Thursday, January 19, 2006

Who decides who is a Jew, or, when is a Jew not a Jew?

I recently met up with my friend Helen, who was here visiting family in Israel. Helen currently finds herself in a rather strange – and very stressful – situation. When she is in Israel, she is an accepted member of the Jewish faith. When she is in her native England, she is not.

Quite a number of years ago, Helen converted to Judaism in Israel, a conversion that was accepted without question by the Israeli rabbinate. She married an Israeli and they lived together in Israel with two of their young sons (a third has since been born) for more than six years. Just over three years ago, Helen and her family relocated to England, and have been living there ever since, making annual trips to Israel to see family and friends and helping their sons to stay connected to their Israeli roots.

When Helen and her husband wanted to enroll their eldest son in the prestigious JFS school in London, the problems began. Her son was denied entry to the school because, they claimed, he wasn’t Jewish. Despite Helen’s successful conversion in Israel many years previously, London’s Chief Rabbi decided that Helen’s conversion was not acceptable, therefore rendering her sons gentiles. The family was shocked by the decision, especially as it seems to have been based on Helen’s Jewish practices since the conversion. Apparently, the rabbinate in Britain has decided that it’s simply not enough that the family only celebrates Jewish holidays and festivals, based on the traditions that they brought with them from Israel. Essentially these power-wielding, rabbinical pen-pushers have arbitrarily determined that an individual who chooses to convert to Judaism must be more religious than those who were born into the religion, otherwise, the conversion is deemed unkosher and invalid. How fortunate that those of us “lucky” enough to have been born Jewish are not subjected to the same assessments, as most Israelis would suddenly find themselves stripped of their Jewish identity, in much the same way as the unfortunate Sagal family, who must either continue their public battle to be recognized as Jews, or somehow try to explain to their young sons (one of whom was born during this whole ordeal, whose birth was the impetus for trying to resolve the issue as quickly as possible in order to determine whether or not he would be Jewish and allowing them to perform the brit milah (ritual circumcision).

If Helen had been converted in some vague, third-world country, perhaps I could understand the British Chief Rabbi’s reluctance to accept the conversion. I would even understand if it had been a Reform or Conservative conversion (though this would have angered me greatly, but discrimination against these popular streams of Judaism by the Orthodox is accepted in some circles, especially in Israel). What it comes down to, though, is that Rabbi Sacks has decided that an Orthodox conversion performed in Israel and approved by the Israeli rabbinate is not good enough for the British rabbinate, which is a very dangerous precedent indeed. As Helen responded when the man himself offered to personally oversee and guide her through a new conversion, “what if, following the conversion in England, she were to move to the US? What if the rabbinate in the US decided that the conversion performed by the British rabbinate wasn’t good enough for them? Would she have to convert yet again?” Helen tells me that the chief rabbi became quite indignant, unable to imagine that his conversion would not be acceptable elsewhere.

What makes this case even more disturbing is that approximately twelve years ago, when Helen's oldest son was born in London, this very same rabbinate that has now chosen to deny their Jewishness, authorized his brit milah, essentially accepting him into the Jewish faith, based on the fact that his mother was Jewish. This alarming discrepancy makes me highly suspicious, makes me wonder why they changed their minds nearly twelve years later. It also makes me think of a question with even farther-reaching connotations. Now that the rabbinate has decided that Helen isn't Jewish, does this mean that their marriage, performed by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, is no longer valid in the eyes of the British rabbinate? As far as I am aware, Orthodox rabbis do not condone "intermarriage", let alone perform such unions, so it would be most interesting to hear the rabbinate's opinion on the status of Helen's marriage, performed in accordance with Orthodox traditions.

It doesn't come as a surprise that some people become so fed up with organized religion. When power plays between different religious bodies become personal, when arbitrary, highly suspect decisions play with the lives of others, when a young boy is suddenly forced to redefine his entire identity based on these events, it is no wonder that we become so disappointed, so disgusted, that the very thought of building a stronger connection is simply anathema.

Oh, and here's one last question, that I believe Helen has asked as well. If she is Jewish in Israel, but not Jewish in England, at what point during the journey does the transformation take place? Does it gradually begin once the plane has entered international air space, meaning that the transformation is not complete until the plane lands at its final destination, or is there one particular spot over which the transformation happens suddenly, sort of like passing over the international dateline or the equator? So, Rabbi Sacks, what's your take on this issue, hmmm?


