50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE SEXUAL OFFENCES ACT, 1967, Liberal Jewish Synagogue, 29.10.17

Good afternoon everyone. It’s my privilege to welcome you to this special celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised sexual acts between two men over the age of 21, in private,[1] and signalled the beginning of a transformation in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Britain. We are very fortunate that Robert Rinder, a criminal law barrister and journalist, known for ITV’s ‘Judge Rinder’, who, dedicated to supporting Jewish charitable causes, has kindly agreed to address us about the legal process that was involved in this landmark decision and the implications of the anniversary.

Before Robert Rinder speaks to us, as one of the pioneer LGBTQ rabbis, I have been asked to say a few words.

Since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, legal changes over the past 50 years have resulted in an equal age of consent,[2] equal marriage[3] and transgender people being able to have their birth certificates altered to reflect their new name and gender identity.[4] But let’s not forget: these legal changes only happened because LGBTQ people engaged in a struggle for acknowledgement of our full human rights.

I have been speaking about ‘LGBTQ’ people. In the early days, activism took the form of the Gay Liberation Front, founded in 1972 that mostly engaged gay men, on the one hand, and lesbian feminism, on the other. Importantly, as we acknowledge the milestone that was the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, we must also acknowledge the invisibility and marginality of the life of lesbians and of lesbian community until the advent of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was lesbian feminism in the late 1970s and early 80s that put the ‘L’ into LGBTQ. For lesbians in Britain as in other countries, our struggle for liberation did not have a legal dimension, but without the lesbian feminist challenge to patriarchy, and to what the Jewish lesbian feminist writer and poet, Adrienne Rich called ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, lesbian existence would have remained invisible.[5]

Today, we feel the absence of Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Zichronah livrachah, may her memory be for blessing, who died in 2014.

In 1982, Sheila and I got together with other Jewish lesbians to form a group where we could talk about being lesbians and Jews. Sheila and I may have stayed living, writing and working within a predominantly Jewish lesbian context, but we both decided to apply to the Leo Baeck College to become rabbis. We did not talk to one another about it. Perhaps, because it seemed such a crazy thing to do! I can’t speak for Sheila, but when I applied to Leo Baeck College, I was determined that ‘Jewish life’ would include my Jewish life, and wanted to help transform Jewish teaching and practice to encompass the lives of all Jews on equal terms. In 1984, Sheila and I were accepted on the rabbinic programme, but in response to the concerns of the college’s two sponsoring progressive movements, we were both put on five years’ probation.[6] We would not have made it through without the superlative support we received from our rabbinic mentors and teachers, including, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Zichrono livrachah, my tutor and ordaining rabbi, who died in December last year.


Today, we feel the absence of Lionel, the first Jewish LGBTQ rabbinic pioneer. Lionel, who was a lone gay rabbinic student in the early days of the Leo Baeck College, knew all about life as a gay man prior to 1967. In 1981, Lionel shared his unique wisdom and insights, when he addressed the Gay Christian Movement on ‘Being Godly and Gay’.[7]

During the past thirty-six years since that watershed moment, the vocabulary of sexuality and gender has expanded and rainbow Jews have come out of the ghetto. Today, 20% of the combined progressive rabbinate in Britain is LGBTQ,[8] and alongside Civil Marriage equality, LGBTQ Jewish couples can now marry under a chuppah in Liberal and Reform synagogues – and those in mixed relationships can have a blessing ceremony in Liberal shuls. Let us acknowledge today that these changes within the progressive movements in Britain began with the pioneering steps taken by the Leo Baeck College, which, providing exemplary leadership in the British Jewish community at that time, became the first rabbinic college in the world to train and ordain LGBTQ rabbis. To mark this special occasion, you may wish to express your appreciation for the leadership provided by Leo Baeck College, by making a donation to endow two new faculty chairs: a chair in The Public Engagement in Progressive Judaism in honour of Rabbi Lionel Blue and a chair in Jewish Feminist Theology in honour of Rabbi Sheila Shulman.

