This question has been vigorously debated for two fifths of the 5770 years in the Jewish calendar.
What’s the problem?, ask the Orthodox. It’s simple. If you mother was Jewish you are Jewish.
(The unspoken reason behind this oh-so-worldly rabbinical law is that maternity is a safer test than paternity.)
Oh, no – say the non-Orthodox. It’s not simple at all. It’s highly complex. It has to do with the way you live, how you conduct your life. Never mind who your mother was.
The question has recently rocked the community of 300,000 Jews in the U.K. It was raised by a court decision, which has still to be upheld, about the admission policies of the Jewish Free School, a high school in North London, founded in 1737, one of seven thousand publicly financed religious schools, Jewish, Christian and Islamic. It has 1,900 students, but gets far more applications than it accepts.
The parents of the twelve-year old boy, M, sued the school because it had refused his admission. The reason? M’s originally non-Jewish mother had converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue. That refusal the court held to be discriminatory. The status of the mother had determined the matter, it said, not the question whether M and his family considered themselves Jewish and practiced Judaism. The school’s decision was based on race or ethnicity, not religion, and therefore contravened the Race Relations Act. The school had used the criterion laid down by Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.
The case has far-reaching implications for thousands of other parochial schools in the U.K. In his decision the judge said the same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin.”
One would imagine that many liberal Jews wish there was a race relations act in Israel, for a number of reasons. For one thing, if there was, the Orthodox could not dictate the terms of so much of the public life in that country.
Since rabbinical law is not a part of the common law of England, and since the Race Relations Act determines many aspects of the secular connections between Jews and non-Jews, British Jews, however they are defined, have a perfect right, at least as far as the state is concerned, to eat a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur.