Sunday, November 8, 2009

Who is a Jew?

David Lightman with his daughter, who was denied admission to the Jews' Free School because her mother's conversion was not recognized. But a court ruling has voided the admissions policy.

LONDON — The questions before the judges in Courtroom No. 1 of Britain’s Supreme Court were as ancient and as complex as Judaism itself. Who is a Jew? And who gets to decide?

A judge?

The case began when a 12-year-old boy, an observant Jew whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a Jewish convert, applied to the school, JFS. Founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School, it is a centerpiece of North London’s Jewish community. It has around 1,900 students, but it gets far more applicants than it accepts.

Britain has nearly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools, representing Judaism as well as the Church of England, Catholicism and Islam, among others. Under a 2006 law, the schools can in busy years give preference to applicants within their own faiths, using criteria laid down by a designated religious authority.

Publicly financed schools; imagine that happening in the US?

By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — nor was her son. It turned down his application. That would have been the end of it. But M’s family sued, saying that the school had discriminated against him. They lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal this summer.

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

Interesting distinction.

The case’s importance was driven home by the sheer number of lawyers in the courtroom last week, representing not just M’s family and the school, but also the British government, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the United Synagogue, the British Humanist Association and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Lot of lawyers.

The case has stirred up long-simmering resentments among the leaders of different Jewish denominations, who, for starters, disagree vehemently on the definition of Jewishness. They also disagree on the issue of whether an Orthodox leader is entitled to speak for the entire community.

No one does. Jews have no Pope.

“Whatever happens in this case, there must be some resolution sorted out between different denominations,” Mr. Benjamin said in an interview. “That the community has failed to grasp this has had the very unfortunate result of having a judgment foisted on it by a civil court.”


Orthodox Jews, of course, sympathize with the school, saying that observance is no test of Jewishness, and that all that matters is whether one’s mother is Jewish. So little does observance matter, in fact, that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said recently.

Really? So what is the sense of, or use for, rules of orthodoxy? Why bother, if your mother is Jewish?

“How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?” David Lightman, an observant Jewish father whose daughter was also denied a place at the school because it did not recognize her mother’s conversion, told reporters recently. “I find it offensive and very upsetting.”

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism here, said the lower court’s ruling, if upheld, would help make Judaism more inclusive.

“JFS is a state-funded school where my grandfather taught, and it’s selecting applicants on the basis of religious politics,” he said in an interview. “The Orthodox definition of Jewish excludes 40 percent of the Jewish community in this country.”

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