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by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-12-19

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Joseph will certainly have had to wear Egyptian dress. I very much doubt he would have been able to appeal to a supreme court to overturn Egyptian policy.

A new policy decision of the French government is to ban the use of distinctive religious symbols in its schools and institutions. In one way it is surprising it has taken so long.  Since the French Revolution France has pursued a very strict policy of separating State from Religion. The French government has tried to take the sting out of this policy by rectifying the anomaly that there are thirteen official holidays of Christian origin and proposes to introduce a Muslim and a Jewish official state holiday.

Clearly this is a response to growing Islamic assertiveness in France. If it would have the effect of keeping anti-Semitic Muslims under control I'd be delighted but of course it won't and other political considerations will continue the process of turning blind eyes.

But there is another issue here, that of freedom of religion in democratic, non-theocratic states. For most of the past century, Western European Jews were 'Jews at home but citizens in the street.' The Eastern European Jews on the contrary outwardly refused to play the game. This led in flash points such as Vienna to a great deal of internal tension in the Jewish community. Most European States, including Britain, were officially Christian states, either Catholic or Protestant. This was one reason why so many Jews preferred going to America. Similarly Jews living in Muslim states had no option but to obey Muslim demands.

There was great pressure to conform in Britain until the sixties, until blacks and Sikhs appeared in such numbers as to make hiding one's religion or difference no longer possible. The influence of the Beatles broke down conventional dress rules and conventions and the Six Day War gave Jews an increasing sense of confidence and a willingness on the part of more modern Jews to wear different articles of clothing that proclaimed their identity in public. Slowly Britain began to see itself as a multi-cultural stare despite its established church.

So I as a student at Cambridge in the sixties dressed like everyone else and did not wear anything distinctively Jewish in public. Years later I felt comfortable enough to wear a kippa wherever I went, even in the presence of the Queen. Incidentally I do not overestimate the importance of head covering. The Halacha only requires it for situations of prayer and blessings. But it has become a very important symbol (political as well as religious) and an example of how customs evolve and develop. But if a person wants to belong then he or she has to conform to customs regardless of how they came about.

One of the challenges that face religions as they move out of their protected origins into an alien or other culture is how far to accommodate. Initially Judaism allowed for accommodation only in matters of civil law, but the fact is that over time in the eighteenth and nineteenth century European communities accommodation went much further and Jews were encouraged to dress as the majority did and to keep their differences private not public.

Most of my dress proclaims me a Western Jew with a degree of acculturalisation.  Within the Orthodox Jewish community many Jews on principle make no such concessions at all and on the contrary go out of their way to appear as different as possible. I don't object to this. But
I do think this it is just one paradigm of how Jews can adjust to life in the twenty first century but it is not the only one. And it is not mine.

But how would I feel if I were actually forbidden by law from wearing my kippa?

What if there were a law banning beards, both intended to deal with Muslim Fundamentalists but in effect hitting at me? I would argue that as I am not offending any one and it is a matter of my religious practice, I should be allowed to, so long as I am not insisting on changing the State System.

And yet I also argue that it is not the role of the State to fund my religious preferences. If I want to, I can go to a State School. But if I choose a denominational one I ought to free to do so but not necessarily expect the Government to fund me. And yet in Britain we subsidize
denominational education? Is there any consistency? Are we benefiting from double standards?

I have always been of the opinion that State and Religion are best separated. In the United States where it is, religions flourish without the antagonisms that tend to exist in countries where religion is imposed. And yet those who want to, are free to have their own schools and to live within their own protective communities.

But even in the USA there are anomalies. In public places, Lubavitch can put up a Menora because it is not deemed a religious symbol. Christians can put up Christmas Trees, but not Mangers. There have been major cases recently over the Ten Commandments and whether the State can fund students studying Theology.

In the end there are two options. There is the consistent one. Just as parents should not compromise their values to accommodate a rebellious child so governments should not compromise their values to accommodate those who want their own distinctive life patterns unless accommodation is no more that a matter of tolerance. If a Government has a policy of
secular dress in its schools and offices then those who want to study or to work in its institutions should have to accommodate. Otherwise they are free to set up their own alternatives.

Once the United States insisted that immigrants accommodate up to a basic level to its values. And once they all desperately wanted to. But nowadays it is making it easier and easier for minorities to manage without learning the language or making any adjustments to the host society.

In Britain the reverse trend is to be seen. The Government for the first time is insisting on immigrants learning language and something of British values. Yet at the same time it encourages and actually supports individual religions to set up their own faith schools.

In the long run it is up to each religion to ensure its own survival. The state system should be for everyone and differences should be minimized. The fact is that States do not always work according to logic or consistency. Too often compromises, short-term political demands and eyes on elections determine policy rather than logic.

If the French policy is part of a total rethink and an attempt to achieve consistency I cannot argue against it. But if it is just tinkering for the sake of short-term political gain then it is bound to become a running sore.

Shabbat Shalom