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British Jews weigh fight after court ruling on ‘Who is a Jew’

LONDON – To fight or not to fight?

That question has bitterly divided the Jewish community in Britain following the Supreme Court ruling a month and a half ago striking down a Jewish school’s policy of limiting admission to the children of Jewish mothers.

The ruling, which said that state-funded Jewish schools may not award places on the basis of whether a student’s parent is Jewish because it contravenes Britain’s Race Relations Act, went beyond forcing an expansion of admissions criteria to children whose Jewish identity is a matter of dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

By detaching Jewishness from Jewish legal criteria, whether Orthodox or Reform, it opened up the possibility that non-Jews could qualify for admission. It also introduced the idea that the government, rather than Jewish religious authorities, can determine who is Jewish in Britain.

“This case had nothing to do with denominations or conversions,” Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote in the London Jewish Chronicle. “It focused on one simple fact: that Jewish identity is — conversions aside — conferred by birth, by the mother, or in the case of liberal Judaism, by the father if the mother is not Jewish.”

The court decision in mid-December struck down those interpretations of Jewish identity and introduced its own, Sacks said.

British Jews across the denominational spectrum have viewed the ruling with alarm as government intrusion into religion. But a bitter debate has erupted within the Jewish community over exactly how to respond, exposing deep fault lines in the community and fueling Britain’s “Who is a Jew?” debate.

For now, the umbrella organization for British Jewry, the Board of Deputies, has decided to take a wait-and-see approach on how the ruling will play out. Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements here have praised the stance, but Orthodox leaders remain unsatisfied by the process.

“We were deeply concerned that a change in legislation is not being actively pursued,” said the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, Britain’s mainstream Orthodox movement.

The debate started with the case of a Jewishly observant 12-year-old boy, identified in court papers as “M,” whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a convert to Judaism through the Reform movement.

The boy applied to the state-supported JFS school, a flagship of North London’s Jewish community founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School. The school, which has about 1,900 students, rejected M on the grounds that he was not Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, which traditionally holds that only those born to a Jewish mother or a woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism can be considered Jewish.

Britain has nearly 7,000 state-supported parochial schools, including some 50 Jewish schools. Under the law, schools can give preference to applicants from their own faiths using criteria set by a designated religious authority.

But M’s family sued, saying the school had discriminated against him. The family lost, but the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Ultimately the case reached Britain’s newly created Supreme Court, which ratified the Appeals Court decision in a 5-4 ruling, saying that basing school admission on whether one’s mother is Jewish is by definition discriminatory and in violation of the 1976 Race Relations Act.

The decision has left British Jews divided.

On one side are the Orthodox, who advocated early intervention by seeking an amendment to legislation that effectively would nullify the court’s decision and re-establish halacha — and with it, the primacy of British Orthodoxy — as the determining criterion for school admission.

On the other side are representatives from non-Orthodox Jewish movements, who said they would support a change in legislation only if their converts henceforth would be accepted into mainstream Orthodox schools. These representatives were pleased that the court ruling struck a blow against Orthodox dominance of religious matters even as they were alarmed by the government’s level of meddling in internal Jewish religious matters.

News Analysis

To articulate a unified Jewish response to the ruling, the Board of Deputies established a community consultative committee composed of representatives from the various denominations, with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim. Haredim generally attend Jewish schools that do not receive state funds.

The effort to forge a consensus Jewish position failed, however. “Consultations with synagogue and other leaders had made it clear that the vast majority of the community would rather see how the Supreme Court judgment impacts on their activities and then consider what kind of amendment we need rather than rush into it,” said Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman.

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Reform movement, praised the board’s approach as confirming that Britain’s non-Orthodox movements “are now indispensable to consensus.”

But Rabbi Yitzhak Shochet of the Orthodox United Synagogue accused the non-Orthodox movements of shattering any possibility of consensus by “holding us to ransom in this matter to only agree to a change of legislation on condition that we do not revert to the status quo ante.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Britain remain concerned that the government is interfering on the question of Jewish identity. They are worried, too, that the ruling means the state views Judaism as somehow being discriminatory.

Sacks, who is Orthodox, warned that the ruling defined any distinction between Jew and non-Jew as discriminatory, which is a problem for all Jews, regardless of denomination or position on conversions.

“Any discrimination, regardless of motive, between Jew and non-Jew, unless specifically exempted by law, has now been held to contravene the 1976 Race Relations Act,” he wrote in the Chronicle.

The president of the court, Nicholas Phillips, said in announcing the verdict in mid-December that it did not mean that those responsible for the school’s admissions policy had acted in a way that was “racist as that word is generally understood.”

Some Orthodox leaders criticized members of their own movement for refusing to work with non-Orthodox leaders to find a remedy to Britain’s “Who is a Jew” problem.

“What needs to happen now is that rabbis and lay leaders across the denominations work together in addressing new realities and furthering the interest of the community as a whole,” Rabbis Michael Harris and Naftali Brawer, the vice-chairmen of the rabbinical council of the United Synagogue, wrote in the Chronicle.

They called on “all denominations” to work together to reverse the Supreme Court’s judgment through a change in the law.

In the meantime, JFS and other state-funded Jewish schools have made some major adjustments to their admissions criteria. The criteria now focus on requiring applicants to demonstrate participation in faith-based activities, such as synagogue attendance — something Sacks characterized as “a Christian solution for a Jewish school.”

