A new book that criticizes Britain’s chief rabbi is opening old wounds and sparking a new debate about whether the institution of the British chief rabbi has outlived its usefulness.
“Another Way, Another Time” examines the tenure of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, known formally as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.
Author Meir Persoff, who has written two academic studies on the Chief Rabbinate, argues that despite Sacks’ pledge at the onset of his tenure to be inclusive—Sacks is Orthodox—the position has become divisive in an increasingly diverse Jewish community.
“The Chief Rabbinate has run its course, and an alternative form of leadership is called for which recognizes the plurality of the community,” Persoff wrote.
The book has reignited a long-simmering debate in Britain’s Jewish community about Sacks, who declined to be interviewed for the book as well as this article.
Some staunchly defend both the office and the influential role he has played for the community; Sacks recently was inducted into the House of Lords. Others say the position should be eliminated when Sacks retires in three years because no one person can represent the multifarious viewpoints of Britain’s Jewish community.
The position of chief rabbi emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries among the Ashkenazi Jews of London as a form of representation to English authorities—the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The position gained formal recognition by an act of Parliament in 1870. Within the Jewish community, the chief rabbi has authority only over the United Synagogue, the Modern Orthodox movement and Britain’s largest synagogue movement.
Nevertheless, both the office and the stature of those who have held it have given the chief rabbi the appearance and de facto authority over the years of representing Anglo Jewry, particularly in the eyes of the non-Jewish British public.
This is what so irks many non-Orthodox Jews, particularly in cases where they believe that Sacks does not represent their perspective or interests.
“My main critique of the office is that it doesn’t allow for the plurality of the community to express itself,” said Jonathan Wittenberg, a leading Conservative rabbi. “To say that the one figure represents the whole community is misleading. Better would be an office that offers a more shared sense of both the diversity and the strength of Jewish leadership that exists in this country.”
Defenders of Sacks, whose philosophical books are popular and whose advice has been sought by non-Jewish religious leaders and even prime ministers, say the need for an eloquent spokesman for the Jews is paramount at a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Britain.
“Few Jews are as well known and highly regarded by the non-Jewish world, a fact not insignificant in determining our relations with others,” Sigmund Sternberg, one of Britian’s chief financial backers of the Reform movement, wrote in the London-based Jewish Chronicle.
The president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, said the notion that the chief rabbi speaks for all British Jews is false. The chief rabbi’s true role, he said, is as a bastion of centrist Orthodoxy in a movement increasingly dominated by right-wing Orthodox and the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox.
“The strength of the Chief Rabbinate is its flexibility throughout its history in maintaining a middle ground,” Hochhauser said. “He is not the chief rabbi of the haredi community any more than he is chief rabbi of the non-Orthodox movements.”
Coloring the debate over the chief rabbi are several controversial episodes during Sacks’ tenure. The latest was when an internal communal dispute over the admissions policy of a Jewish school reached the unwanted spotlight of England’s Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that labeled the admissions policy of the school—which is Orthodox, state supported and operated under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate—as discriminatory. The school had refused to admit a student who was not Jewish according to traditional halachah, or Jewish law.
“The difficulties that have arisen during the Sacks era are on such a scale that it may be time to abolish the office of chief rabbi entirely,” Jonathan Romain, a Reform rabbi, wrote in the Guardian. “It is a misleading title, as it gives the impression that the chief rabbi represents British Jewry as a whole, whereas he only represents the Orthodox, and not even all Orthodox Jews.”
Sacks’ critics say his record contrasts sharply with the expectation of inclusivity that he set when he took office in 1991. At the time Sacks said that he wished to reach out “to every Jew with open arms and an open heart.”
Two years later he published “One People?,” a book in which he championed “inclusivism.” Acknowledging there was no prospect of a return to traditional Jewish observance by the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews, Sacks wrote that it therefore was necessary for Orthodox Jews to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist, to seek “a nuanced understanding of secular and liberal Jews,” and to attach “positive significance to the fact that liberal Judaisms have played their part in keeping alive for many Jews the values of Jewish identity, faith, and practice.” The stance was welcomed by non-Orthodox Jews in Britain.
But by the mid-1990s Sacks’ efforts at inclusivity ran aground. He canceled a planned appearance at a memorial service for Reform leader and Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of Britain’s most popular Jewish public figures, after the haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations protested.
The controversy intensified when the Jewish Chronicle published a leaked copy of Sacks’ reply to the head of the union, Rabbi Chenoch Padwa, in which Sacks portrayed himself as an “enemy” of the non-Orthodox movements.
The affair exposed the internal divisions among British Jewry. Of the approximately 70 percent of British Jews who are affiliated, some 47 percent are Orthodox, 16 percent are Reform or Liberal, 4 percent are haredi, 2 percent are Sephardic and 1 percent are Conservative, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The Gryn affair eroded support for Sacks and sparked the creation of a commission to examine who speaks for British Jewry. The result was the Community of Communities report published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2000, which without directly singling out the Chief Rabbinate, affirmed the need for an “independent, cross-communal coordinating structure” to represent British Jews on religious and secular matters.
Persoff’s book, while mostly a detailed and scholarly review of Sacks’ 20-year tenure, has sparked new conversation about abolishing the chief rabbi position. Based on the reaction playing out on the pages of the country’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, it appears that most British Jews believe that in these times of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, it’s important to have an eloquent spokesman for British Jews.