It’s amusing to an outsider, as I now am, to observe the interest in the UK over a new Chief Rabbi. Ben Elton, author of Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970, wrote an article in the Jewish Chronicle recently in which he contrasted different styles of Chief Rabbis and argued that the next one, instead of representing Judaism to the wider world, “should concentrate more on internal matters… Anglo Jewry no longer need maintain boundaries so watchfully, because in today’s Anglo-Jewry we are not going to confuse what is Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal, and which body stands for which theology.”
I am really the last person to write about Chief Rabbis. Whilst recognizing the need for authority and religious power I have always detested authority and establishments. I was brought up in a home where Chief Rabbis were more objects of scorn than reverence. The rabbis I admire tend to be “hidden saints” rather than those who court position and publicity.
I have, indeed, known many Chief Rabbis around the world over the years. Some have been fighters, some have been good sincere men, some good expositors and some diplomats. A few have been Talmudic giants and scholars. I might also add a there have been some rogues too. None of them, in my opinion, had any fundamental innovative impact on Jewish life.
The reason is obvious enough; changes, paradigm shifts come either from movements that arise out of historical and social circumstances, mysticism, Chasidism, Wissenschaft, Reform or Torah Im Derech Eretz and are usually initiated from outside the establishments. The revival of Orthodoxy around the world, and indeed of cultural Jewish life, stems essentially from individuals or movements working from the outside. This does not mean that rabbis, even talented ones, have no impact. Of course not. But it is not to them we should look for innovation or taking risks.
Judaism has flourished most in countries without centralized authority, such as the United States. Ironically in Israel, where there is de jure centralized authority, the Charedi renaissance and plethora of informal religious groups have succeeded precisely because they have completely overshadowed it.
In little Britain (for it is marginal in world affairs, however much it might wish it were not) the role of Chief Rabbi is essentially a diplomatic one, and diplomats can rarely be creative leaders or radical reformers. It is a lay appointment and committees invariably choose safe candidates.
The Jewish world in our time has not been altered by Chief Rabbis but by the phenomenal growth of movements spurred on by their own inner dynamism. Charedim more than any other. They do not have appointed chiefs, but have nevertheless been responsible for the exponential growth of Torah (not to mention population). Think of the Baal Teshuva movements (the Jewish evangelicals). It is Chabad, Aish, Ohr Somayach (all outgrowths of the Charedi world), and the expansion of Chasidic sects, of yeshivot and of Torah study that have transformed Orthodoxy from a seemingly lost cause since the cataclysms of World War II.
But the very fundamentalism that has enabled these communities–Lithuanian, Chasidic and Sephardic–to flourish has also led to a split between those Orthodox Jews who think all knowledge can be found in Torah alone. In contrast others think that, even if Torah is the primary source of all spiritual knowledge and values, there is still much to be found beyond its borders. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom may be found amongst the nations too.
So to the UK, where the coming retirement of its Chief Rabbi has initiated debate. Recent articles have included demands for scrapping the role, a female Chief, a democratic vote, a foreigner, an ecumenical healer, a mystic and even a rosh yeshivah. The one leadership quality no one seems to have dared to mention is the willingness to fight.
Not one Chief Rabbi since Hertz has stood up to the Beth Din. No new one will be any more likely to than his predecessors. The hounds of the religious right are already baying. At the moment the only voices standing for open, honest, intellectual Judaism are in “academia”.
Rabbis are tools of social cohesion, not spiritual innovation. The borderlines between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have indeed been drawn. The one place that the borderline is still biddable is that of intellectual freedom, the ability to think freely and bring scholarship, scientific method and analysis to Jewish law and theology, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is the borderline between the closed religious mind and the open one that is at stake.
That is the only area where a Chief Rabbi who was minded to fight could make a real difference. But, of course, it will not happen. Indeed, it cannot happen precisely because the person who will get the job will not be the sort of person to buck the system.
In some ways is not unlike the USA. Presidents Bush and Obama are very different in style and personality. But neither has had any significant impact on the way America does things. My advice to Anglo Jewry is to relax, not to expect too much. Above all, regardless of whomever the oligarchy appoints, not to give the poor fellow too rough a time. Because in the end it won’t make much difference anyway.