There is an interesting case being argued right now in front of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The court is hearing arguments regarding the definition of “Jewish,” and whether it has to do with a person’s bloodline or religious practice.
A little background: the Jewish Free School, a government funded religious day school in London, refused entry to a child whose father was born Jewish but whose mother converted in a Conservative ceremony. The parents sued, and eventually a court of appeals decided that the school broke race laws by refusing entry. The court decided this because Jews in England are defined not only as a religious group, but also as an ethnic group under the Race Relations Act. Therefore, the school was guilty of racial discrimination.
The school took the case to the newly founded Supreme Court, and we’ll be curious to see what the court finds. How will it define religion? And what effect will the decision have on other religious schools throughout England?
As we wait for the decision, we’ve read some interesting articles analyzing the case and the larger question of who is a Jew. Writing for the British magazine the New Statesman, Sholto Byrnes noted that the question isn’t who is Jewish, but who is Jewish by Orthodox standards. JFS, and by extension the office of the British chief rabbi, decided that a child wasn’t “sufficiently Jewish” because of the mother’s conversion process. By those standards, Byrnes says, the school would prefer to admit a student “given to eating ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur” but whose mother was born Jewish.
Coincidentally, the JTA reported yesterday that a Jewish day school in Russia “was cited for excluding students whose mothers are not Jewish.” Upon their warning, the school changed its policy and no longer requires students to prove their Jewish ancestry.
There is a lot at play here in both these cases – who is Jewish, who decides who is Jewish, and should it be up to others to make that decision? We believe one branch of Judaism should not be in a position to answer these questions for everyone else. Actions and deeds should be enough to demonstrate if someone is indeed living a Jewish life. Why should it matter if someone converted in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform ceremony? And what about children of intermarriage whose mother hasn’t converted? If they are being raised in a Jewish home, is it fair to call them “non-Jews” and deny them a place in our community?
We should be encouraging intermarried/interpartnered families, whether or not the non-Jewish spouse has converted, to make more Jewish choices. Creating barriers for these families sends the message that we don’t want them, which couldn’t be further from the truth.