When the British noblemen and ladies formerly known as Law Lords became justices of the Supreme Court, they abandoned the trappings of formality such as wigs and robes. Thus Lord Phillips, president of the court, was bareheaded and attired in a business suit when he delivered Wednesday's historic decision that London's eminent Jews' Free School, known as JFS, could no longer use Orthodox criteria of Jewish identity as the basis for its admissions policies.
The ruling came as an expensive blow to the British Orthodox establishment headed by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks.
The case involved a 13-year-old boy known as "M" (for purposes of confidentiality) who was refused a place in the oversubscribed faith school because his mother had been converted by a non-Orthodox beit din. The conversion is recognized by Masorti, Reform and Liberals; the father davens in a Masorti shul. Sacks, however, ruled the boy was not halachicly Jewish, and thus not entitled to JFS admission. M's father repeatedly appealed Sacks's ruling, leading, ultimately, to this week's court decision.
Sacks had previously also blocked the admission of a child whose mother had undergone conversion by Israel's Orthodox rabbinate on the grounds that the family had not subsequently led an Orthodox lifestyle.
The losing side has tried to console itself by claiming the 5-4 decision was made by the "narrowest of margins." But a perusal of the 90-page judgment suggests that two of the dissenting justices nevertheless expressed discomfort with JFS policy. Indeed, most of the 13 jurists who have examined the facts and law of the case since it began have sided with M over JFS.
The court did not welcome being asked to resolve this intramural dispute. Still, in setting forth its respectful decision, Lord Phillips explained that the boy had been excluded from the school because of the requirements of "the Orthodox Jewish religion." That led the court to conclude: "One thing is clear about the matrilineal test; it is a test of ethnic originâ€¦ by definition, discriminationâ€¦ on racial grounds."
We can understand that from the court's perspective, admissions policies may not be based on either matrilineal or patrilineal descent. But Judaism is indeed passed down from one's parents. And Jews are a people whose members are not exclusively an ethnic group and not solely followers of a faith system.
THE QUESTION of "who is a Jew" has vexed the Jewish world ever since the Enlightenment, when remaining within the fold became a matter of personal choice.
Clearly, Jewish affiliation cannot reasonably be rooted in a slack identity that demands scant commitment or conflates Judaism with the popular causes of the day; nor can affiliation be meaningful if it is based exclusively on biology.
Mainstream Judaism does not accept that observance of Jewish rituals and a profession of Jewish beliefs alone makes one a Jew. Judaism asks for more.
As Jewish civilization hopefully pursues a golden mean to the identity conundrum, it is unfortunate that Sacks and his dayanim painted M's family into corner, forcing them to seek a solution in the British courts. Could not a more humane and politic alternative have been found?
The court's decision is, however, not the end of the world. Starting with the 2011/12 academic year, Jewish schools (whether they receive state aid or not) will employ admissions guidelines based on religious practice, not ethnicity. The children of converts from the various streams will have access to a Jewish education. We trust those with tenuous halachic ties will be inspired by their learning to find appropriate channels to strengthen their Jewish affiliation. Paradoxically, Britain's ultra-Orthodox schools will feel no impact; they have always insisted on a particular faith lifestyle as a prerequisite for admission.
THE LARGER lesson here is that when Orthodoxy is accepted by the state as the authorized expression of Judaism, it ought to exhibit greater humility and tolerance toward other Jews - whether over the interment of a Masorti boy within a Spanish Jewish cemetery, or over sharing religious space at the Western Wall plaza.
The Orthodox have every right to set standards for their stream, but when their clergy are called upon to act in a fiduciary capacity for the entire community, they need to show greater forbearance and love.