Savtadotty said...

Even more difficult: who decides who decides? I have friends living in Israel who are married to Jews (civil weddings abroad) and "feel Jewish," won't convert. I have relatives in the US who have had Reform and Conservative conversions and who won't visit Israel because they resent the rabbinate so much. As far as I'm concerned, they're Jewish. But I don't have the authority to admit them to schools or perform weddings for their children, so what good is my Jewish opinion? Good for them, good for my family, but Organized Religion is not democratic, and I doubt it can be. I pefer disorganized religion.

lisoosh said...

She probably didn't donate enough money to someones pet organization.

That remark will probably have someone jumping down my throat, but I have seen plenty of rabbinical "decisions" that were reversed suddenly when just the right wheels were greased in Israel so it would be naive to think it doesn't happen in the UK.

Your poor friend.

Udge said...

Now that story really is offensive. The expression "who the hell do you think you are" somehow comes to mind.

The problem is not so much that organized religion (all of them, without exception) is undemocratic, but that it has nothing to do with common sense or decency or indeed belief in God. "Disorganized religion" indeed!

nrg said...

I think that the rules and regulations that often accompany religion have a tendency to overshadow the basically good and positive messages, beliefs, approaches to life, and support structure that are at the base of all religions. Being a catholic, I am living in a big ol' glass house and certainly can't start throwing stones when it comes to indignation over beaurocracy and power plays within another religion! But for me it comes down to common sense, decency, respect and knowing when rules are hindering rather than helping. Poor Helen, may they find a solution that allows her family to live their lives, secure in their community and faith.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I hurt anyone's feelings but... when I read such stories I'm simply glad that I decided I can live in Israel without conversion. Until you Jews make up your minds whom you will accept into your exclusive circle... I live with you as gentile, feeling very well in Israel, and appreciating, yes loving your religion from afar. But to subject myself to this kind of bureaucr-idiocy??? Ugh.

Lila (who is unable to register with Blogger, either. Go figure)

Adrian said...

Your comment about Israelis being 'delisted is very pertinant.

The Miner said...

Matlab-e shoma kheili jaaleb bood !
hich midoonid ke shoma nevisandeye kheili maheri hastid?! Taa haalaa kesi be shoma ino gofte bood?!
Best wishes for you...
I have a comment...
You are a good kind of Persian-Israeli mixture!!! Best of luck.

Liza said...

Hi Miner!

Kheili mochaker va hoda hafez!

And yes, people have told me this before (though never in Farsi!), but I always enjoy hearing it. :-) I admit that I blush whenever someone tells me they like my writing, or that I write well. Accepting compliments has never been my strong point.

I also take your comment about me being a "good kind of Persian-Israeli mixture" as a big compliment!

Liza said...

Savtadotty: I couldn't agree with you more! I feel the same way about these issues that touch so many people in my life. Sadly, organized religion will never meet the needs of the people. Disorganized religion is definitely the way to go.

Lisoosh: This is also a valid point. Unfortunately, even in religion, money talks, and as you say, this surely cannot be limited to Israel alone. I don't know if it's a factor in this case, but it certainly factors into the big picture.

Lila: I am truly sorry that you have been forced into this position by an unforgiving bureacracy. I've seen the way the rabbinate sometimes treats people, and it borders on criminal. Kudos to you for being strong enough to stand your ground.

RR said...

I think I've read this heartbreaking (not to mention infuriating) story before, either elsewhere in the blogosphere or even possibly in the newspapers.

I wonder why the Israeli Rabbinate hasn't pushed London's Chief Rabbi to recognize the conversion? Have they fought for your friend at all or tried to get this horribly cruel, unjust, nonsensical decision reversed? As you said, this is a dangerous precedent, and for that reason alone you'd think they'd make the effort (as if the humanitarian grounds weren't reason enough).

Yael K said...

Uhhh this just makes me want to scream! I have such a problem with our rabbinate here in Israel making conversion so very difficult and requiring people to be so extremely uber-religious in order to qualify (far more difficult and using far more strenuous standards than are applied outside of Israel) and now here is this guy in Britain saying that this conversion isn't good enough?! I'd say he is not a rabbi but a narcissistic personal-power hungry idiot.