediatrics, where youth suicide attempt rates were compared across US state jurisdictions.
Researchers found that when states enshrined marriage equality as law, LGBTIQ+ teenagers became substantially less likely to attempt suicide. We cannot ignore the opportunity to save lives.
I believe Jewish communities must also recognise when we have been manipulated, and, as our tradition of rigorous intellectual inquiry teaches, must seek truth rather than perpetuating falsehoods.
Scaremongers trying to influence our community from the outside – like those who purchased a recent advertisement in this newspaper – claim marriage equality will affect religious freedom.
This assertion ignores robust legal protection of religious freedom in Australia, including broad religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law in this area and in areas where the law already supports equality. (For more information, look to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.)
There is no realistic basis for believing this will change – the Prime Minister and Treasurer say religious freedom would be a top priority in any legislation.
The private members’ bill recently drafted by Senator Dean Smith contains substantial religious exemptions. Notably, the Greens say they would support this bill – assertions of the Australian left’s desire to curtail religious freedom are greatly exaggerated.
The advertisement also conflated marriage law and education policy, alluding to an optional anti-bullying program which provides resources rather than forced curricula, and suggesting it would be involuntarily foisted upon all schools. (For more, see Benjamin Law’s recent Quarterly Essay and Bill Louden’s Fact Check in The Conversation.)
The advertisement used already bullied and vulnerable transgender children as ideological weapons and objects of ridicule. We should be protecting all vulnerable children and treating all fellow humans with respect.
As Jews, we have been painted as villains and deviants using caricature, falsehood, and manipulation of societal fears by those who see us as second-class citizens. We should not stand by when this is done to others or to the LGBTIQ+ Jews amongst us.
Hillel the Elder said not just “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” but also “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
It’s up to you to make your own informed choice. Picture someone saying that about a vote on whether Jews can access civil marriage, or any civil legal institution, and you may see why that sentence is heartbreaking, and what a terrible position LGBTIQ+ people have been placed in, but it is true.
I hope you will consider the Jewish case for Yes.
Hannah Aroni has worked as a legal researcher/associate at the Family Court of Australia and the Victorian Court of Appeal. Her thesis on de facto relationships under the Family Law Act received the Supreme Court Exhibition Prize for Best Honours Thesis. She attended Beth Rivkah Ladies’ College.