Could the whole sorry, not to say costly, mess have been avoided?

The Chief Rabbinate’s reactions to successive school challenges has sadly been poor

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 2, 2009

The time has surely come to pin the tails firmly upon the donkeys to which they rightfully belong.

To judge by my electronic mailbag, British Jewry is in a state of confusion over the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of “M,” whose mother was converted by a non-Orthodox Beth Din and whose application for admission to the JFS was, on that basis, vetoed by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

The case itself was simple: should the JFS should be free to discriminate in the way it did? Until and unless the House of Lords decides otherwise, the law of the land now is that the JFS acted illegally, because in deciding to exclude “M” it applied a racial rather than a religious test. That is what is illegal.

The JFS can still apply a test, but it must be based exclusively on religious practice. It — and similar schools — must tear up their current admissions rule-books and start drafting new ones.

Could the whole sorry, not to say costly, mess have been avoided? Whose fault is it that the mess was created in the first place?

You will doubtless recall the case of Guy Sagal, whose entry into the JFS was barred by Sir Jonathan on the ground that the Israeli conversion of Guy’s mother was somehow illegitimate.

The fact is that Mrs Helen Sagal remains 100 per cent Jewish — her conversion under the auspices of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate remains fully in place.

The fact is, too, that, at a certain stage in this case, I suggested a simple solution: let Sir Jonathan and his Beth Din indicate to the JFS that it was free to admit Guy, but that his entry into the school was not to be taken as prejudicing the right of Sir Jonathan and his dayanim to rule on Guy’s Jewish status subsequently, for instance for marriage purposes. (Remember that this Beth Din had previously authorised Guy’s circumcision on exactly the same basis).

Unfortunately, this solution was rejected.

Subsequent to the Sagal case, there was the case of Mrs Kate Lightman, who also underwent conversion in Israel, and whose conversion also remains fully in place.

Despite Mrs Lightman being a teacher at JFS and hers being a kosher, Shabbat-observing home, Sir Jonathan vetoed the admission of her children into schools under his religious authority on the ground that her marriage (under Orthodox auspices in New York) to David Lightman — a Cohen — somehow proved that her conversion was insincere. She and her children were to be punished (and were punished) on account of the “sin” of the father.

Never mind that this approach is itself halachically flawed. Never mind that there are examples of Cohanim marrying converts in talmudic times. Sir Jonathan and his dayanim stood their ground.

Now the ground has been removed from under them. Is it any wonder that the Lightman family allied themselves with the father of “M” in bringing the present case?

Immediately following the Court of Appeal’s judgment, Sir Jonathan rushed out a press statement that was an insult to the intelligence of anyone reading it.

This stated: “The principles underlying membership of the Jewish faith… have nothing to do with race and everything to do with religion. Ethnicity is irrelevant to Jewish identity.”

Really? I did a double-take on reading this, because I had just read a so-called media briefing, issued through the same press office, which declared: “Any person of any ethnic origin can convert to Judaism and, once converted, a person is Jewish.”

If being Jewish has “nothing to do with race and everything [note that word] to do with religion, why on earth do Chief Rabbi Sacks and his dayanim bother themselves with the Jewish identity of the mother (or, come to that, the father) of any applicant to the JFS?

If “ethnicity is irrelevant to Jewish identity,” how does Sir Jonathan suppose that Jews can claim the protection of race-relations legislation?

This is — in other words — just another fine mess the Chief Rabbi and his dayanim have got us into.

Last updated: 4:00pm, July 2 2009