Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Nov/09

8

Is Britain establishing Protestantism as the state religion?

Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question:

By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — nor was her son. It turned down his application.

That would have been the end of it. But M’s family sued, saying that the school had discriminated against him. They lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal this summer.

In an explosive decision, the court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”

The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.

It is unclear what effect the ruling, if it is upheld, will have on other religious schools. Some Catholic schools, accustomed to using baptism as a baseline admissions criterion, are worried that they will have to adopt similar practice tests.

“How dare they question our beliefs and our Jewishness?” David Lightman, an observant Jewish father whose daughter was also denied a place at the school because it did not recognize her mother’s conversion, told reporters recently. “I find it offensive and very upsetting.”

The title is tongue-in-cheek, as the Church of England, a Protestant denomination (unless you talk to some obstinate Anglo-Catholics), is the established church of England. My point though is that the British authorities seem to be enforcing a Protestant understanding of religious identity, in fact, a specifically dissenting Protestant conception of religious identity, that what you believe & confess is what “counts”. This is of course not something which is widely agreed upon, and in fact, implicitly it is probably a minority viewpoint, even in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. Within Judaism the historical tradition for the past 2,000 years has been upon the necessity of matrilineal descent, or, conversion. Judaism is understood as a nation as well as a religion. The British authorities seem intent on rewriting this understanding, and by doing so are imposing a very sectarian Christian understanding of the nature of religious identity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s what’s going on.

And these sorts of issues are why the concept of religious “neutrality” is simply incoherent. By the act of definition and demarcation one is engaging in an act of discrimination and preference.

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23 comments

  • Ross · November 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    ” British authorities seem to be enforcing a Protestant understanding of religious identity, ….. that what you believe & confess is what “counts”. “

    Maybe I am missing something but isn’t that also the secular understanding of religious identity?

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 8, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Maybe I am missing something but isn’t that also the secular understanding of religious identity?

    people from protestant backgrounds, or protestantized backgrounds. which to some extent is the closest to a “world culture” we have. anyway, it’s a spectrum. one of my facebook friends has his religion as “lutheran agnostic.” i refuse to allow myself to be defined as a “muslim atheist” or “atheist muslim,” so i personally support the importance of belief, but this isn’t an overwhelmingly position even in the united states.

  • Jack McHugh · November 8, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Hmm – you mean a change of course? Protenstantism, instead of the current direction, which is toward Islam?

  • Clark · November 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Given the differences between Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism I can sympathize with the situation the courts are put in. Put an other way, why should the Orthodox control Judaism? (In a legal setting)

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 8, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Put an other way, why should the Orthodox control Judaism? (In a legal setting)

    sure. but remember in most of the world, *including* britain, to be a religious jew is to be what we in the united states would call orthodox. this includes the UK. reform judaism used to be prominent in the german-speaking world…but not so much now, for obvious reasons.

  • Kath · November 8, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    You didn’t quote this, but I think it is part of the issue:

    “JFS is a state-funded school….”

    The state funding is most likely where the need to determine “discrimination” lies. The orthodox are entirely attempting to make “Jewish” align with the genetic ingroup. But for the state, which has a say in publicly funded institutions, it is attempting to set a precedent that isn’t exclusive (discriminating) on the (multi-definitional) public dime. So how would you suggest they come to an answer on this issue? If you argue for the “mother test”– that is essentially the tradition because it held that one knew who the mother was — fatherhood was not so easy to determine until very recently. So the mother test is a genetic claim to Jewishness and allows inclusion in JFS — would you have the court broaden the genetic test to DNA confirmed fatherhood? I’m thinking that’s a can of worms… but still, it’s exclusive. If this was a private school you could probably make up whatever rules you like (I have no idea what British laws cover private education) — but public education has to cover the broadest definition of, in this case, Jewish. And I am not sure that is entirely a Protestant type of ruling as much as it is the response of a pluralist society in the public domain.

    Not to be picky, but didn’t you just write in another post “I believe that nation-states need a core common culture, a set of values, to bind them”? And wouldn’t this be an example of a core set of values (ie: personal profession of faith as the standard and not a multiplicity of genetic determinations of ingroups dividing the culture). Ok, maybe I am misunderstanding you here, but still…

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 8, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    kath, don’t be a mind reader. if you care, i think the “orthodox” monopoly on jewishness should be rejected by western nations.

  • Aaron · November 8, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Ross :

    Ross

    ” British authorities seem to be enforcing a Protestant understanding of religious identity, ….. that what you believe & confess is what “counts”. “
    Maybe I am missing something but isn’t that also the secular understanding of religious identity?

