jonathan sacks 311.
(photo credit: AP)
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. 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
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.
Meir Persoff, who has written two academic studies on the Chief
Rabbinate, argues that despite Sacks’s pledge at the outset 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
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
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.
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
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
Britain’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.
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
Coloring the debate over the chief rabbi
are several controversial episodes during Sacks’s 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 Halacha.
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’s 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
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
But by the mid-1990s Sacks’s 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 he portrayed
himself as an “enemy” of the non-Orthodox movements.
exposed the internal divisions among British Jewry. Of the approximately
70 percent of British Jews who are affiliated, some 47% are Orthodox,
16% are Reform or Liberal, 4% are haredi, 2% are Sephardi and 1% are
Conservative, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
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
Persoff’s book, while mostly a detailed and scholarly review of Sacks’s
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.