Every once in a while, a story comes along so jolting that it is scarcely believable. One such story appeared in The New York Times, of all places, this past Sunday, about how the Jews’ Free School in London has been ordered to admit a child whose mother had a non-orthodox conversion after the child’s parents sued.
I will not enter here into the ongoing and bitter divide in England between orthodox and progressive Jews. It was a battle that I witnessed and worked hard to mend through countless essays and public forums over the 11 years that I lived in the United Kingdom. Less so will I address here the very pressing questions of Jewish status as determined by conversion on the part of Judaism’s three major branches. I am a passionately orthodox Jew who is equally passionate about Jewish unity. Our divisions must indeed be addressed and healed. But this shocking story in Britain raises something far more pressing that is of equal concern to orthodox and non-orthodox alike.
What is mind-boggling is that a British court of appeals, which ruled against the school, said that the Jewish community’s ancient tradition of deciding Jewishness through parenthood is ethnically based, discriminatory, and therefore unlawful.
“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. Whether the reasons were “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist makes it no less and no more unlawful.” In an astonishing ruling, the court said that if the child practiced Judaism, then he is Jewish. But to base the decision on his parents was an unlawful emphasis on ethnicity, rather than on religious faith. One can immediately understand the implications for Jews who are not at all observant. Presumably the British government would not consider them Jews.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment the unbelievable infringement of government on the affairs of a religion and focus instead on the court’s rationale. If you are living in Britain, you become a citizen automatically if your parents are British. Even if you don’t behave particularly British, or hate the country of your birth, the UK cannot take away your passport. Likewise, if you’re an American living abroad, your children automatically acquire American citizenship. I should know because six of my nine children were born in Britain, and even though only one of their parents was American, and was living in Europe to boot, they automatically became Americans.
Even if you never celebrated the Fourth of July or have ever heard of Abraham Lincoln, you and your children are as American as George Washington himself. So is it really that difficult for British judges to understand that peoplehood is conveyed through a parent? The Jews are first and foremost a people and only secondarily a faith. We were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai and began practicing Judaism’s tenets.
Peoplehood comes first and is completely independent of any kind of religious affirmation. Jewishness is not something that can be lost and it is not something that can be renounced. In this sense, Judaism is radically different from Christianity, which requires a conscious act of affirmation.
While there cannot be atheist Christians, there are plenty of atheist Jews. I am gobsmacked that a British court is challenging this. In my 11 years living in Britain, I never heard anything so outrageous. This ruling constitutes a legal assault on the very integrity of the Jewish religion as practiced in Britain and is a watershed moment in modern Jewish history. And with all the recent stories of British academics seeking to bar their Israeli counterparts from conferences and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the British Isles, it will only further cement world opinion that Britain is a country that is becoming hostile to Jews.
Being a people does not make us a homogenous ethic group. There are black Jews and white Jews, European Jews and Asian Jews. Converts of every ethnicity can of course join us at any time. But in so doing they are not adopting a faith but a people. They do not become merely practitioners of the Jewish fait but part of the Jewish family. A convert is transformed from an outsider into a Jewish brother or sister. But the process must of course have standards. To be a British citizen is not an arbitrary act. It takes approximately 10 years of residency. Likewise, my Australian wife’s naturalization as an American citizen took many years of residency and required passing a test of American knowledge. Now just imagine how absurd it would be if the United States told Britain to alter its residency requirements, or vice versa, and you can begin to understand the chutzpa of British judges trying to alter the identity requirements of a three-and-half thousand year faith that is the precursor of Christianity.
Next week, my organization This World: The Values Network will sponsor the first-ever conference on Jewish values. It will feature some of the world’s leading Jewish personalities, including Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, Alan Dershowitz, Dennis Prager, Michael Steinhardt, AIPAC president David Victor and Marianne Williamson. Among of our religion’s principle values are community and peoplehood. For thousands of years, dispersed throughout the world, Jews have always looked out for one another. You could turn up in any city, and, regardless of level of observance, you would be invited to someone’s home for the Sabbath and made to feel like family, even though just moments before you were a complete stranger. In light of this outrageous British legal challenge to this time-honored principle of Jewish peoplehood, we will be adding an entire plenary devoted to explicating the special Jewish value of identity and peoplehood and hope that it will assist British Jewry in knowing that they are not alone in this critical battle.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. To register for The Jewish Values Conference, taking place in NYC on Nov. 17 and 18, go to www.thisworld.us.