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Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises an Important Question

The Orthodox attempt to create a monopoly is not just a coercive religious force acting in Israel where the Haredi rabbis impose their will whenever they feel like it. Haredism is attempting to flex its muscle in Great Britain, as an English court is faced with one of the most important discrimination cases of modern times in English history.

Here’s the background to the case. A Jewish father married a woman who had a conservative conversion; by all accounts this family takes their Judaism very seriously but not seriously enough for the Orthodox Jewish High School, which denied their young man admission to the school on the grounds that his mother failed to convert in accordance with “Halacha,” as interpreted by the Haredi-Chabad rabbinic establishment.

But some religious (Orthodox does not have a monopoly on this term either) people have backbone and courage.

To the family’s credit, the parents finally decided to sue the school for discrimination and lost. However, the Court of Appeal, however, reversed that decision on grounds that question one of the foundational tenets of Jewish identity: that, short of conversion, the only way one can be Jewish is to have been born to a Jewish mother. Conversion to a non-Orthodox movement is also a viable path. As the Court of Appeal noted,

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined. The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said.

Normally, I do not like criticizing Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, but I must do so here because of his lack of leadership. From what I have read and heard, he was the rabbi who ruled against the family in the first place! I find it amazing how a Chief Rabbi who does so much to promote Jewish-Gentile relations, would do so little to promote intra-Jewish relations and break the monopoly of draconian Orthodoxy once and for all.

Alas, British Orthodoxy has been terrorized so much by the Haredi communities, they have lost the will-power to stand up for a pluralistic Judaism; while we may differ as to how we practice our Judaism, it is vital we respect the rights of others to worship as they see it–unencumbered by the politics of the “Who is a Jew?” issue. In our country, the totalitarian hand of Haredism is doing its best to disenfranchise and marginalize Modern Orthodox rabbis who fail to follow the party-line, thus rendering it impotent.

Historically, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, America’s greatest Halachic  scholar of the last 50 years, always did his best to encourage schools to accept children from such mixed backgrounds (See Responsa Iggrot Moshe, Y.D. 1:158; E.H. 4:26c).  However, England is different, and its Orthodox community’s contempt for non-Orthodoxy is legendary. The British Orthodox community has been known once to negate a conversion conducted by the Israeli Chief Rabbi himself!

I must add, that were it not for the efforts of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the “Who is a Jew?”  issue would never have gotten the traction that it receives today. Despite the mitzva tanks and the philosophy of “ahavat Yisrael” or “love of all Jews,” the Rebbe created a fissure that continues to disenfranchise non-Orthodox Jews, wherever they may be. With respect to Habad and other Haredi groups, it is vital that modern Jews of all denominations differentiate between soundbites, platitudes versus the disturbing reality of Haredi policies–especially as it affects Jewish status of the Jews-by-Choice.

In short, I pray that soon the English Supreme Court will recognize that no faith has the right to create a monopoly with respect to faith-based non-Orthodox Jewish communities. It is a pity that the original court did not see it this way, but I am confident that justice will triumph in the name of religious freedom and liberty. I hope the Modern Orthodox community in this country will someday show courage and conviction before they become a thing of the past; standing up to religious tyranny is a mitzvah. In the free marketplace of ideas, everyone benefits from an environment that endorses religious pluralism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks needs to emulate the wisdom of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and not the narrow-minded thought processes of the Haredi movement in Israel.



Discussion

  1. Shoshan  November 18, 2009

    Everything in this world has rules. In order to enroll in university, you have to follow the application procedure required by the university, in order to gain admission into a music school, you have to display your talent and knowledge, in order to be admitted into a Jewish school, you have to be Jewish. A person can love music and want to be a musician, but unless they can actually play music, they are not going to be allowed admission to a conservatory. The same is true of an orthodox Jewish school- you have to have the right credentials to be admitted. No matter how much someone loves Judaism and feels Jewish, unless their soul has undergone the change that a halachic conversion effects, they are not a Jew.

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