    What you’re missing is that it’s often impossible to separate religious confession and ethnicity, and not just for Jews. As ethnic loyalty waxes and religiosity wanes, the ethnic-national aspect of religion becomes more important. Israel is the canonical example: a fiercely national, secular state.

  • j mct · November 9, 2009 at 10:29 am

    The ‘who did the conversion’ stuff is quite an issue in Judaism. I’m not the most knowledgeable guy on the planet for this sort of thing, but the Law of Return in Israel does apply to converts, but the only conversions it recognizes as valid are ones done by an Orthodox rabbi. Lot’s of American Jews don’t like that.

    I don’t think this would be a problem amongst Catholics say, there is no ‘controversy’ about what conversions count or do not count.

    Israeli’s don’t seem to think that’s a problem either. I remember reading an article about it where an Israeli woman defends the policy, and the interviewer looks at her, I think the interview was conducted on a topless beach, and asks ‘When was the last time you saw the inside of a synagogue?’. Her answer, and I think Mr. Hume would appreciate this one, was ‘The synogogue I don’t go to is an Orthodox one!’

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    and I think Mr. Hume would appreciate this one, was ‘The synogogue I don’t go to is an Orthodox one!’

    this is a common attitude in the jewry as a whole outside of th united states. i’ve talked to canadian jews with the same stance. personally atheist, but go to the orthodox synagogue on high holy days. for atheist jews who prefer orthodoxy, it is often a matter of aesthete. reform judaism rather explicitly attempted to mimic aspects of christian congregational worship and presentation so as to appeal to jews integrated in the gentile world, but in the 21st century it has ended up being a negative for those jews who want something more ‘authentic.’

  • Liesel · November 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Exactly, this is a Protestant idea of religion. Hindus and Muslims would also disagree.

    And these sorts of issues are why the concept of religious “neutrality” is simply incoherent.

    Yes, the Orthodox idea of who is a Jew is the Jewish concept of who is a Jew. It comes straight from the Talmud(very few observant Jews reject the authority of the Talmud, and they are not affiliated with the Reform movement and so small in number to be irrelevant.) Kat asked a good question about why not DNA testing of the father instead, but, this rule cannot be circumvented that way. That would be a fundamental change to the religion akin to saying Christ is the Messiah. Being Jewish is defined as Jewish mother or Orthodox conversion. Period. It is also not really about ethnicity as a kosher conversion of the mother before birth ensures a Jewish child.

    Whether some Reform congregations choose to believe or act otherwise does not make it a “Jewish” practice. You are correct that the Reform movement is modeled after prevalent American Christian churches. Really they go out of their way to avoid observing Mitvahs which represents a rather different religion from either Judaism or Christianity altogether, perhaps a legitimate one but not a Jewish one. A thousand years ago people we call practitioners of Reform Judaism would be honestly said to not be practitioners of Judaism at all.

    So when one says they disagree with the Orthodox dominance on the opinion on who is a Jew and who is not, one needs to ask “what is Judaism?” Is is whatever someone wants it to be or is it a very specific religion with very specific rules written down thousands of years ago?

    If the UK wants “Jewish schools” and agrees to give the schools the right to limit membership based on religion, the only Jewish standards as to who is a Jew are being born to a Jewish mother and Orthodox conversion.

    I say this as one who grew up with an “atheist Jewish” father and Catholic mother. Growing up I had a great fondness for Judaism and also sadness about not being included in it.

  • eoin · November 9, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    “It is also not really about ethnicity as a kosher conversion of the mother before birth ensures a Jewish child. ”

    Judaism being not very evangelical though, in practice, this rule *is* ethnic. The judge would see ethnic excusivity as racist, but sectarian exclustivity is the done thing.

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 9, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    That would be a fundamental change to the religion akin to saying Christ is the Messiah. Being Jewish is defined as Jewish mother or Orthodox conversion.

    this is only within the last 1,800 years. as you say, this is tamlmudic judaism. some reform theorists explicitly argue that their form of jewishness is a reversion back to the emphases of judaism before the exclusive dominance of talmudic judaism and its evolution within an islamic and christian matrix.

  • Ben · November 9, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    As a Jew I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand this does represent the “Protestanization” of the definition of religion and as such is chauvinistic. On the other hand, Christianity in general emerged from a specific tendency within Judaism, the tendency to value spirit over flesh. I have some sympathy towards that tendency; certainly more than I do for the Orthodox family tree police. “Orthodoxy” today is usually orthodox to the standards of the European ghetto, not to Judaism as such. The ghetto is broken, the state of Israel is established: why are we so worried about guarding boundaries that no longer exist?

