Friday, June 26, 2009

JCoSS: not cross-communal; at best non-Orthodox

The imminent opening of JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School) has generated unprecedented interest. Adorned with the slogan ‘excellence, choice, openness, inclusion’, its website describes it as ‘the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK’. JCoSS takes pride in its admissions policy, which ‘will treat on an equal basis all pupils recognised as Jewish by any of the UK’s mainstream movements’ and its intention to deliver Jewish studies ‘while being non-judgemental between the various mainstream Jewish traditions’.

JC readers will not be surprised to discover that ‘JCoSS worries Orthodox (United Synagogue) rabbis’ (14/05), nor that in a spurious comparison with Limmud, Miriam Shaviv (21/05) opined that rather than fighting a war already lost, the rabbinate should ‘face facts’ and ‘embrace JCoSS’. The battle-lines seem drawn already.

Before exploring further, I acknowledge the certainty that numerous children from US-type homes will attend JCoSS. However the Orthodox rabbinate might prefer the world to look, we will support and nurture the Jewish lives of our communities’ children, irrespective of the educational choices made for them by their parents. It is no secret that in a rare display of virtual unanimity, US rabbis have strongly opposed formal involvement with JCoSS. Yet this has no bearing on our commitment to our children in the school. There is spirited and evolving debate about how to achieve this: some will run out-of-school programming; others are grappling with alternatives to support JCoSS pupils. And it is with deep sadness that we currently feel unable to work within JCoSS: this painful decision is informed by real concern for our children expressed in the context of legitimate anxieties about its identity.

Unfortunately, behind the happy ‘cross-communal’ picture painted by JCoSS’s professional website and cautiously-worded literature, there lies a confused ideology that conflicts squarely with basic Orthodox principles.

I am certain that JCoSS will indeed try to teach its pupils ‘about all the mainstream traditions within Judaism’, in a non-judgemental way and ‘to understand and respect all the UK’s mainstream Jewish traditions’. This inclusivism may even succeed at a practical level - the school intends its kitchens to be kosher and its weekend programmes to be Shabbat-observant, even if it can’t commit to closing on second-day Yom Tov. But ideologically this descends into pluralistic incoherence. Presumably, pupils will be taught that some believe the Torah to be the unmediated word of God, while others think that it was authored by human beings; that some consider traditional Shabbat restrictions to be optional, but others consider them absolutely binding; that while the Torah itself expressly forbids certain types of relationships, some movements consider them to be valid life-options. And while this dissent is simply a statement of fact, the ethos of JCoSS demands that each of these contradictory options is taught as equally legitimate. Apart from the obvious fact that children need certainty, a sense of imperative and firm ideas to help them build a meaningful connection to their faith, this type of pluralism is theologically untenable from an Orthodox perspective.

In a seminal 1990 essay, later developed into ‘One People’ (Littman 1993), the Chief Rabbi masterfully explains the ‘incoherence of pluralism’ by observing that it ‘presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of time. This is the rock on which pluralism founders… Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a contradiction are true is itself a contradiction’.

A school whose raison d’ĂȘtre is the validation of conflicting stances on key issues of belief and practice must be considered at best non-Orthodox; in reality it is theologically completely and irreconcilably at odds with Orthodoxy. In that landmark essay, the Chief Rabbi demonstrates that ‘the literature (on pluralism) proceeds on the explicit or hidden premise that Orthodoxy is false’. The somewhat clumsy phrase ‘pan-non-Orthodox’ is a more theologically accurate description of JCoSS than ‘cross-communal’.

I understand the motivation of JCoSS’s founders. The educational world is dominated by Orthodoxy: in varying degrees, the non-Orthodox denominations disagree with Orthodox beliefs and practices, and most acutely with its definition of Jewishness. Why shouldn’t they create a school that incorporates their brands of Judaism? Actually, JCoSS acknowledges that in the event of over-subscription, it will prioritise those ‘who are not considered to be halachically Jewish by… all other Jewish schools’ – i.e. children considered Jewish only by the non-Orthodox. I respect their objectives, albeit tempered by genuine concern for the children of US communities, but I challenge the founders of JCoSS to reciprocate that respect by abandoning the term ‘cross-communal ’ in favour of a more candid representation of their school’s ideology. And I reach out with love to potential parents and urge them to recognise that they may be inadvertently depriving their children of their Torah heritage.

Unsurprisingly, JCoSS has provoked an identity crisis for the United Synagogue. The US has always been good at asserting what it isn’t (too frum, too Zionist, etc.), but imprecise when stating what it actually stands for. Are we too afraid of the consequences to admit that even the welcoming, inclusivist version of Orthodoxy that we champion has clear beliefs and some ‘hard edges’? Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: pluralism and Orthodoxy are antithetical. In the words of the Chief Rabbi, ‘pluralism is no more tolerant than Orthodoxy’, since ‘each represents a way of viewing the relationship between belief and truth, and each excludes the other’. We need not be scared of this truth, nor be anything other than respectful of others, such as the founders of JCoSS, who advocate pluralism. Again, the Chief Rabbi’s words seem prescient: ‘the search for unity does not resolve the tensions in the Jewish world. Instead it merely reproduces them’. Failing to articulate the unbridgeable gulf between Orthodoxy and pluralism misrepresents both ideologies and creates false hope for a unified Jewry. In fact, I believe that it hinders cross-communal cooperation in those areas where it is possible.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.