Who Determines Who is Jewish?

There is a case before the Supreme Court of Britain. The question is who is a Jew? There is a real identity problem in today’s Jewry. Is being Jewish a race or a faith or both? This is an issue as the Orthodox have put themselves in charge of who is Jewish and who isn’t. And according to the Orthodox, if your mother isn’t Jewish, you aren’t Jewish. This gives the Orthdox tremendous power in the Jewish world. If you convert to Judaism you can only be Jewish if converted by the Orthodox. There have been real problems in Israel about this as I have written before:

Swing Vote

Here is an excerpt from a very good New York Times article about the case:

The case began when a 12-year-old boy, an observant Jew whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a Jewish convert, applied to the school, JFS. Founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School, it is a centerpiece of North London’s Jewish community. It has around 1,900 students, but it gets far more applicants than it accepts.

Britain has nearly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools, representing Judaism as well as the Church of England, Catholicism and Islam, among others. Under a 2006 law, the schools can in busy years give preference to applicants within their own faiths, using criteria laid down by a designated religious authority.

By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — nor was her son. It turned down his application.

That would have been the end of it. But M’s family sued, saying that the school had discriminated against him. They lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal this summer.

And check out the court’s logic for overturning the ruling:

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

“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. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

I think this case has strong ramifications and will bring to the forefront the problems with basing a religion on ethnicity. Whether your mother was bor Jewish or not is an arbitrary decision made up by Rabbis in the middle ages, when women were getting raped and they had no idea who the father was. Just a casual read of the bible shows the importance of patriarchal line. And the most famous convert is Ruth from the book of Ruth, who ends up being the great, great grandmother of King David. And she didn’t go through an Orthodox conversion.

I’m happy to see the case come to the limelight and I think the discussion it will engender will have lasting implications in the Jewish world.

Here is a link to the full New York Times story: Who is a Jew (NY Times)