What is religion? Is it a matter of faith and observance, or something that one is born with, like sex or race? At a more practical level, is religion supposed to make life less or more difficult? Does god exist to help or to hinder? How does he choose his people? Who decides whether he has chosen right or chosen at all, or whether the answers to these questions are right or wrong? In Britain, a child trying to get into school now finds itself at the centre of a theological and legal vortex involving religious leaders, supreme court judges, life peers, school authorities, guardians, the media, and possibly god looking serenely down on all this. “M”, his identity hidden because he is underage, had been refused admission to the Jewish Free School (a State-funded ‘faith school’) because his mother was converted to Judaism from Catholicism by a Progressive, rather than an Orthodox, synagogue. His father was born a Jew and the parents observe all the Jewish rituals.
The school, predominantly Jewish, but supposed to take in children of all faiths as in other such schools in Britain, was flooded with applications and had to narrow down its cut-off criteria. So, it consulted the ‘modern Orthodox’ chief rabbi of the British United Synagogue, who came up with this principle of elimination. M’s parents went to court, which first judged in favour of the school. They appealed to the supreme court, for the child seems to have been discriminated against racially: according to the race laws in Britain, Jewishness is not just a religious identity but an ethnicity as well. The other community to be affected by the outcome of this case are the Sikhs, who also have faith schools in Britain and whose identity is not only religious but also tied up, in the race laws, with their being mostly South Asian.
Like Hitler and the British Race Relations Act, Orthodox Jews believe that Jewishness is not just a religion but also a race. One can be a Jewish atheist, but never a Christian, Muslim or Hindu atheist. Having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur does not de facto make one non-Jewish if one is born a Jew. But there is a more inclusive idea of religion in which what one believes in and practises matters more than birth and religious pedigree do. Going to the synagogue or church does not make one a Jew or Christian any more than standing in a garage makes one a car. M and his parents are caught between these two views of religion, and in religion’s complicated overlap with race. With the supreme court as much involved as the chief rabbi, temporal and spiritual authorities find themselves pitted against each other on a dubiously shared legal-theological platform, fighting over admissions to a school funded by taxpayers.
What is most perverse is that at the heart of this godly muddle is a little boy’s education. It is an odd world, indeed, in which a child could well ask the pious and powerful adults about to decide the course of his life, “Is god racist?”