How religious hypocrisy can hurt

By Denise Latner, December 9, 2009
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The following two real-life scenarios which, taken together, are incomprehensible to non-Jews, might help to explain to anyone still wondering why JFS has found itself battling in the Supreme Court.

Scenario 1: Woman A, from an Orthodox background, marries out. Gives birth to two daughters, neither of whom acquires any knowledge of Judaism. But Woman A’s daughters are halachically Jewish and therefore eligible to attend JFS and marry in an Orthodox shul.

Scenario 2: Woman B’s father is Orthodox, mother originally C of E but converted to Liberal Judaism prior to the marriage. Despite family observing Shabbat and festivals and keeping a strictly kosher home, Woman B (me) is excluded by Orthodox authorities .

During my teenage years, when my worried parents discovered my Orthodox boyfriend was a Cohen, they forbade me from seeing him. At 16, and heartbroken, I could not understand why they were so unshakeable.

At 19, I became engaged to a boy whose family were members of a United Synagogue shul. By this time, my father was seriously ill with Parkinson’s Disease, and my mother and I acceded to my future in-laws’ urging to undergo an Orthodox conversion. They seemed concerned above all about how it would look to others in the community if their son were not to be married in an Orthodox shul and made an appointment for my mother and me to attend the Beth Din.

There, we were subjected to a tirade of abuse and ridicule. I had been prepared to be told that the process would be strenuous and for the dayanim to try to dissuade me. I was not prepared, however, for them to treat me with contempt. Among other things, I was asked why a nice Jewish boy would want to marry a “girl like you”!

However, I was told by them that I could convert to Orthodox Judaism if I left my (kosher) home and moved in with my fiancé’s family. This “Orthodox” family worked on Shabbat, did not keep a kosher home and went (by car) to shul only on the High Holydays.

I can still recall my fiancé’s best friend, also “Orthodox”, coming to my parent’s modest flat for a meal and asking in all innocence why we had two sets of tea towels and cutlery (we actually had four, because of Pesach). This boy came from an affluent family who certainly could not plead poverty for not keeping kosher. Needless to say, he and his fiancée were married in an Orthodox synagogue.

Unsatisfied by the Beth Din’s response, my fiancé and I went to see Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. He was most sympathetic and said that “of course” he would marry us but that I should go back to challenge the Beth Din. My fiancé’s family agreed but I had little desire for my mother or me to face further humiliation. I broke off the engagement shortly afterwards and eventually married out.

At the time, some of my anger and confusion was also directed at the Liberal movement I had been brought up in, for being “different”. Why did we have confirmation and not bar- or batmitzvah? Why was my father practically the only man to wear a kipah and tallit in shul? To the outside world, I was Jewish, but to the Orthodox I wasn’t, so what was I?

Five children and many years later, I rejoined a (Liberal) shul, where my family is welcomed (and where all the men now wear a kipah, and most a tallit, and, there is bar- and batmitzvah). The pity of it is that we have allowed our faith to be hijacked by misogynists. With advances in medical science, the person who gives birth to a child may not even be its biological mother, yet Orthodoxy still clings to matrilineal descent. Because of the small faction of men who run it, and to whom women are still seen as brood mares, I have been denied marriage under a chuppah and had to question my own and my children’s identity.

Judaism does move on; otherwise we would still be polygamists and take part in ritual sacrifice. Yes, there is room for a broad spectrum of practice and belief but there should be no room for prejudice and cruelty. To tell a child that its parents — and thus the child as well — are not “good enough” is cruel.

By all means use a test of observance, including shul attendance, for admission to a Jewish faith school. As in non-Jewish faith schools, proof of faith is a reasonable criterion for acceptance, proof of bloodline is not.

Denise Latner is a civil servant in Central London

    Last updated: 4:11pm, December 10 2009

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