March 20, 2006

Who or what is the Board of Deputies for?

What makes this question interesting is who is asking it. It's Geoffrey Alderman in the Jewish Chronicle.
Joint statement that’s not so joint

16 March 2006

By Geoffrey Alderman

On February 22, a most bizarre “joint statement” was issued by the Department for Education and Skills and nine individuals who were said to represent the leading religious communities in the United Kingdom.

At the top of this list — presumably because “Catholic” comes before “Church of England” — was Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, head of the Ro-man Catholic Church in England. Then came the Bishop of Portsmouth on behalf of the Anglican Church. Further down the list were representatives of the Buddhists, the Free Churches, the UK Hindu Council, the Methodists, and the Network of Sikh Organisations. Also on the list was the name of Sir Iqbal Sacranie, of the Muslim Council of Britain, to which I shall return in due course.

But the name that really caught my eye was that of Mr Jon Benjamin, representing the Board of Depu-ties of British Jews.

In October 2004, the DfES published the first-ever National Framework for Religious Education. That framework is non-statutory. Nonetheless, behind the scenes the government has been working hard to get the leaders of the major faith groups in the UK to sign up to one of its central themes, namely that, in all taxpayer-funded faith schools, pupils should learn about other religions. And so, after months of negotiation, the joint statement was launched, binding its signatories to the view that “schools with a religious designation should teach not only their own faith but also an awareness of the tenets of other faiths.”

On the face of it, no one could possibly object to these carefully crafted words. It is surely right for pupils in publicly assisted faith schools (I am thinking primarily of the 30 state-maintained Jewish schools) to be made aware of the fact that Britain is not a Jewish state and that the majority of British people, if they profess any religion at all, profess religions other than Judaism in its various branches.

Many, if not most, of you reading this column might also agree that pupils should know something — in superficial outline that falls deliberately short of anything remotely resembling systematic theology — about these other religions.

But there are several deeply troubling aspects to this otherwise innocuous initiative. To begin with, the Board of Deputies is not a religious body. Nor does it represent the totality of British Jewry. Its writ does not run in Gateshead, or in parts of Jewish Bar-net, Jewish Hackney, and Jewish Manchester. And even where its writ does run, it is obliged to seek the guidance of its ecclesiastical authorities, the spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy) and the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Professor Sir Jonathan Sacks. It is also obliged to consult the religious heads of congregations not recognising the authority of either of these two gentlemen.

Well, for starters, I can tell you that Dr Levy was never asked for his views on the matter of the joint statement. Nor was the religious head of my congregation (the Federation of Synagogues), Dayan YY Lichtenstein, ever consulted about it.

This is a pity, not least because Dayan Lichten-stein has some interesting views, strictly grounded, as you might expect, in halachah, on the extent to which Jewish children can be taught about other religions. He believes, for instance, that they can be taught something about the beliefs of Islam, but not about Christianity, which in his view falls within avodah zorah — idol worship.

And I have to ask what Mr Benjamin’s signature was doing on the joint statement. Why didn’t the statement contain the name of Sir Jonathan Sacks (assuming he agreed with its contents)? What about the religious heads of the Reform movement, the Liberals and the Masorti? Were they consulted? And, if so, why didn’t their names appear?

I turn now to a name that did appear, that of Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Just like the Board of Deputies, the MCB is not a religious organisation. Cardinal Cormac Mur-phy O’Connor may be able, in an ecclesiastical sense, to speak for and on behalf of all the Roman Catholics in the UK. Sir Iqbal cannot speak, in an ecclesiastical sense, for British Muslims, let alone bind them to any particular religious imperative.

Had the joint statement included the authorised signatories of, say, the Lancashire or Bradford Council of Mosques, or the Islamic Sharia Council of the UK, I might have been inclined to take it seriously. As it is, it is not worth the paper it is printed on.
Perhaps the community's ready for Jews against zionism now.

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