Why Britain needs an alternative Beth Din
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If you think of a Beth Din, you will probably have in mind the image of an Orthodox rabbinic court. Think again. There is also a Reform Beth Din in Britain, which specialises in status issues surrounding conversion, divorce and adoption.
It is unique worldwide, in that no other Reform movement has a Beth Din that operates nationally, with others abroad having only local or regional jurisdiction.
You also need to think again if you imagine that it just serves Reform members. That was the original intention when it was started in 1948, but it ended up serving British Jewry in general. Its existence broke the then virtual monopoly of the Court of the Chief Rabbi and offered an alternative avenue for United Synagogue members who found it difficult to obtain help from their own rabbinate.
This central role in the community at large, coupled with rapidly changing social patterns, offer clues as to a possible new agenda for the future.
There is an unprecedentedly high rate of intermarriage. If someone engaged or already married to a Jew wants to convert, then it is surely something to be encouraged and assisted. It turns a mixed-faith family into a Jewish one, helps keep the Jewish partner Jewish, secures the next generation and strengthens the Jewish community as a whole.
It would also be sensible for the Beth Din not just to sit back and wait for individuals to apply, but to be proactive and approach all mixed-faith couples, suggest that the non-Jewish partner consider conversion and invite them to attend classes so as to experience what they involve.
This does not lessen standards or the need for sincerity, but it would be an enormous psychological change, taking down the "No entry" signs and replacing them with "Welcome" notices.
While the Jewish divorce rate has been increasing over the decades, the number of gittin (religious divorce bills) issued has remained static. Having begun their marriage both Jewishly and civilly, many couples end it only civilly.
One of the reasons is because of the financial cost at a time when assets are being divided and lifestyle curtailed. Moreover, many divorcees reckon that a get is unnecessary, believing "After that experience I am never marrying again!"
The Beth Din currently makes a charge for issuing a get, in order to cover the cost of those hearing the case and producing the documentation. Perhaps it is time to grant gittin free of charge as a service to the community and encourage Jews to end their marriage Jewishly.
It is widely acknowledged how unfair it is that women cannot obtain a get if their husband refuses to grant one. What is not so well-known, but needs to be, is that the Reform Beth Din has found a solution to the problem for those that come before it.
On the basis that an unethical law cannot be a Jewish law, it has ruled that a Jewish husband who is already civilly divorced from his wife but refuses to give her a get out of malice or for financial gain is no longer acting as a husband should and therefore forfeits any right to withhold it. The Reform Beth Din awards the get on its own authority, and both releases the woman from the relationship and permits her to remarry in a Progressive synagogue.
Reform is committed to Jewish status descending through the mother's line. However, it is impossible not to be aware of the anomalies this can involve. If children have an actively Christian father and an irreligious, pork-loving Jewish mother, they have full Jewish status. Yet there are hundreds of children who have a non-Jewish mother who has no faith and a Jewish father who is committed to Judaism and brings up the children as Jewish, yet they are officially not Jewish.
It is daft not to acknowledge that they have a Jewish heritage, and often a Jewish self-identity. Many may wish to attend cheder, or services. Rather than simply dismiss them as non-Jews, is it not the task of the Beth Din to find ways of including them in the wider family of Judaism? It might be on an individual case-by-case basis, or through finding a collective formula.
Just as we have welcomed Ethiopian and Russian Jews of debatable lineage, surely we must try to include the British patrilineals in some way too.
It seems unlikely that the Orthodox and Reform Batei Din could work together, as there are too many obstacles to be overcome at present. However, there may be merit in exploring whether Liberal, Masorti and Reform rabbinic authorities could co-operate.
Although the three movements differ, they share various principles, especially a commitment to applying Jewish tradition to individuals in a way that is just and humane.
Perhaps we could establish an agreed conversion course syllabus. Perhaps we could have a common certificate for divorces. Such developments cannot happen overnight - they need careful preparation and wide consultation - but they can be laid down as goals to work towards.
If so, it would send an important message to the rest of British Jewry: that institutional differences do not have to mean stand-offs but can also lead to co-operation. It would also help consolidate the community and prevent fissures.
I should stress that all of the above are my personal ideas, not Reform movement policies, but as we celebrate 60 years of our Beth Din, we have to plan ahead to meet new social realities.
When the first convener of the Reform Beth Din, Rabbi Michael Curtis, was asked to explain its remit, he did not reply "We are here to enforce laws" but instead he said "We are here to help people". The two statements are compatible, but in the public mind the accent has been on the former, whereas we need to emphasise that our main task is indeed "to help people".
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and wrote his doctorate on the origins of the Reform Beth Din