What a wrenching — and in its implications for how civil courts understand minority religious traditions, fascinating — case. An English judge has ruled that a 10-year old Jewish girl may be baptized over the objections of her mother, who wishes the girl to remain Jewish. The girl’s father and mother divorced two years ago. Both parents were Jewish, but after the divorce the father converted and joined the Church of England. The parents shared custody of the girl, and, on the weekends he had custody, the father took the girl with him to church. The girl eventually told him she wished to be baptized; unsure of her commitment, he put her off. The girl then approached a minister on her own and also raised the issue with her mother, who quickly filed a court application to stop the process.

In a judgment made public last week, the judge decided that the girl’s interests were best served by allowing baptism to go forward. As in any such case, the judge considered many factors, including the fact that the father and mother had not been observant Jews during the marriage; that since the divorce the mother had neither taken the  girl to synagogue nor arranged for Jewish religious instruction; that the father had not, as the mother and all four grandparents alleged, “brainwashed” the girl; and that baptism, which in the Anglican tradition is only the start of one’s relationship to the church, would not prevent the girl from changing her mind later.

Reading the judgment, one senses how painful this situation has been for all concerned and how hard the judge tried to do the right thing. I don’t wish to intellectualize matters inappropriately, but I was particularly struck by the judge’s reasoning with respect to the girl’s religious upbringing. It seems to me the judge understood Judaism in very Christian terms – or perhaps in very liberal, Western terms, which, in this case, turns out be the same thing. For the mother, Jewish “heritage” and Jewish “faith” were one and the same: the girl had been born of Jewish parents and was therefore a Jew, period. (I understand that Judaism is matrilineal, but that issue did not arise in the case). Conversion, in the words of a rabbi who wrote the court, would be “unnatural” to the girl’s “soul.” The judge politely dismissed this argument. The girl had Jewish ancestry, he conceded, but religion is not simply a matter of ethnicity. It is a matter of belief and practice. The girl had never received instruction in Judaism and had never observed the religion. During the marriage, the parents had been quite secular, and the mother had remained so. As a consequence, baptism would not cause a terrible emotional break for the girl. Besides, if the rabbi was right, the girl would always, in some essential way, remain a Jew. As I say, a fascinating case. Read the whole thing.

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