Sunday, 24 February 2008


Josef Heinz Lobenstein, the resident gossip columnist of the Anglo-Yiddish Jewish Tribune – the newspaper of choice of the Anglo-Jewish so-called ‘ultra-orthodox,’ – has this past week [issue of 21 February 2008, not available online] turned his attention to the controversy triggered by a public lecture recently given by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In that lecture, Dr Williams argued for the incorporation within British law of certain aspects of Sharia [Muslim] law, and drew attention to some ways in which the religious requirements of Britain’s Jewish communities had already been similarly incorporated. I commented on this lecture – and supported the Archbishop’s position - in my Jewish Chronicle column of 15 February. Mr Lobenstein – who writes under the pseudonym ‘Ben Yitzchok’ – chooses not to comment directly on the contents of the lecture. He focuses his attention instead on criticisms of the response to that lecture from the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Professor Sir Jonathan Sacks.

In the media Sir Jonathan had studiously refused to be drawn on the detail of the Archbishop’s remarks. Mr Lobenstein praises him for preferring ‘not to get involved in the controversy.’ Instead, insists Mr Lobenstein, Sir Jonathan chose ‘the eloquence of silence,’ adding that he fully supports Sir Jonathan ‘for not meddling on [sic] a subject which really had nothing (or at least very little) to do with Jews and the Jewish community.’

Mr Lobenstein is clearly annoyed with unnamed Jewish leaders who had decided to ‘air their views’ on the Archbishop’s lecture ‘on the media’s front pages’ – perhaps a reference to the support [reported on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle of 15 February] given to Dr Williams by Rabbi Yisroel Lichtenstein, the Rosh Beth Din [Chief Judge] of the Federation of Synagogues (to which I belong).

Mr Lobenstein – a former Mayor of Hackney - clearly believes that British Jews should keep a very low profile on most matters of public moment in British society. He clearly believes that the Orthodox Judaism that he and I practise has little of substance to contribute to these public dialogues, and that if it does – perchance – then it is better not so say so. He is of course fully entitled to these opinions – though it would help if he had explained exactly what harm – if any – he fears might befall British Jewry if his policy of self-effacement is ignored.

But I am not so much concerned with this policy – with which I happen to profoundly disagree – as with the assumption by Mr Lobenstein that Sir Jonathan Sacks has wisely followed his code of silence.

In fact Sir Jonathan was not silent at all.

It is true that Sir Jonathan chose not to respond directly to the Archbishop’s lecture. But he did issue a statement to the Jewish Chronicle, which can be accessed at:

Emphasising that ‘the law of the land is the law,’ Sir Jonathan did indeed sidestep the detail of the intense public debate that Dr Williams’ lecture has provoked. His statement ignored – I assume deliberately – the ways in which ‘the law of the land’ has been modified to address Jewish concerns (the theme of my JC piece). Acknowledging that Jews in Britain oft-times resorted to their own religious courts – Batei Din [singular Beth Din – ‘House of Judgment’] - Sir Jonathan hastened to reassure the British public that:

"Jewish courts have no power to enforce their rulings other than by consent of the parties involved. Jews may regulate their internal affairs through a beth din with three provisos:
1. That they are subject to the law of the land; 2. They do not attempt to “oust” or sidestep English courts; and 3. They conduct their affairs in accordance with the principles of “natural justice.” Jewish courts rely on influence rather than power. Despite this, however, the beth din remains a central institution in Jewish life, whether as a court of arbitration or as the body that determines the parameters of conduct for those who choose to live by halachah [Jewish Law]."

These are shocking statements for the United Synagogue’s Chief Rabbi to make. It is simply incorrect to say that ‘Jewish courts [in this country] rely on influence rather than power,’ and that they ‘have no power to enforce their rulings other than by consent of the parties involved.’

Sir Jonathan may well have forgotten – but I have not – that in the summer of 2005 he and his Beth Din conducted an investigation into Mrs Helen Sagal, whose Israeli conversion he and his Beth Din refused to recognise, thus enabling them to prevent her son Guy from entering the taxpayer-funded Jews’ Free School, Kenton. Sir Jonathan may well have forgotten – but I have not – that I accompanied Mrs Sagal to the inquisition held by him and his Beth Din, and that I was thereby privileged to witness at first hand the power this Beth Din wields. Mrs Sagal presented her Certificate of Conversion – endorsed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Sir Jonathan’s Beth Din brushed it aside.

That is not ‘influence’ – let alone consensual influence. That is power.

I can readily understand why Sir Jonathan would not have wished to allude to these facts in his statement to the JC. The power of the Office of the Chief Rabbi to determine who can and who cannot attend taxpayer-funded Jewish schools in this country is a matter of public controversy, and may shortly come before the courts.

But as a leading member of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations Joe Lobenstein ought to know better. Of all the Jewish communities in this country, adherents of the Union are more likely than any other Anglo-Jewish grouping to submit themselves to the authority of a Beth Din. To say that such submission is ‘voluntary’ is – often – stretching a point, because an adherent of the Union who brings a matter to a secular court without the prior permission of a Beth Din risks sanction and ostracism. In 1991, for instance, a near-riot took place in Stamford Hill after it emerged that an ‘ultra-orthodox’ family had, without rabbinical authority, reported to the police two orthodox persons whom the family suspected of child abuse.

It seems to me, in short, that the real reason why Mr Lobenstein would like all us Jews to keep quiet about the contents and ramifications of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks is not that we Jews have little if anything to contribute to the debate.

What he really fears is that we have a great deal indeed to offer. And that some of it might not redound to our credit.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that British law should be a little more accommodating towards British Muslims, as it has been towards British Jews. I support this worthy aspiration: