Un­equal def­i­ni­tions of equal­ity

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Ge­of­frey Al­der­man

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

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