The opening of Britain’s brand-new Supreme Court last month was an occasion for celebration. But for some sections of Britain’s Jewish community, it was accompanied by trepidation.
In a society with only partial separation between church and state, one of the first cases heard by the new court concerned the right of the Jewish community to decide who is allowed to attend Jewish day schools, which in Britain are almost all publicly funded. If that right is taken away, blame can be laid squarely at the feet of Britain’s Orthodox establishment.
Many of Britain’s Jewish day schools fall under the religious aegis of the United Synagogue, headed by the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Consequently, the schools only admit children who are considered to be Jewish under Halacha, or Jewish law — and who are certified as such, during the application process, by the chief rabbi. The chief rabbinate does not consider non-Orthodox converts, or their children, to be Jewish.
For the most part, the Jewish community quietly acquiesced in the United Synagogue’s admissions practices until 2005, when two women who had Orthodox conversions in Israel tried to get their 11-year-old children accepted into London’s Jewish Free School. As Orthodox converts, the women should have easily met the chief rabbi’s criteria. But while the chief rabbi is celebrated as a leading Modern Orthodox thinker, his beit din, or rabbinic court, insists on imposing Haredi halachic standards on a British Jewish community whose practice and belief is largely traditional, rather than strictly Orthodox.
The chief rabbi, apparently under pressure from his beit din, refused to certify either woman as Jewish. There were “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. (According to Halacha, kohanim are not allowed to marry converts, although such a marriage is valid if a fait accompli.)
These two cases unleashed a storm of anger in the traditionally placid world of Anglo-Jewry. Many could not understand why the chief rabbi was declaring two women — fully accepted as Jews in Israel — to be non-Jews, devastating their families. Was it really necessary to delve into the intimate details of decade-old Orthodox conversions, creating problems where there were none?
The issue came to a head in 2007, when JFS rejected “Boy M” because his mother had converted through a non-Orthodox beit din. Apparently spurred on by the outrage caused by the previous cases, the father sued the school, with the Lightman parents listed as “interested parties” and presenting a supporting statement to the court.
Initially, the court ruled in favor of JFS. But this summer, the case took a shocking turn. An appeals court — headed by a Jewish judge — decided that the halachic principle that Jewish status could be determined by birth constituted ethnic, not religious, identity. Offering places on the basis of whether a child’s parent is Jewish amounted to ethnic, and therefore racial, discrimination. Under English law, what is important is whether the child has Jewish beliefs and practices — not their lineage, the judge ruled.
Bizarrely, as a result of the ruling, each school has had to devise a test measuring applicants’ religious devotion. Most have set the bar low — requiring, for example, a mezuzah on one’s front door, and four visits to synagogue each year. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance.
Communal leaders were taken aback by the court’s interference in an internal Jewish row. It was particularly jarring in that the court’s ruling seemed to imply that the traditional definition of Jewish identity is racist. Indeed, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of Britain’s Movement for Reform Judaism, said that even though his movement deplored JFS’s admissions procedures, he was behind the United Synagogue in this matter “100%.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling on this issue is due in a matter of weeks. As we all wait, Lord Sacks and the rest of Britain’s Orthodox establishment should be asking themselves some tough questions. Namely, how did they contribute to the communal climate of outrage that helped bring us to this juncture? And was it was really worth sacrificing our educational institutions’ independence and provoking a secular court to impose its own definition of Jewish identity just to keep two 11-year-olds — who are almost certainly halachically Jewish — out of their school?
Miriam Shaviv is foreign editor of Britain’s Jewish Chronicle.