My words of introduction today would not be complete without mentioning two other pioneering Jewish institutions. Beit Klal Yisrael,[9] the synagogue founded by Rabbi Sheila Shulman and a group of friends in 1990, led and nurtured by Sheila with love for so many years until ill-health overcame her, continues to demonstrate what it means for a congregation to be truly inclusive. The Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group,[10] founded in 1972 as the Jewish Gay Group, is the oldest of its kind in the world. A few lesbians, including me, discovered the Jewish Gay Group in 1987 after attending an international conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews in Amsterdam. At that time, it was a male-only enclave. But before long, we managed to make space for ourselves and get ‘lesbian’ added to the name. I feel very proud to have led JGLG’s monthly Erev Shabbat services from those early days, joined in 1992 by Rabbi Mark Solomon, a refugee from the United Synagogue, who then went on to make an important contribution to the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews within Liberal Judaism.

Since that time, JGLG has been blessed by a host of rainbow rabbis – and also, by the leadership of Peggy Sherwood, who became a committee member in 1997 and was President from 2000 through 2015. Single-handedly responsible for ensuring the continuing presence of lesbians in JGLG, it has been a delight to see Peggy recognised for her outstanding contribution by being honoured with an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Mazzal tov, Peggy! Over the years, JGLG/JGG Erev Shabbat gatherings have been hosted by North Western Reform Synagogue, Liberal Judaism’s Montagu Centre, and are currently held here at the LJS.

Today, let us also salute the pioneering Heritage Lottery projects hosted by Liberal Judaism and led by Shaan Knan: Rainbow Jews,[11] which explored LGBTQ Jewish heritage, Twilight People, [12] an interfaith transgender initiative, and more recently, Rainbow Pilgrims,[13] which focuses on the migrant experience. In addition, since 2011, Keshet UK, part of the J Hub network, has been working ‘across the Jewish community to deliver training to promote the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and questioning people in all areas of Jewish life in this country.’[14]

So, LGBTQIQ Jews are here to stay. Before I invite our honoured guest, Robert Rinder, to address us, I would like to conclude by inviting us all to express our appreciation for the wondrous transformations we have witnessed during the past 50 years, with the words of the Shehecheyyanu blessing:

Baruch Attah, Adona,i Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, shehecheyyanu, v’kiy’many v’higi’anu la-z’man ha-zeh.

Blessed are You, Eternal One, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive and supported us and enabled us to reach this time. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Liberal Jewish Synagogue

29th October 2017 / 9th Cheshvan 5778

  5. Adrienne Rich’s essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence was published as a pamphlet in 1980.
  6. For an account of my experience, see: ‘My Journey’, the preamble to my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012).
  7. Rabbi Lionel Blue, Godly and Gay. The Fourth Michael Harding Memorial Address, Gay Christian Movement, London, 1981. See also ‘Remembering Rabbi Lionel Blue, Z”L’, my tribute to Lionel, delivered at the Erev Pride Erev Shabbat service, held at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue on 7th July 2017:
  8. As of 2017, 17 LGBTQ rabbis have been ordained under Leo Baeck College auspices: Lionel Blue, Z”L (1958), Sheila Shulman, Z”L (1989), Elli Tikvah Sarah (1989), Indigo Jonah Raphael [Melinda Michelson Carr] (1996), Alex Dukhovny (1999), Erlene Wahlhaus, Z”L (1999), Michael Pertz (2000), James Baaden (2001), Irit Shillor (2002), Shulamit Ambalu (2004), Judith Levitt (2009), David Mitchell (2009). Judith Rosen-Berry (2009) Anna Gerrard (2011), René Pfertzel (2014), Emily Jurman (2015), and Daniel Lichman (2017). A further 4 LGBTQ rabbis, ordained elsewhere, have served/serve the British Jewish community: Mark Solomon, Roderick Young, Ariel Friedlander, and Hillel Athias-Robles, who is now in New York.