JTA

 
 

Moshe Tendler thinks you’re wrong, and he isn’t afraid to say so

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 18 February 2011
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Rabbi Moshe Tendler believes that critics of his view that brain stem death is a valid criterion for death under Jewish law eventually will see the error of their ways. Ben Harris

After the January shootings in Arizona and the resultant calls for greater civility and moderation in the national discourse; after an acrimonious back-and-forth over the Jewish legal approach to death and organ donation; and after still more calls for a gentler, more civil public discourse, Rabbi Moshe Tendler stood up in a Jerusalem synagogue and accused his fellow Orthodox rabbis of perpetrating one of the worst desecrations of God’s name in American Jewish history.

The rabbis in question — authors of a four-year study on the Jewish legal criteria for death and members of the halacha, or religious law, committee of the chief Modern Orthodox rabbinic group — have “not the slightest idea of what we’re talking about,” Tendler told his audience.

“I want to call your attention to what has been one of the most dramatic chilul hashem [desecration of God’s name] incidents in [the] American Jewish community,” he said.

Tendler wasn’t done: The paper was “pages of drivel” and “as close to a blood libel as you can come,” he said.

Even the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had endorsed the position that the paper’s authors appeared to favor, did not escape opprobrium. On the issue of halachic death, Tendler charged, Sacks also was ignorant of the relevant science.

Tendler’s remarks were presaged by the disclosure in December of a paper by the Rabbinical Council of America’s committee on religious law asserting the legitimacy of the view that death occurs with the cessation of heartbeat and respiration — a position apparently rebuking one long championed by Tendler.

Tendler for some time has been the leading proponent of the view that death occurs with the cessation of brain stem activity — a criterion that permits vital organs such as the heart and lungs to become available for harvest and transplant.

It is a position for which he has argued passionately and unapologetically for more than two decades.

As one of the deans of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a leading Modern Orthodox authority on medical ethics, Tendler is an authoritative figure in the Orthodox world, but also a polarizing one. And when it comes to questions on which he is rightly considered an expert, he has neither patience nor respect for the views of those he deems less than competent to render an opinion.

Several insiders say it is precisely that trait which has made it more difficult to achieve common ground on this issue and personalized a debate that should remain scholarly and dispassionate. Tendler insists that the battle mostly is substantive not personal, though given some of his quotes in the media, it’s not hard to see why his foes sometimes fail to appreciate the distinction.

“You say a thing, I believe you’re ignorant on this topic,” Tendler told JTA. “That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”

Tendler’s willingness to publicly call out rabbis with whom he disagrees is unusual within Modern Orthodox circles, where internal disagreements on sensitive issues are resolved more typically behind closed doors, often with vague language that allows everyone to declare victory.

Tendler’s style could not be more different, and over the years he has developed a reputation as something of a go-to guy for an incendiary quote.

“I have no doubt that R. Tendler’s comments will generate much discussion and likely criticism and ridicule,” wrote one Orthodox rabbi on his blog. “I can also predict that R. Tendler will not care one bit.”

If Tendler, who just turned 84, is unusually outspoken, it may owe something to his background. He was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when most Jews in the area were recent immigrants whose children were studiously going about the business of assimilation.

Tendler, though, was a native, and has grandparents who were born in America. His mother, the grandchild of a man Tendler describes as a “rabid chasid,” was a law school graduate and Tendler’s first Talmud teacher. His father was the longtime head of the prominent Rabbi Jacob Joseph yeshiva in New York.

The Tendlers lived on Henry Street a few blocks from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading Orthodox legal decisor in the United States, whose daughter would become Tendler’s wife. The couple met at a public library on East Broadway when Shifra Feinstein approached Tendler — already gaining a reputation for scientific acuity — to ask a question about chemistry.

“After that, somehow I managed to come more often to the library to study,” Tendler said.

Tendler went on to graduate from New York University and earn his doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University in 1957. For a time he worked in cancer research, developing a drug he dubbed Refuin — a play on the Hebrew word for healing — that earned him a mention in a 1963 Time magazine article.

In the early 1990s, the RCA tapped Tendler to draft a health-care proxy statement reflecting Orthodox sensibilities. In a section on organ donation, the document — citing the authority of both Feinstein and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — asserts that “brain stem death, together with other accepted neurological criteria, fully meets the standards of halacha for determining death.”

The proxy was drafted by the RCA’s medical ethics commission, which Tendler chaired, and endorsed by the council’s executive committee. Four members of the RCA’s law committee, of which Tendler also was a member, subsequently issued a statement rejecting the brain death criterion. And there the issue rested until the study paper surfaced late last year.

Much of the ensuing fracas resulted not from the many errors of scientific fact that Tendler claims are contained in the 110-page study, but from the verbal dynamite he set off in the press. He accused the authors of promoting anti-Semitism and perpetrating a blood libel for appearing to sanction the receipt of organs by Orthodox Jews, but not their donation.

In a recent interview at his home north of New York City, he said his critics have blood on their hands.

“When a Jew’s life is at stake, you have to use strong language,” Tendler told JTA. “You can’t let someone die. But they’re letting people die because of this. I want them to back off.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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