We should be free to debate

By Rebecca Steinfeld, July 4, 2011

There's an old Jewish joke: "Two Jews, three opinions." As Jews, we pride ourselves on our long history of debate. We dispute everything, from the merits of Carmelli's and Daniel's challah to the finer points of Jewish law. Virtually every page of the Talmud contains halakhic disagreement. Midrash Tehillim (Psalms 12.4), refers to Rabbi Yehoshua who said "Even children living in the days of Shaul and David […] knew those subtle distinctions of the law which elaborate 49 arguments by which a thing may be proven clean, and 49 other arguments by which it may be proven unclean."

Yet my experience over the past fortnight suggests a gulf between the way we like to see ourselves and the way we actually are.

I co-authored a piece with a fellow doctoral student at Oxford in the Guardian's law section ('Time to ban male circumcision?') which drew attention from people of many backgrounds and faiths.

Shortly after the JC reported the piece, the chairman of my family synagogue rescinded my appointment as an Under-35 Observer to the Board of Deputies.

The JC then ran a follow-up report last week, along with a very hostile column by Geoffrey Alderman.

What does it mean to be an anti-Jewish Jew?

All these articles misrepresent the substance of the original piece and my views.

They said I called for circumcision to be banned. I did not.

Rather, we asked whether the differences between male and female circumcision are so straightforward as to justify a distinction in the law.

The reports failed to mention that our article was part of an open debate with our friend Adam Wagner, who wrote the response, 'Ban male circumcision? No, scientific evidence of harm is not strong enough'.

The articles also reported other views attributed to me that were immaterial to the debate about circumcision but seemed intended to discredit me.

They alleged that I described shechita as "awful." I did not. I said stories of stressed-out, upside down animals are awful.

They alleged that I criticised the Board's support of shechita. This is false. I asked for clarification about laws concerning religious slaughter.

They claimed I appeared sympathetic towards calls for boycotts of Israel when in fact I am sympathetic towards free speech, not BDS.

Geoffrey Alderman's article added that I am an "anti-Jewish Jew of the younger generation." Such accusations are not only upsetting and inaccurate but also make it harder for Jews to debate in a fair and reasoned way. What does it mean to be an anti-Jewish Jew? Are those Jews who wrestle with the implications of contemporary human rights values for Jewish tradition and law anti-Jewish?

Why can he not acknowledge the honesty and integrity of those who critically reflect on these traditions and sometimes draw different conclusions?

I joined the Under-35s because I want to contribute to debates as a fellow member of the Jewish community. It remains my hope to participate in the Board of Deputies and other Jewish forums. However, more needs to be done to include women and young people, given that less than 25% of deputies are women and less than 10% are under-35.

But this is not just a matter of improving representation on the basis of gender and age. The episode raises the question of whether bodies that speak in our names as British Jews have the will and the ability to reflect the true spectrum of views - on identity, community and Israel - or are merely an echo chamber for people who agree with each other.

Jews must continue to follow the tradition of constantly questioning and seeking truth to find answers to difficult questions. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17), "any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure."

Two Jews, three opinions is not a joke. It is a proud and ancient tradition at the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Last updated: 1:44pm, July 4 2011