Jewish Identity and JFS

Beyond the immediate very important practical issues raised by the JFS controversy, that controversy is important because it focuses our attention on the fundamental issue of Jewish identity, on what it is to be a Jew.

But let me first say a couple of things about the immediate issue of the Court of Appeal’s ruling. I believe that the Court’s decision that Jewish schools may no longer use birth to a Jewish parent, but only some test of Jewish practice as a criterion of admission to Jewish schools was not just misguided but outrageous. Outrageous because it imposes a non-Jewish test of religious identity on Judaism. For millienia, our people has defined Jewishness primarily by birth. Level of observance has never made any difference to one’s Jewish status. Outrageous, too, because the right to define Jewishness is a matter for the Jewish community alone, and not for any institution outside it. That is why, as Rabbi Tony Bayfield has recognised, the ruling, if not overturned by the new Supreme Court, is as harmful to non-Orthodox schools as Orthodox ones, because it takes the right to determine Jewish status out of the school’s hands. Outrageous, because it labels as ‘racist’ the way in which Jewish communities across the globe have for centuries decided questions of religious identity. Outrageous because if not overturned, the ruling will force our schools to use tests of Jewish practice which will exclude children who previously would have been accepted into Orthodox schools, and benefited from them, and it will include children who are not halachically Jewish and who cannot, if we take halacha with an iota of seriousness, be fully included in, for example, religious services taking place at an Orthodox school.

Some of the views put forward in the Jewish press during the JFS controversy have been to my mind shockingly unhelpful. The argument has been made that anyone who considers themselves Jewish should be considered Jewish by the community. But not even the Liberal denomination of Judaism accepts that – they have criteria for conversion. The argument has been made that Orthodoxy should accept the conversion criteria of the other denominations. But not even the other denominations accept the conversion criteria of the other denominations – for example, the Masorti do not accept Liberal conversions, and everyone recognises that that is a perfectly reasonable position. Why should Orthodoxy, whose conversion criteria are the oldest, the best-rooted in Jewish tradition and the only ones universally accepted in the Jewish world, be the only denomination not permitted its own criteria of conversion?

But let’s look at the deeper issue. What is Jewish identity? I believe that the best guide for a modern Orthodox approach to this issue is our greatest medieval philosopher, Maimonides. A very clear discussion of Maimonides’ views on this issue appears in Professor Menachem Kellner’s acclaimed recent book Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism. Maimonides rejects any kind of ethnic interpretation of the chosenness of the Jewish People which understands Jews as essentially distinct from and superior to non-Jews. Maimonides held Jews to be distinct from non-Jews only to the extent that Jews adhere to the Torah. If Jews follow the Torah and conduct themselves in a holy way, then that conduct makes Jews holy. There is nothing intrinsic about Jewish holiness. There are not different species of human beings, only one. In his letter to Rabbi Ovadia the Proselyte, Maimonides writes:

Know that our fathers who came out of Egypt were mostly idol-worshippers in Egypt… until G-d sent Moshe Rabbeinu… and gathered us in under the wings of the Shechinah, us and all proselytes, and established one Law for us all. So let not your lineage (yichuscha) be light in your eyes; if we [Jews by birth] are descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you are descended from He Who spoke and brought the world into being.

Rambam here implies a view that is a model for modern Orthodoxy. Jews and non-Jews are equal members of one human species. Most Jews were idolators until the collective conversion of the Jewish People to Judaism at Mount Sinai with the Giving of the Torah. Those who subsequently join the Jewish People as gerim, as proselytes, are superior rather than inferior to Jews by birth, because what is essential to Judaism is not ethnicity but submission to the Torah. Having found their own path to the Torah and into the protective embrace of the Shekhina, those who convert to Judaism are not simply the progeny of the Patriarchs. They are, rather, the children of G-d. Jewish identity is not essentially to do with ethnicity. You can be born into it, but you can also opt, if you are serious about it, to take it on. To use the Chief Rabbi’s helpful analogy, Orthodoxy sees being Jewish is akin to citizenship in a contemporary liberal democracy, such as Britain. You can be born into British citizenship, or you can spend several years acquiring it: living in the culture, learning the language and so on. Of course there are problems, especially in Israel but also in the UK, surrounding conversion to Orthodoxy. But the fundamental recipe is age-old and it is the right one.

To come back finally to the Court of Appeal judgement: because Jewish identity is not essentially ethnic, the last thing contemporary Judaism is is racist. It is gloriously multicultural. Jewish people are of every skin colour, and it is a joy to see, especially in the centre of the Jewish world, Israel, Ethiopian Jews and Russian Jews and Indian Jews – all kinds of Jews. So let the question of who is a Jew be left to the Jewish community, and to each Jewish denomination regarding its own schools. I hope the new Supreme Court’s first action is to recognise that this is the right way forward.
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