Another Way, Another Time
By Meir Persoff | Academic Studies Press | 398 pages | $32
There are three years to go before the British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has to retire on reaching 65. Many who know him well believe that with his recent elevation to the House of Lords he will be happy to do so and to concentrate on matters other than the bitter religious divisions within the Anglo-Jewish community. Others think he enjoys the challenges which his position inevitably poses and the respect he deservedly enjoys from the non-Jewish world and that he will therefore be reluctant to step down.
If and when he does retire, the big question is who will succeed him. There appears to be no natural successor in Britain and the search may be widened to overseas, notably America or perhaps even Israel. The even bigger question is whether the post of chief rabbi is really needed and, if so, whether its parameters will be changed.
Meir Persoff, in this well-researched volume, examines the record of Sacks, who took on the post in September, 1991, and comes to the conclusion that the British Chief Rabbinate has outlived its usefulness. It has, he writes in the preface, “indeed reached the end of the road.” An even more damaging assessment of the office and of its current holder comes in the foreword by Dr. Geoffrey Alderman, an academic and an acerbic weekly commentator on Anglo-Jewry in the Jewish Chronicle
, who writes that “under Professor Lord Sacks, the office of chief rabbi has become an object of scorn across much of the Jewish world.”
There follow 300-odd pages designed to support those views, based on speeches, lectures and statements made during the period under review, and highlight the many pitfalls that Sacks, brilliant orator and writer that he undoubtedly is, has had to face in the past 19 years.
To some extent, he has been a victim of his own background and the high expectations he brought with him when elected. Even Alderman concedes that Sacks is “without doubt the most accomplished holder of the office of British chief rabbi.” But, he adds tellingly, he “lacks perspicacity... and the courage of his own convictions.” Sacks’s predecessor, the late Lord Jakobovits, is quoted in the book as describing him as “extremely talented, a brilliant speaker and quick with a pen,” though it is rumored that he did not wholly approve of the choice of his successor.
The chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, to give him his full title, is in effect the chief rabbi only of the centrist United Synagogue congregations. He is not recognized by the far-right haredim nor by the growing non-Orthodox congregations to the Left – and therein lies the dilemma any holder of the office faces. But Sacks assumed the post acknowledging that “we are a divided community” but promising to “work to lessen those divisions by coming closer to one another and to God.”
The book details a number of incidents that not only failed to lessen those divisions but in fact widened them, perhaps irreparably. In his first interview after being elected – but before he actually took office – he declared that he was “determined as far as possible to emphasize what unites Jews and to encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect.” He warned that he would make mistakes but would learn from them. “I will have failures but I will try again, another way, another time” – hence the title of the book.
That respect was patently lacking in the first major mistake he made and in the controversy that followed. In 1996, the leading and widely respected Reform rabbi (and Holocaust survivor) Hugo Gryn died. Sacks did not attend his funeral but sent a representative. He and his wife, however, did visit Gryn’s widow at her home.
His absence from the funeral – it was said he was “out of town” – was bad enough. What was even worse was a private letter he wrote to Dayan Chenoch Padwa, av beit din
of the right-wing Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (the Adath). The letter was leaked to Persoff at the Jewish Chronicle
, who was then editor of its Judaism pages. (Persoff fails in the book to identify the leaker, and when I asked him why, he said that journalists never reveal their sources.) The paper was initially prohibited by a High Court injunction from publishing it (it later did so with a few omissions). In it, Sacks said that the leaders of the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements “know that they have no enemy and opponent equal to the chief rabbi... and he does not accord them any gesture of recognition.”
Sacks’s letter was in reply to one he received from the Adath rabbinate
urging him not to attend any memorial meeting “or any form of gathering
whose aim is to honor those who uproot the religion.” The Gryn
controversy, from which Sacks never fully recovered, was far from the
only one in which he was embroiled, trying to avoid rebuke from the
Right while at the same time avoiding alienating the Left. There were,
among others, the issues over the role of women in Orthodox life;
whether marriages performed under Progressive auspices should be
recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, even when the couple concerned were
halachicly Jewish; and whether Progressive rabbis should be called up
to the Torah in Orthodox synagogues.
The most recent one, only a few months old – and Persoff is to be
congratulated on making the book so up to date – focused on the
admission criteria of the JFS, the largest Jewish secondary school in
Europe. Sacks emerged from none of these covered in glory, being
criticized for whatever he did or said by both sides.
To his credit, he tried over the years to work out formulae that would
enable Orthodox and Progressives to work together on matters of mutual
concern without compromising their basic beliefs. They largely failed
because of insufficient goodwill – or willingness to compromise – on
There is probably no one better qualified than Persoff to write such a
book, having been at the heart of communal matters in his career at the
for more than 40 years and, since
his retirement to Israel, having the time to research archive material
– and the knowledge of what to look for – not only in England but in
America as well. He set out with the aim of proving that the Chief
Rabbinate will not – indeed should not – survive.
Personally, I hope he is wrong because, among other things, it brings
prestige to Anglo-Jewry from the outside world. Having read the book,
however, I am beginning to have doubts.The writer was deputy editor of the
Jewish Chronicle before making aliya.