Guardian: Abolish the Jekyll and Hyde Chief Rabbi

Who is a bigger rabbinic celebrity than a chief rabbi like the honorable and venerable Jonathan Sacks? And that one in the British Empire (ok that is an anachronism) is under fire in the Guardian in an essay by Jonathan Romain, "Sacks should be the last chief rabbi," saying, "Jonathan Sacks has proved a divisive figure within Judaism. Can the community be expected to unite around a single figure?" The article ends,
...The discrepancy between his positive external image and his negative internal one makes him appear a Jekyll and Hyde chief rabbi: Lord Sacks who works in wider society, having a very positive impact, along with Rabbi Sacks who works in the Jewish community, alienating many sections of it.

Previous chief rabbis have also had their controversies, but 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 – and for two reasons that apply whether one is a Sacks-admirer or a Sacks-critic.

One is that it is a misleading title, as it gives impression that the chief rabbi represents British Jewry as a whole, whereas he only represents the Orthodox, and not even all Orthodox Jews, as many of them do not accept his authority.

This reflects the fact that the Jewish community – which was largely Orthodox in the past – has changed enormously in recent decades, and is much more diverse, with many belonging to the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements which adopt a more progressive approach to Judaism. The term chief rabbi speaks of a bygone era no longer appropriate today.

Equally compelling is that it is not a particularly Jewish institution in the first place. It was invented in 1840 by Victorian Jews keen to be seen as integrating into the rest of society, and was an attempt to mimic the centralised office of the archbishop of Canterbury.

The only other country that has a national chief rabbi is Israel, something which was imposed by the British authorities during the Mandate period on the false assumption – based on their experience of British Jewry – that all countries had a chief rabbi: they do not!

Many of these fault-lines have been hidden from the wider public because of Sack's oratorical and literary prowess, but a future incumbent is unlikely have his abilities and will just inherit the office's defects. British Jewry already has a national spokesman in the president of the board of deputies - this should suffice and the current chief rabbi should be the last.

1 comment:

Theophrastus said...

Many of Romain's claim are demonstrably false.

(1) [The Chief Rabbinate] was invented in 1840 by Victorian Jews.

In fact, the institution dates back to R' Hart in 1704.

(2) The only other country that has a national chief rabbi is Israel, something which was imposed by the British authorities during the Mandate period

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate builds on a history that dates back to at least the Ottoman period. Also there are many countries with a Chief Rabbinate.

(3) You do not quote it, but Romain's equating Masorti with modern Orthodox is also a howler.

I do understand your comments about R' Sacks and I have expressed my concern about several of his actions, including the Sagal controversy and denying R' Louis Jacobs an aliyah in 2003 -- however, any British Chief Rabbi will face a difficult situation given the predilections of the London Beis Din (e.g. Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu).