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British Jews mull relevancy of chief rabbi
May 1st, 2012
London (JTA) — The search to replace Britain’s powerful longtime chief rabbi has gone international.
But even as resumes are gathered and interviews conducted, some are questioning whether the position is still relevant and what it means today for the Anglo Jewish community.
As chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks brought international attention to the post as an eloquent writer and speaker on modern Jewish and social issues, gaining recognition as an ambassador for the whole Jewish community.
Sacks’ writings on strengthening education, creating social mechanisms to counter crime and violence, and instilling moral values in society are often discussed in the public policy sphere.
“With Jonathan Sacks you have somebody who has the gravitas and respect of the wider population of this country as a leading spiritual figure,” said Alexander Goldberg, a Jewish chaplain and interfaith expert.
But Sacks’ tenure as head of the centrist Orthodox United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth coincided with an era of decline in Jewish affiliation, particularly among the mainstream Orthodox he leads.
In the 21 years since he became chief rabbi, Modern Orthodox Jewry dropped from two-thirds of Britain’s affiliated Jews to just over half.
In a time of deepening polarization among the Jewish denominations, Sacks has been criticized for alienating progressive and secular Jews, particularly over Jewish status issues such as conversion and marriage.
He is seen as leaning right, toward the haredi Orthodox community. Meanwhile, the Reform, Liberal, and Masorti (Conservative) movements don’t recognize his authority, and each has its own senior rabbi.
According to Ben Rich, the Reform movement’s chief executive, Sacks is “very good at interfaith, but not very good at intrafaith.”
With the fragmentation of Britain’s Jews, there is debate over what the office of chief rabbi means today: whom should it represent, what should its focus be, and, for some, whether the institution has become bigger than the position it represents.
“I argue that the chief rabbinate has all but passed its sell-by date,” said Meir Persoff, the longtime former Judaism editor at the London-based Jewish Chronicle.
“The chief rabbinate has caused more controversy than peace,” Persoff said in an interview. “For the sake of peace, the non-Orthodox movements have let him have his say as spokesman for Anglo Jewry. But they argue with him over conversion, marriage and divorce to such an extent that the chief rabbinate is bound to create more problems than drawing the community together.”
Modeled after the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, the British chief rabbinate was created in Victorian times to give the monarchy a single address for British Jewry.
He is selected by the United Synagogue, the governing body of the Orthodox synagogues.
When the post was created, 85 percent of British Jews were Orthodox. But modern British Judaism, much like the Anglican Church, is losing ground as a uniform community.
Synagogue membership dropped from 99,763 in 1990 to 82,963 by 2010, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Centrist, or Modern, Orthodoxy lost 20,000 of its 66,000 members, countered by a doubling of the haredi community and sharp growth in the tiny Conservative community, which went from 1,226 members to 2,269 in the same period.
Members of the Modern Orthodox group are discussing how to breathe new life into the movement and whether the new chief rabbi should focus internally on the United Synagogue.
A key question is whether the chief rabbi can — or should — continue to try to unite British Jewry under a single umbrella.
Goldberg believes the chief rabbi should be a bridge to other denominations and to the unaffiliated, who “need to become conversant with the Jewish world if they are going to continue with the Jewish community.”
Goldberg said the Orthodox rabbinate’s rigidity on conversion and same-sex marriage alienates many young Jews.
“I think the main issue the community wants to discuss is [Jewish] recognition, so people can marry each other,” Goldberg said. If the new chief rabbi “turns inward, particularly to the Orthodox community ... you are not going to have that discussion at all.”
Whoever takes the post will face a challenge, particularly with the growth and influence of the haredim, who support the chief rabbi as an external voice for Orthodoxy, though in a limited capacity.
Said Avrohom Pinter, a haredi leader and principal of the haredi Yesodai Hatorah schools, “It’s very valuable that the Orthodox Jewish perspective is heard in the halls of government when ruling on issues of shechitah [kosher slaughter] or circumcision.”
Other affiliated movements emphasize need for a plurality of voices and argue that striving for a united Jewish front is counterproductive. Masorti and Reform leaders say they now have their own rabbis in the public arena to express their values.
The Reform movement appointed its first official movement rabbi in January, a position it sees as equal to chief rabbi.
Geoffrey Alderman, a Jewish Chronicle commentator, belongs to the rival centrist Orthodox Federation of Synagogues, which does not follow the chief rabbi. He says the chief rabbinate has become “silly and expensive” because no one person can represent Anglo Jewry any longer.
Orthodox leaders point out that Sacks is resigning but not retiring, and he will remain a Jewish leader in the House of Lords and on the public stage.
“This gives us the luxury of being able to look for somebody who can devote a bit more time to matters within the [Modern Orthodox] congregations,” said Stephen Pack, president of the United Synagogue.
United Synagogue hopes to find a replacement well before Sacks leaves office in September 2013.