The “Who is Jewish” Saga Continues

Earlier this summer, a court in the United Kingdom found it unlawful that the Jewish Free School, the oldest Jewish high school in Britain, denied admittance to the child of a woman who had converted in a Conservative ceremony. The court declared that “eligibility must depend on faith, however defined, and not ethnicity.”

The Jewish Free School, which receives government funding, now has a new test in place to determine the religious observance of an applicant. If their observance is sufficient, they will be enrolled. The ruling and the new test still miss the point, said British lawyer Michael Arnheim in the Jerusalem Post, because Judaism is a communal religion, based on membership in a community.

Arnheim explains how in ancient times a “Jew’s religious identity was part and parcel of his or her communal identity.” That’s why the biblical character Ruth was able to convert by declaring: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” It should be the same today. Instead of letting the office of the British chief rabbi, whose view, he says, is narrow to begin with, decide who is Jewish, there is a better solution. He writes:

The real question to ask, which neither the old nor the new test does, is very simple: Is this applicant for admission to a Jewish school a member of the Jewish community? If the child or his previously non-Jewish mother - or father, or both - has identified with the Jewish community to the extent of going to the trouble to convert, then it would make no sense to exclude that child.

There is only one Jewish community, embracing all those who regard themselves as Jewish. Anything less would amount to self-destructive arrogance.

We agree, and we have long argued that we need to act more as one community, and not a hierarchy. Our tent is big enough for everyone to practice Judaism on whatever level of observance they find most meaningful. It’s not up to one segment of the community to validate another. As Anheim states, “the only sensible position is that a person is Jewish either for all purposes or for none.”

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