Unequal definitions of equality
THE PRACTICE OF Orthodox Judaism in this country is under attack. From time to time, I have drawn attention to signs and portents that this was the case; I have warned that laws made for other purposes were bound to be exploited by the enemies of the religion I profess. I have been accused of scaremongering, of making volcanic mountains out of inconsequential molehills, of spreading despair and despondency without a shred of hard evidence. But within the past two weeks a number of seemingly unconnected news stories have provided this verification.
The first concerns the Belz Chasidic community, whose Talmud Torah Machzike Hadass boys’ school in Hackney was the subject of an uncomplimentary Ofsted report last week. I’m a critical friend of the Belz Chasidim. They nurture a warm, family ethos but have their moments of madness. Last summer, they hit the headlines after the publication of an encyclical that sought to bar Belz children from attending Belz schools if they were driven there by females of the Belz persuasion.
Condemned by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, the encyclical was hastily withdrawn. In my column of June 12, 2015, I gave vent to my disgust that the encyclical had been issued. But I now have to defend the Belzers.
In drawing attention to shortcomings in the education provided at the Talmud Torah Machzike Hadass, the Ofsted inspectors write: “The school’s ethos identifies its founding principle as ‘unconditional adherence to the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law)’. Leaders are aware that this disregards the protected characteristic of sexual orientation within the 2010 Equality Act.” Nobody (not even Ofsted) has been able to explain what these sentences mean. But I’ve been given to understand that, while Ofsted accepts the school can teach its disapproval of same-sex marriages, it must also teach that partners to a same-sex marriage must not be disparaged on that account.
If that is what the Ofsted inspectors meant, it seems they have exceeded their brief. I do not for one moment suppose that the school incites or tolerates homophobic bullying. But in attempting to use the Equality Act to nullify the Shulchan Aruch, Ofsted has launched an attack on a core teaching of Orthodox Judaism.
While I was absorbing the implications of this assault, my attention was drawn to the passage through the House of Lords of the “Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill,” sponsored by cross-bench peeress Caroline Cox. If enacted, this would criminalise otherwise lawful activities in England and Wales of ecclesiastical courts, including Batei Din, in respect of a variety of matters relating to family law. I accept that the major targets of Cox’s proposal are Sharia courts. But her spokesman has admitted that Batei Din would be equally affected. For, while Orthodox Judaism prescribes it is the husband who divorces his wife, it has been argued that this amounts to a fundamental inequality that falls foul of several existing statutes, to say nothing of the UN “Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.”
Which brings me to opinions deployed in last week’s JC by lawyer and United Synagogue member Alexis Brassey. Dr Brassey’s concern is with the Orthodox prohibition of girls singing in synagogues, a ban which, he warns, amounts to a breach of the Equality Act. My unease is less with Brassey’s interpretation of the talmudic precept that “the law of the land is the law” (which was developed principally in relation to financial matters), than with his apparent insistence that Orthodox Jewish law should be refined and redefined in order to conform to contemporary social and legal norms.
If this were taken to its logical conclusion, many core practices of Orthodoxy would be called into legal question — for example, the Orthodox marriage ceremony, in which the groom acquires the wife (and authorises a written contract to that effect), but not vice-versa — there is, for example, no mutual ‘‘exchange of vows.’’
Orthodox Judaism is a club. Like any club it has rules. If Dr Brassey doesn’t like them, all he needs to do is to resign his membership.
If he does not like the rules of Orthodoxy, then resign