Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary

The British conversion crisis in Britain illustrates why a separation between Church and State is vital for everybody involved. The job of being a Chief Rabbi is not without its politics and intrigue.

Yet, in the everyday politics of the job, even the Chief Rabbi occasionally yields to the intransigent forces that define the Haredi community of Great Britain.

It was the year 2005; two women, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, apply to get their children enrolled in the prestigious Jewish Free School of London. Rabbi Sack’s Haredi beth din, however, refuses to admit the children.

Political rivalry between Israel and Britain goes back a long way; back in the 1970’s, even the Chief Rabbi himself, Rabbi Shlomo Goren discovered that his conversions were not recognized by the London Beth Din. In rabbinical terms, this amounted to a public humiliation to the Israeli Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks realizes that he cannot succeed in his job without placating this radical element in his community—even if he must violate the very liberal principles regarding pluralism that he has endorsed in his books.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbi buckled under the pressure. He refused to certify either woman as Jewish. As the issue is examined, we discover that there are certain “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. Jewish law requires that a kohen not marry a convert. However, if such a marriage occurs, the marriage remains intact, but at a loss of the kohen’s personal status in the community, e.g., he would not be able to receive a special honor being called first to the Torah when it is read.

To enforce its standards, the Jewish Free School initiated a litmus test to test the religious attitudes of its students—standards that are not really required by the Halacha itself—as the rabbis attempt to micromanage the families involved. For example: each family had to have a mezuzah on their door; students and families had to attend at least four services a year at the synagogue. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance.

Now, when we compare this kind of attitude to the position taken by a number of comparable schools in the United States, an entirely different pattern emerges. There are a number of longstanding Halachic rulings expressed by R. Moshe Feinstein (one of the last truly great Haredim), where the rabbi observed: a day school is obligated to take students of a mixed marriage–even if the gentile mother never converted–how much more so, if the parent already underwent a kosher conversion.

In one responsa, Rav Moshe writes:

They do not need kabbalat mitzvot and be converted al da’at beth din. (by the knowledge of the court) It is a zechut ( an advantage) for them; inasmuch as they are learning in a religious school under the tutelage of pious teachers they would probably grow up to be shomrei Torah(Torah observant); while this is not certain, it is certainly a zechut. And even if they do not grow up to be shomrei Torah, it seems logical that it is still a zechut, as even Jewish sinners have kedushat Yisrael (holiness of being a part of the Israelite people)—the  mitzvot, and their sins are to them unintentional. They have a greater zechut than being gentiles” (Iggrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, 4:26c).[1]

In short, I would strongly give Rabbi Sacks the following advice: If you wish to follow a Haredi position, then follow the example of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  This great leader always went out of his way to make sure that every child—whether from a patrilineal Jewish home, or from a converted family —must be given a kosher education.

As a  Chief Rabbi, one must sometimes take an unpopular opinion and simply do the right thing even if it might upset the Haredi community.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a fine thinker—and a pretty liberal theologian at that; one must admire the inroads he has attempted to make with the non-Jewish community. His ideas are fresh and original. Now, Rabbi Sacks must show the same fearless inroads with the Liberal and Progressive denominations of British Jewry.



[1] Rav Shlomo Goren also arrived at a similar halachic conclusion (Efsharyut LeGerut Shel Ketanim,” Shanah b’ Shanah 5744, 151-1544).

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