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 9, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    On the other hand, Christianity in general emerged from a specific tendency within Judaism, the tendency to value spirit over flesh.

    i have no great interest in taking a position on the specific argument, but there is a line of reasoning which argues that in reality that this was the gentile greek contribution to christianity. the tendency to value spirit over flesh is manifestly clear in neo-platonism, though it isn’t particularly original within that, as it is also striking within hinduism. the anglican priest and physicist john polkinghorne has suggested that this hellenization of hebraic christianity is manifest in the shift in emphasis from material resurrection of the dead (flesh) toward a more elysium-like existence in a spiritual heaven (polkinghorne is personally hostile to the hellenization fwiw).

  • Kath · November 10, 2009 at 12:02 am

    @David Hume

    In the states the nature of who is Native American has been based on what the genetic ingroup is, rather than individual participation — so here you have judicial discrimination going in the opposite direction. And it is just as contested culturally. It’s an interesting contrast in rulings. How far do you extend your rejection of orthodoxy?

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 10, 2009 at 12:58 am

    In the states the nature of who is Native American has been based on what the genetic ingroup is, rather than individual participation

    the american gov. treats tribes as semi-independent polities who are bound by treaties and such (which the american gov. famously violated in the past, but different story). that is why they get to do stuff like that in terms of who is, and isn’t, a member. you can’t dictate to other nations how they determine citizenship. not analogous to jews to britan because jews in britain are not viewed as corporate entity, and so a polity within the polity. for much of the past 2,000 years jews were viewed in that way by muslims and christians, ergo, the nature of “orthodoxy” as it is. it is documented that rabbis sometimes objected to the emancipation of jews in the 19th century because it naturally resulted in an erosion and then dissolution of the corporate character of the jewish identity, and ergo, their role as arbiters of their community.

  • kurt9 · November 10, 2009 at 8:16 am

    As you can imagine, David Goldman and the commentators on his blog at “FirstThings” are really getting themselves wrapped around the axle on this one. Here is what I posted in response to this bruhaha:

    I think you guys are off the deep end. The British court ruling was entirely reasonable and I applaud it. A religion is defined by a system of beliefs. Race is defined by the physical characteristics of a people. Judaism is either a religion or a race. It cannot be both.

    If you choose to define Judaism as the physical decedents of Abraham, that’s fine by me. But you cannot deny that this is a race-based definition. I could create a new religion, say I call it “Germanism” or”German Gnosticism”, and define it on the basis of the physical decedents of some German historical figure that I come up with. Would you accord my religion the same rights and privileges that you expect us to accord Judaism? If you can answer “Yes” to this question, then I respect your logical consistency. If you answer “No”, then you are nothing more than a hypocrite and, as such, are unworthy of respect or consideration.

  • B.B. · November 10, 2009 at 8:31 am

    kurt9 says:
    A religion is defined by a system of beliefs. Race is defined by the physical characteristics of a people. Judaism is either a religion or a race. It cannot be both.

    Religion, being a “system of beliefs” can contain within it a set of beliefs about race, can it not?

  • Caledonian · November 10, 2009 at 9:35 am

    And a religion can define itself in racial terms – that is, one of its key beliefs can concern what peoples or races can belong to it. A person who accepts all those beliefs but doesn’t meet the criteria by definition cannot consider themselves part of it.

  • Judaism is racism, says the British Court of Appeals « Jim’s Blog · November 10, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    […] very passionately argues that the court, and the guardian, is full of $#!%, similarly Spengler, and Secular Right but whether or not they are full of $#!% they are full of […]

  • Clark · November 12, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    in most of the world, *including* britain, to be a religious jew is to be what we in the united states would call orthodox. this includes the UK.

    Right, but how can one handle that in a way that isn’t self-defeating? In other words it really blurs the issue of what is heretical or not. And should a government be deciding what is or isn’t religious heresy?

    I mean I can say who are the “apostates” in Mormonism. But do I want the US government, for instance, to define who really is or isn’t a Mormon? No. Even though splinter groups are pretty small and typically fairly easy to distinguish, I think having a government have to decide that is problematic. And that’s for a group that is much more hierarchal than Judaism. What about Opus Dei? Are they all really Catholics?

    As you note the problem is far more pronounced for groups in which belief (and thus heresy) just isn’t the key factor for the religion.

  • Aaron · November 14, 2009 at 10:50 am

    If religious Establishment is a good thing (as I think it is in a lot of countries, for instance England and Israel), then the state has to get involved in religious definitions, whether or not you want to use a loaded word like “heresy”. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    In religion as in most political things, too much diversity is bad. If religious practice is too diverse for the state to make these decisions, for instance in the US, then the state probably shouldn’t be involved much in religion in the first place.

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