General Topics

UK Chief Rabbi


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.

10 thoughts on “UK Chief Rabbi

  1. I know it's not conducive to your happiness or beliefs to be a Chief Rabbi but in my opinion it is your duty to come back to the not-so-United Kingdom, take the job and flush out the Beth Din! I am aware that it is only a pipedream of mine but I live in hope.

  2. Leila

    Thats very sweet of you. Some 25 years ago I was invited by the then President of the United Synagogue to allow him to put my name forward as a candidate ( I am not suggesting I would necessarily have got the job ) and I turned it down because I did not feel I wanted to be restricted and straightjacketted by the nature of the job as he defined it.
    The only way it seems to me anyone could take the job in the hope of change would be if the Honourary Officers of the United Synagoue actually gave a mandate and a pledge of support for a more aggressive and radical approach. As I cannot see that happening and as one cannot rely on Eliyahu coming in time, I fear we must all accept our pipe dreams for what they are.
    But thanks all the same.


  3. Rabbi Rosen
    Do you not think it is time to do away with this position. The Reform and Liberals will be at loggerheads with whomever is chosen and the Chareidim don't listen to him let alone recognise him. Let there be a head Rabbi of the United Synagogue as there is of the Union, the Federation, the Reform and the Liberals and as and when required let them each represent British Jewry. Unfortunately the religion is not unified in Great Britain so why pretend it is?

  4. Abba
    I agree the position is pointless but the US will never do away with it because it gives them more prestige than they deserve. The whole institution was a Victorian attempt to ape the Church of England and the US will no sooner give up its symbols and positions than they will. I ask you, the Queen, Head of the Church?????
    And one might also take the lesson from Government bureaucracies. They still trundle on even when the reason they were set up for no longer exists.
    Its a dead letter. Most Orthodox nowadays disregard the position let alone the non orthodox ( regardless of who holds it). And remember Brirtian loves old traditions like Changing the Guards when they are no longer guarding anything.

  5. I have heard of authorities being accussed of being a doormat. I cannot tell you who it was. Some people in higher position just do what is expected of them but not use their own brain and start to do things differently because of fear losing votes or popularity. I don't know how much is true who did this mistake.


  6. Barry:

    Thanks for youir comments but I think, if I may say so, you are wrong in that I attack all establishments and all Chief Rabbinates wherever they are. You will I hope notoice I did not criticize Rabbi Sacks personally. It is the role I object to. I think for example Rabbi Lau is another good speaker, teacher and representative but I still think he was an ineffectual Chief Rabbi.

    Warmest regards,

  7. Sabine:
    I dont think 'doormat' is the right expression but I do think the terms "cautious, conservative, inhibited, even scared" would be appropriate.

  8. Was that you whose views on Gaza and Israel were a news item on Radio 2 at 5p.m. ?
    I thought it was a disgrace: shame on you, think of your self as religious and condone Israeli killings.

    For a man who is expected to be highly moral and a religious thinker, to make a justification for killing by mass retaliation – you lost my respect.

    Why start your reported comments with ,"Gaza fire rockets" ? You could have started with chronic malnutrition affects 10% of under-5s in the Palestinian territories, or 50,000 children in Gaza are malnourished, or 11% of children are stunted, or 43% of pregnant women are anaemic, or in Gaza and West Bank nearly half of all children have seen their school besieged by Israeli troops; more than 10% have witnessed the killing of a teacher in school or half the population of Gaza is under the age of 18. I thought you disgraced your self.

  9. You must have lost all sense of reality.
    If there are undernourished children in Gaza why is Hamas spending billions on tunnels and arms or villas for its leaders?

    My religion believes in self defence not in turning the other cheek.

    Just because Israel spends money protecting itself doesnt mean that Hamas firing rockets and missiles at civilian targets is not a war crime that should be responded to far more aggressively than Israel has so far.

    Oslo offered peace. All it produced on the Palestinian side was an intifada.

    Gaza didnt like the Palestinian government. It kicked them out and then became the aggressor itself.

    Of Palesrtnians have seen that violence doesnt work, if they refuse Ghandi or Martin Luther Kings tactics but still try violence thats their problem.
    I dont know what the Chief Rabbi said. But you sir are talking nonsense.

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