Who is a Jew?

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.


11 responses to “Who is a Jew?

  1. The question, “Who is a Jew?” cannot be answered in that simple form. The real question is, “Who is a Jew for what purpose or in what context?” The best, but unsatisfactory, answer to the bare question is still the old one: one who considers himself or herself to be a Jew or is so considered by others.

  2. Of course you are right. I thought you would challenge me about the identity crisis lasting two fifths of 5770 years.

  3. You make it sound, Eric, as if the British court (religion of the judge?) found that child M was Jewish on the basis of the Orthodox test (religion of mother) though she had converted in a progressive synagogue that would not have applied that test to her child.

    You also say that it was the religion of the mother that mattered, not the family’s practices or active beliefs, but that for a child of a Christian household, the test would be whether they practised as Christians, not what religion they were born into. This seems to be the opposite of the finding in M’s case.

    I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’s strong assertion that it is inaccurate and prejudicial to refer to someone as a “Jewish child” or “Christian child”, where the child is too young to have independent beliefs. One should speak of a child of Jewish or Christian or other religious parents. Of course Prof Dawkins believes that indoctrination into traditional religious beliefs is child abuse …

    Would Horace Krever’s “others” consider the person who eats a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur to be a Jew, if the eater claimed to be one? Fortunately the state is agnostic on personal diets (except for trans-fats, of course!)

    • I also had trouble with the judge who 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.”

      He should have been more specific and have said, “if the child was the biological offspring of Jewish parents”.

      The Race Relations Act forbids the biological test. Therefore the Orthodox test is illegal.

      Yes, no doubt Horace Krever’s “others” would consider a ham-eating, liberal Jew a Jew if he knows that the gentleman thinks of himself as a ham-eating liberal Jew – or as Freud called himself, “a godless Jew”.

      Any rabbi will tell Professor Dawkins that being Jewish is not primarily contingent on what is believed but a way of life.

  4. My answer is “yes”, depending on the purpose for which the question is asked or the context in which it is asked. I did say that that is “the best, but UNSATISFACTORY, answer…” It is also not mine, originally.

  5. Perhaps not irrelevant to the discussion is Jonathon Miller’s memorable statement: “I’m not really a Jew, just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog.”

  6. Here is an interesting Canadian write-up of the English case, which has now been argued before the Supreme Court (a new creation in English law which replaced the House of Lords as the highest court):
    http://www.thecourt.ca/2009/11/19/blurring-the-line-between-religion-state-a-case-example/ – with some Canadian comparators at the end. The commentator appears to think the Court of Appeal decision that Eric mentions is wrong. For the little it’s worth, I agree.

    • How fascinating. Thanks. Let’s see what the Supreme Court will decide by the end of the year. You may be upheld.

  7. The Supreme Court has upheld the Court of Appeal, that the JFS’s test is racial not religious. This has fascinating implications for the law of charities generally – is a synagogue a religious organization entitled to tax exemptions etc? Unlike Christianity and Islam, among other religions, Judaism does not require any actual religious belief to qualify as a Jew. It is a matter of descent only. (Thus the comments about eating pork on Yom Kippur not being a disqualification.)

    For a discussion of the charities law implications, here is a blog entry from one of Canada’s leading experts on the law of religious charities, Blake Bromley:

  8. Surely the organizations of conservative and reformed Jews will mobilize all their resources to circumnavigate the Supreme Court. Do they have a chance?

  9. I suspect that logic will not prevail, i.e. the judgment that the statute on racial discrimination takes priority over the schools statute will not spread to a general characterization of Jews as being defined not on religious but on racial (inheritance) grounds. Thus the benefits that religious organizations enjoy will continue to be enjoyed by Jewish organizations.

    That at least would be the normal political response. If and when some non-Jewish outfit sues someone (the government? a Jewish recipient of such benefits?) based on the recent case, the courts may have to figure out why the schools issue is different. They’re probably up to the task.

    Is it a comfort to think that ‘religion’ normally requires belief in a supreme being, but that Buddhists are nevertheless allowed the benefits of religion because they have traditionally been considered to deserve them? Again, I suspect (having neither inside information or any ability to predict judicial decisions on the point – witness the instant case, as the lawyers like to say) that traditions will prevail over the logic of the definition of Jewishness.

    I think all versions of Judaism – orthodox, conservative and reformed, plus whatever other less well known versions – will have a common cause on this question. But I speak with even less authority on that…