Recent media reports have the selection committee for the UK’s next chief rabbi in disarray. Though the accuracy of such reports can be questioned, they are ultimately unsurprising. The committee has always been focused on the wrong priority.
In the same way the Royal Family is the last bit of glitter of a once mighty empire that keeps the world focused on Britain, the committee is keenly aware that the last vestige of Anglo-Jewish global prominence lies in the Chief Rabbinate. They therefore have focused first and foremost on finding someone of international stature to replace Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. But even if Sacks’s shoes were easy to fill – and they are not – this was always the wrong priority.
What Anglo-Jewry needs above all else is not someone to lend the community luster but to rescue the community from terminal decline. Let the world be damned. The focus has to be on internal Anglo-Jewish engagement rather than external perceptions of grandeur. The same is true of the media. The future chief rabbi’s ability to impress the BBC must be secondary to inspiring Jewish youth. His appearances on Radio 4 must come after persuading families to have more children and Jews abroad to emigrate to the UK. His hobnobbing in the House of Lords must play second fiddle to filling Anglo-Jewish Houses of Prayer. The impact he makes on Jewish communities abroad must be a distant second to involving women in the community at home.
The head of the chief rabbi selection committee is Stephen Pack, who is also the President of the United Synagogue. A thoroughly modern man with a deep commitment to tradition, he is the best thing to happen to the United Synagogue in a long time and thoroughly gets that the first priority of the next chief rabbi is simply resuscitating a moribund community. But the difficulty the committee has had in filling the post with homegrown talent lies primarily in the Anglo-Jewish aversion to controversy. The personalities of rabbis have been suppressed by a top-down structure and an over-reaching Beth Din religious court that sets the rules for all rabbis to follow. As such, the rabbis simply have not cultivated the art of being strongly opinionated for fear of being controversial. They refrain from taking bold action that might incur the opprobrium of colleagues.
And while this is an argument, perhaps, for doing away with the office of the Chief Rabbinate completely, the direct result is that with the exception of Jonathan Sacks the community has failed to grow personalities of world stature. It is not because the Anglo-Jewish Rabbinate is not talented – when I lived there I met some of the most erudite, eloquent, and dedicated rabbis in the world – but rather because of the visceral fear of being out of step with colleagues and superiors, as non-participation in the Limmud Conference has shown.
One need only look at Jonathan Sacks’ own aversion to fiery, impassioned, and unconditional statements of support for Israel to see just how safe rabbis in the UK play their cards. Rabbi Sacks is arguably the most eloquent spokesman for Judaism in the English-speaking world. But he has witnessed a tsunami of anti-Israel sentiment erupt in the UK without doing much to curb it. In the United States we’ve seen leading mainstream rabbis call, say, for boycotts of The New York Times for bias against Israel. In the UK, a boycott of this nature by mainstream rabbis is a non-starter, even though, compared to much of the UK press, The New York Times is not as bad.
The Orthodox Rabbinate’s strange relationship with Reform and Liberal Jews is likewise unique to Anglo-Jewry. In the thirteen years I have lived in the US since returning from more than a decade in the UK, I can scarcely recall even a single argument between Orthodox and Reform Jews who cooperate constantly on areas of mutual concern like support for Israel and assisting the Jewish poor. The same cannot be said of Anglo-Jewry where Rabbi Sacks’s tenure has been marked by constant strife between orthodox and liberal. The next chief rabbi must take a tiny community that is a quarter of the Jews of Greater Miami, Florida, and work hard to unite it.
Which brings us to fighting anti-Semitism. Ensuring that Anglo-Jewish children have a Jewish education and that most of the community is affiliated to some degree is a top priority. The same is true of building Jewish life on campus, where so many young Jews often assimilate. But just as a soul cannot exist without a body, there can be no Jewish commitment without Jewish pride. And Jewish pride comes from living in an environment where one can affirm one’s Jewishness openly without fear of bias or prejudice. The next chief rabbi will have to make combating anti-Semitism and British media revulsion of Israel a high priority. True, Rabbi Sacks built an international following with his brilliant books and columns. But his greatest failure as chief rabbi is the fear so many Jewish students have of even wearing a yarmulke on campus, something that was not felt in 1988 when I arrived to serve as rabbi at Oxford.
The next chief rabbi has to fight growing anti-Semitism and must stake the credibility of his office, as well as his own personal standing, to take on the haters and make it safe for Jews to hold their heads high in every part of British life.
Let it not be said that I am writing this so that my name will be considered. That ship has long since sailed. There is a greater likelihood of my being appointed the next Czar of all the Russias than being made chief rabbi. I stand a better chance of being elected Pope. Being anointed the next King of France is more likely. It is more plausible that I will become the first man to walk on Mars. I could go on, but you get the point.