How come the High Courts of England are now deciding who is and who is not a Jew? The simple answer is that the rabbinic authority of the United Synagogues of London arrogantly believed that everyone else had to fit in with them, rather than that they should accommodate others. Most power and bureaucracy makes this mistake.
In the West, religion is associated almost exclusively with faith, belief. But nowadays all religions have members or associates who do not believe what the religion demands. Can you have your cake and eat it? In England now it seems that unless you actually do believe what the religion prescribes you cannot justify membership. Therefore if you have a school for Jews only religious ones can attend. If, on the other hand, you define Jews by birth you are being racist.
King Herod, who dominated life in the Roman provinces of Judea thousands of years ago, was of Idumean descent, a local non-Jewish, pre-Arab tribe. Yet everyone, including the Romans, called him a Jewish king, and he rebuilt the Temple. He certainly was not what we would call religious. Throughout its history, Judaism has always absorbed converts from all parts and races of the world.
Since Talmudic times Jews were defined religiously. Passion for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem were core values enshrined in liturgy, poetry, and academic study. So much so that in 13th Century Spain Ramban could argue that the laws of the Bible were originally only intended to be in force in the Land of Israel and nowhere else.
In the West, since the 18th century “Enlightenment“, Jews have lost their all-encompassing, unitary identity that had been defined religiously ever since Constantine made Christianity the religion and citizenship criterion of the Roman Empire. Under Islam, religion remained the definition and Jews were Dhimmis, inferior believers. In those days, all the world was made of communities with specific religions, worshipping specific gods. Political power and religious identity went hand in hand. Judaism, then, was defined as a community of common worship and shared texts and constitution based on Divine authority.
But then came the separation of Church and State, and then the rise of modern nationalism as a secular phenomenon, albeit with a strong religious element. Some people wanted to abandon religion altogether and others wanted to join religious groups for social rather than religious reasons. Most religions reacted by turning in on themselves and becoming more exclusive. It is the modern phenomenon of people wanting to lay claim to Jewish identity without its religious encumbrances that makes it is so difficult to categorize or define Jews.
In Israel, which is a nationalist phenomenon, they like to think of Jews as a nation, which is why so many have difficulty with the idea of a Jewish state as opposed to an Israeli nation. Just as it is now politically correct for some Arabs to argue there never, ever were Jews in the Middle East before Zionism, so secular Jews have liked to attack the connection between Judaism and its roots in the Middle East.
Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe said that all Eastern European Jews were descended from the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the 9th Century. As if Yiddish emerged from the Caucasus Mountains! An Israeli academic argues in Haaretz this week that all Jews are descended from converts and not a drop of the original bloodline remains.
His conclusion is that Jews today have no genetic claim to the lands of ancient Israel because most Jews nowadays are descendants of converts of one sort or another. Even if he is right genetically (which a lot of experts dispute), if a body of people have a literary and historical link does it matter if it has absorbed others from the outside? Did no Muslims ever migrate into Palestine from other parts of the Ottoman Empire? As if any English today are still pure descendents of Angles. The Queen is more German! Thanks to massive Muslim immigration most Englishmen will soon be of Muslim descent. Does this mean they are not English too? Will England then cease to be English? You might argue that previous migrations abandoned their countries of origin and few nineteenth century Jewish emigres from Russia ever looked back with yearning or a sense of belonging. But German immigrants did and most Israeli emigrants today still do.
So peoples, cultures, and religion are intertwined. Attempting to rigidly divorce them or categorize is silly and wrong. States can define citizens. Ethnicity or culture cannot.
The Bible and the Mishna, regardless of when you think they were written or by whom, originated in the rough area of the Land of Israel. We possess documents and archaeological evidence confirming this, dating back at least two thousand years. And the Judaism practiced around the world today, to a greater or lesser extent, is based on these documents and their contents. Does it matter therefore if the original adherents have been diluted by conquest, rape, conversion, and intermarriage so that the original species is no longer pure? Of course not. Does it matter if every part of my body has now been so transformed over the past sixty years that not one original cell remains? Am I therefore not me?
If Yehuda HaLevy, living in Spain 800 years ago, wrote that he longed to return to Jerusalem, does it matter if he was born a Chinaman? What matters is the yearning of a group of people, reflected in their literature, to return to their land. If some of those people were not religious or were not born Jewish, does it matter? Must Welsh culture only be supported by people living beyond the River Severn and descended from Llewellyn? Can one only support Scottish nationalism if one is a born member of the Church of Scotland or a Highland clan? What matters is the survival of a culture and/or its religious system.
Both Israel and England have got themselves into all sorts of messes because lawyers and politicians like to define and categorize (and so, sadly, do rabbis).I know Muslims in England who bitterly resent being defined as a race instead of a religion, just as much as there are Jews who object to be classified as a religion!
When England introduced laws against one group hating or attacking another, they called them laws against racial discrimination and so they categorized different groups such as Jews and Muslims as races. The fact that Jews meet no biological definition of race, and neither do most Muslims, escaped them. So Jews and Muslims, protected under the laws of Racial Discrimination now have to fit into the straightjacket of a definition arrived at by Anglican lawyers. Interestingly, the only laws still on the books to do with defending religion are the ancient heresy laws that anyway only apply to the Anglican religion and are virtually dead letters!
Over time we Jews have changed from tribal to national to nation-less to religious to religion-less as the sweep of history has taken us in and out of divers peoples and societies. Had we remained a tribe, definition would not have been an issue. Had we remained a nation, definition would not have been an issue. But we have been these and more. The term “Jew” covers a very broad spectrum and range, and religion is only one part, albeit in my opinion the most significant.
If one wants to work within English law or any other legal system, then inevitably one has to accept compromises, however silly they may be (or try to make changes, which is of course the right of anyone living in a democracy). This is why the great Babylonian Rabbi Shmuel established the principal that “The Law of the Land is the Law”.
Israel needs to make up its mind if it is Jewish state or an Israeli nation. Muslims need to decide if they want to be protected as a race or as a religion. And Anglo-Jewry needs to decide if it wants to continue fudging issues and pretending there is just one Jewish religious system, one religious authority. Something that only states that refuse to separate Church and State permit.
If a school’s entrance is based on religious criteria, then so be it. Ultra-Orthodox schools make no bones about their standards, which are exclusively Orthodox. But if, as in other major Jewish communities around the world, there are Jewish communal schools serving the wider Jewish community, and the majority of the pupils and their parents are actually not observant, then the religious authorities should either think out of the religious box and leave religion to those who choose to be observant, or relinquish their hold on such schools.
Now ironically the JFS has been forced into insisting that applicants prove their religious commitment by bringing proof of synagogue attendance and degrees of obedience. So families with no interest, no desire to lead religious lives, are flooding the synagogues just to get their kids into a school. Is not that making a laughingstock out of religion and teaching hypocrisy instead of morality?
If you want to get into bed with the State you will have to compromise. If you don’t want to compromise don’t team up with the State. And if you pretend to be the religious leader of all Jews then practice what you preach.
That the English High Court should define who is a Jew is as ridiculous as Jews denying other Jews a Jewish education just because they decide on their definitions. They have only themselves to blame for this mess.