HL Deb 12 February 1959 vol 214 cc226-9

5.48 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill the Second Reading of which I am about to move has the recommendation that it was considered so uncontroversial in another place that it got through not only without a Division but without a single speech at any stage being made for or against it. I could wish that there was in this House a Standing Order which permitted a similar procedure, but I understand that your Lordships will expect me to explain. briefly why it is necessary to amend the law relating to Jewish marriages, and to do so I must delve shortly into the history of that law.

It will be sufficient, I think, if I go back to 1856—the Act of 1856, entitled "An Act to amend the provisions of the Marriage and Registrations Acts". Before that date it was possible for persons professing the Jewish religion to be married according to the religious rites of such persons, but there were a number of vexatious conditions—not really vexatious but including the necessity of satisfying the registrar that the parties to the intended marriage were, in fact, persons professing the Jewish religion. Down to 1840, this seems to have caused no difficulty. Apparently, there was only one set of religious authorities. But in that year, a new congregation known as the West London Synagogue of British Jews adopted a modified form of ritual which did not meet with the approval of the then recognised ecclesiastical authorities, and they were unwilling to certify that persons belonging to that congregation were persons professing the Jewish religion. Difficulties thus arose to their getting married, at any rate according to the religious rites which they desired. To meet this difficulty, in 1856, when a new Marriage Act was introduced, there was inserted a special section, Section 22, to enable marriage registration books to be issued to the secretary of that synagogue and to the secretary of any other synagogue affiliated to it.

I need not trouble your Lordships with the details of that section, as it is, in substance, reproduced in the Marriage Act, 1949, which is the Act which I am now seeking to amend. But I am afraid I must trouble your Lordships with a short reference to that part of the Act which deals with registration of marriages. Under Section 53 (c) it is provided that a marriage can be registered in the case of a marriage solemnized according to the usages of persons professing the Jewish religion, by the secretary of the synagogue of which the husband is a member. Then you have to turn to Section 67 to find the definition of a secretary of a synagogue. That is subdivided into three paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). Paragraph (a) reads in this way: a person whom the President of the London Committee of Deputies … certifies in writing to the Registrar General to be the secretary of a synagogue …; paragraph (b) covers the case of the West London Synagogue itself, and paragraph (c) covers this and subsidiary synagogues adopting the same Reform procedure.

At this point I must mention that Anglo-Jewish history has repeated itself. In the year 1910 another congregation of Jews was established known as the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. The tenets and the practice of that synagogue deviated not only from those of the orthodox but, to some extent, also from those of the West London Synagogue, so that the congregation did not fall within paragraphs (b) or (c) of the definition to which I have referred. Among the founders of that Synagogue were Doctor Claude Montefiore and Miss Lily Montagu, both well known for their social work, the former a distinguished student of both the Old and the New Testaments and whose works will, I think, be familiar to those who normally sit on the Episcopal Bench.

At first no difficulty arose as to marriage, and the secretary of the new congregation was certified by the President of the Board of Deputies under paragraph (a) of Section 67. But later on new congregations of Liberal Jews were started, and the orthodox ecclesiastical authorities—not the President himself but the authorities, in accordance with whose instructions he had to act—began to have doubts as to whether it was right for them to recognise those new congregations as congregations of persons professing the Jewish faith. The result was that again difficulties arose as to the marriage of members of those congregations, and it was finally felt by Jewish authorities, orthodox and Liberal alike, that the only satisfactory way out of the difficulty was to extend to the Liberal congregations similar facilities to those already accorded to the Reform congregations.

Those of your Lordships who are interested in the matter will have before you the Bill. You will see that the operative clause is Clause 1, which provides that the definition of secretary of a synagogue in Section 67 of the Marriage Act "shall be amended by substituting for paragraph (c) the following paragraphs". The new paragraph (c) is, mutatis mutandis, in the same terms as paragraph (b) of the definition in Section 67 of the 1949 Act relating-to the Reform congregation, and paragraph (d) reproduces the old paragraph (c) of that definition with the amendments necessary to put affiliated Liberal Jewish congregations on a par with congregations affiliated to the West London Synagogue.

Your Lordships may think that I am perhaps suggesting that the ecclesiastical authorities are very tiresome people, with difficulties. But I may mention that the exact meaning of "Jewish faith" has been a matter of trouble not only to the Jewish ecclesiastical authorities but to your Lordships when sitting in a judicial capacity. It is not so long ago—I think the Lord Chancellor will remember it—when your Lordships finally decided that the expression "Jewish faith" was so uncertain that it had no meaning. However, be that as it may, your Lordships will, if you accept this Bill, remove a difficulty. I think I may add that your Lordships will be removing the justifiable grievance of a substantial section of the community. The membership of the Liberal Synagogue is now some 2,450 and there are fifteen affiliated congregations with an aggregate membership of about 10,000.

May I conclude by saying what perhaps I should have said earlier in my observations—namely, that I am a member of the West London Synagogue and a subscriber to the Liberal Synagogue, and to that extent have an interest in this Bill. But that will not prevent my moving the Second Reading, to which I hope your Lordships will accede.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Cohen.)

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, I have no wish to spoil the record of this Bill, but I think I should say to your Lordships that, so far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned, there is no reason why, if it commends itself to your Lordships, you should not give it a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.