On Sunday, the new British chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was installed in office in the splendor of the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London and in the presence of Prince Charles. Rabbi Mirvis will have a difficult task filling the shoes of outgoing chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Not only was Lord Sacks the undisputed voice of Anglo Jewry to the wider community, but he became known as one of the world’s leading theologians and philosophers, with a broader message on such issues as morality, modernity, multiculturalism, anti-Semitism, over and beyond the narrow ritualistic messages which are often associated with rabbis – especially in Israel. Moreover, Sacks’s message, whether spoken or written, was delivered with eloquence second to none.
Retiring at the age of 65, five years earlier than any of his predecessors, Sacks could have stayed on if he wanted. But he clearly has other issues on his agenda – not for him a quiet retirement into obscurity. He has an academic and a public agenda, and we can expect to see and hear him in public lectures, new books and as a public theologian and philosopher in the world media and as a prominent speaker in the House of Lords in the British Parliament.
Released from the more formal constraints of his ministry, we can expect Sacks to stretch beyond a limited Orthodox approach, without in any way sacrificing his own deeply held beliefs in tradition and ritual.
While he has always reached out to make Judaism more meaningful for a wider, sometimes disenchanted, public, it has always been on the basis of knowledge, learning and intellectualism.
Drawn by the Hassidic approach of emotionalism, this has always complemented – never replaced – his search for knowledge and a deeper understanding. For Sacks, the two are intricately bound up with each other – part of a comprehensive Jewish experience, rather than the either/or messages of those more constrained or polarized in their approach.
Sacks’s impact was clearly expressed in the hundreds of tributes from British and world leaders, past and present, culminating in a public address by the Prince of Wales at a gala dinner on his behalf, in the months leading up to his retirement.
Sacks must have often felt himself squeezed between the hammer and the anvil. For the growing world of ultra-Orthodoxy, even among his own constituency, he was often considered too intellectual and too universal in his views. His desire to reach out to a much broader audience was not always greeted favorably by those on the religious Right. He incurred the wrath of the late Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Rakow, one of the foremost leaders of ultra-Orthodoxy in Britain, due to comments in one of his books which may have suggested a more liberal understanding of Divine providence.
At the other extreme of the religio-political spectrum, there were differences of opinion with the Reform and Masorti movements. The latter greatly respected his scholarship but argued that he did not always do enough to publicly include them and speak on their behalf, especially in situations where he felt constrained by the formal designation of his job as Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox community and rabbinate.
There was the occasion where he decided not to attend the funeral of one of the leading Reform rabbis of the time, Hugo Grynn, with whom he had clearly had a personal and affectionate dialogue and relationship.
He did however attend the funeral of Anglo Jewry’s leading 20th century theologian, the late Rabbi Professor Louis Jacobs, who had himself been cast out by the Orthodox establishment in the 1960s. Sacks and Jacobs lived and attended synagogues within short walking distance of each other, and their unpublicized relationship during Jacobs’s latter years, was clearly a meeting of the two greatest Jewish theological minds to grace the British Isles during this period.
There was the well-known ambivalence toward Limud, which has become British Jewry’s, perhaps the world’s, leading Jewish educational experience. Lord Sacks’s decision not to attend the annual event for which he displayed obvious personal affection, and whose objectives clearly fitted in with his own view of Judaism as an educational experience, was largely due to the pressure of some of the more orthodox elements within the community and among his own rabbinate.
It has been rumored that Mirvis has been taking soundings about a changed position with respect to rabbinical attendance at the Limmud Conference. If that happens, and given the fact that Sacks will no longer feel constrained by the heads of his Beth Din, there is a strong likelihood that future Limmud meetings will be able to enjoy the presence of two chief rabbis, rather than none.
Despite this difficult juggling process and the obvious differences of opinion which would sometimes emerge, he retained the overall respect of the entire community. He was someone who spoke on their behalf, someone who had a message beyond the intricacies of daily ritual, who spoke to the wider community beyond the confines of the Jewish ghetto, and who inherently understood that for Judaism to be meaningful for younger generation it must speak and engage with modernity, without shedding tradition, when the meeting of the two raised difficult challenges.
He sought, and succeeded, in combining the two in a meaningful way for a global, technological and sophisticated younger Jewish generation growing up in a new millennium.
Rabbi Mirvis will have his work cut out filling the shoes of Jonathan Sacks, just as Sacks did when he filled the shoes of his own illustrious predecessor, Lord Jakobovitz. Each was a man for his time and his generation, and there is no reason to doubt that Mirvis will also make his mark during the coming decade of his incumbency.
A former chief rabbi of Ireland, Mirvis grew up in South Africa where, for decades, it was British-trained rabbis who took up the position of chief rabbi (Louis Rabinowitz, Bernard Casper, Cyril Harris). But it is now a South African-trained rabbi who has taken on the most important rabbinical position in the UK – all of them rooted in the strong common Lithuanian tradition of these two great Diaspora communities.
Unlike the politicization of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, which is not exactly a great advert for religion or its wider moral and ethical dimensions, the office of the British Chief Rabbinate still carries an important religious and spiritual dimension to it. In numerical terms, the British Jewish community is nowhere near the strength or the importance of either the Israeli or the North American Jewish community, but in terms of a single personality, it is the British chief rabbi who probably has a greater global audience than any other single Jewish religious leader in the contemporary world. And this is due as much to the individual qualities of the incumbent as it is to the position itself.
Both Sacks and Mirvis are strong Zionists and supporters of the State of Israel. But whatever their own personal views are concerning issues of territories and peace, they use their pulpits as places to draw out the broadest possible support of Israel. Both have close family in the country and visit often.
(As an aside, both Sacks and Mirvis are known for their respective intense support of the opposite halves of North London soccer loyalties – around which many communities engage in lively Shabbat morning discussions.)
But based on the big North London derby which took place just a few hours after the installation of the new incumbent, it would appear that news of this particular message concerning the transfer of religious power has not yet reached the higher Divine realms.
In what is expected to be an active retirement for an active and highly energetic person, it is obvious that we will be hearing a lot more from Lord Sacks on the international Jewish scene. His successor, Rabbi Mirvis, has his work cut out for him, but given his impressive credentials, there can be little doubt that he, too, will create his own style of religious leadership and will leave as indelible an impression on the Anglo Jewish community as either of his two predecessors.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. Formerly from the UK, he will be receiving the OBE from Queen Elizabeth next month for his role in promoting scientific cooperation between the Israel and the UK. The views expressed are his alone.