Generally, I’m not a fan of religion intruding in government, or a fan or government intruding on religion. However, in this pending case before Britain’s Supreme Court, I’m definitely cheering for the plaintiff, and siding against the forces that wish to keep Judaism an exclusionary religion.
A practicing Jewish man, whose wife underwent a liberal Jewish conversion, sued the Jew’s Free School in London (a government supported high school) when it rejected his practicing Jewish son’s application on the basis that his mother was not Jewish by the standards used by the school. They sued, lost and appealed. The Court of Appeal overturned the lower court opinion, and wrote:
“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.
I think the Court of Appeal is correct in its reasoning. It is time for Judaism to stop being allowed to hide behind this charade of allowing only the orthodox community to decide “who is a Jew” by it’s traditional, halakhic, yet completely arbitrary standard. It is discriminative, bigoted, and exclusionary. In this day and age, one’s religion is defined by choice and praxis. This is certainly true in the traditional community. Any other standard is patently absurd.
There was a time when I could be swayed by arguments that traditional religious communities ought to be able to operate by their chosen set of values. I am no longer so swayed. Standards that have become exclusionary and unfair need to give way to more enlightened understandings. I’m sorry if this makes a mess of things for the orthodox, but they have been living a fantasy anyway. I suspect we all have a little stray DNA in our makeup. If we really think our bloodlines are clean, and that we can all prove matrilineal descent back to ancient times (when, in point of fact, patrilineal descent was the norm) we’re only kidding ourselves.
Many will say that we shouldn’t disturb the delicate balance that currently exists between the traditional and liberal streams of Judaism. I used to be one of that crowd. I do still believe that reconciliation between the streams of Judaism is possible. However, I have slowly come to the conclusion that allowing the traditional community to continue living in this house of cards it has constructed for itself is not only against the interests of the liberal community, but of the traditional community as well.
Yes, the Jewish community has always seemed to survive through a remnant. Why should we continue to settle for that? Each time we survive only as a stub, we diminish ourselves. It’s time to grow and thrive, not divide and shrink further. By changing our viewpoints on “who is a Jew” and making things like choice , praxis, and ethics part of that definition, we can grow and thrive. Sad that it might take a secular high court to force us to change. Our tradition teaches us dina d’malkhuta dina – we must respect the law of the land. If Britain tells us we cannot segregate our schools on the basis of matrilineal descent alone, we’ll have little choice but to heed their decisions. Would that we would make this choice for ourselves as a community, rather than waiting for a secular court to do so for us.
Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)