You might think we would be getting tired of this topic by now. But, no, we need to revisit it periodically just to forget about how many other worthwhile problems we could be addressing.
An Orthodox Jewish school in London was found guilty of violating UK racial discrimination laws. The problem at hand was that a 12 year old was refused admission to the Orthodox school because his mother had converted under the auspices of the Masorti movement. The problem lies in the fact that there apparently isn’t any other Jewish school available. It’s that one or none.
Now, technically, there really isn’t any good reason for the Orthodox to refuse to recognize Masorti conversion – like all halachic conversion, Masorti Judaism requires mikveh and milah (for males) and profession of a belief in one, unified, God. Much of the brou-ha-ha is about extra-halachic matters. But despite my opinion that the Orthodox are wrong not to recognize Masorti conversions, I still think that this is a bad idea.
Do we really want secular courts deciding who gets to be considered Jewish (or any other religion, for that matter)? I know that Europe views government interaction with religion quite differently than my government here in the USA (or in theory ought to, anyhow), and there are certainly circumstances in which it makes no sense for us to try to separate our opinions from the religious sensibilities that formed them (or not), as long as we try to be honest about where those sensibilities come from. But having a presumably secular government decide that the Orthodox have no right to exclude Masorti Jews is just a recipe for trouble.
The potential for other decisions to go awry is just too great. Now, if they want to rule that no school has a right to exclude anyone of any religion from enrolling, okay then, as long as they also grant that the school gets to insist on its curriculum without outside interference, and the enrolled student has to follow along if he (or she) enrolls.
In Israel, government participation in religious business has caused just no end of trouble. The founding fathers of the USA were more than right when they noted that a healthy religion is not going to be helped by having government promote it. Reading Steven Waldman’s book Founding Faith made me think a lot more of how religion developed in the USA — and why our secular government, with all its problems, works much better in the arena of helping religion by ignoring it than nearly any other in the world. Which is not to say that doing so hasn’t had its own problems. Certainly the idea of an agora for religious ideas has also resulted in people treating at least Judaism as if it were something one could choose in pieces, treating it as any other product, to evaluate on, say, whether it makes you happy, or is fun, rather than Judaism as something to which we might have to submit ourselves in order to make ourselves better, or our community better. Further, we need to realise that we might not be better off for choosing our community according to whom we like to hang out with, rather than being stuck with the lumpy mess that is true community. But overall, we are better off with a hands-off policy from the government.
Let the argument commence.