It is almost two years until Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Lord Jonathan
Sacks retires, but the search for his successor is already under way. The United
Synagogue, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in Britain, has set
up a search committee to find a successor, with the intention of making a
decision about a year from now, allowing for a full year of name familiarity and
overlap for the new man before he officially steps into the job.
be an easy job to fill. Sacks, like all of his predecessors, will have been in
the job for over 20 years by the time he retires at the age of 65. Previous
chief rabbis stayed on until the age of 70, but the age limit was reduced when
Sacks took office. If media reports are to be believed, Sacks was offered a
further five years, but has decided that enough is enough.
Anyone who is
acquainted with the present chief rabbi will attest to his vitality and his
youthful spirit. Retirement at the age of 65 will undoubtedly enable him to take
on prestigious visiting positions at universities throughout the world, and to
expound on theological and philosophical issues in his writings and speeches,
with which he may feel slightly constrained in his present position.
office of chief rabbi is a strange one.
Created and funded by the Jewish
community, it is not a state position. But the chief rabbi is nevertheless
perceived, by the British government and its institutions, as the spokesman on
behalf of the community, and is invited to state and royal occasions – the chief
rabbi was a guest at the royal wedding which took place in May last
Both Sacks and his predecessor, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz, were
appointed to the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament,
where they became spokesmen for issues relating to religion and spirituality in
general, and Judaism and the Jewish people in particular.
Lord Sacks is
well known throughout the UK for his eloquent lectures and speeches, often
appearing on the national television and radio stations.
But therein lies
one of the complexities of the job. The chief rabbi is an Orthodox position. As
such, Sacks does not always necessarily speak on behalf of the Reform, Liberal,
Masorti (British equivalent to the Conservative movement) or unaffiliated Jews.
Neither does he represent the rapidly growing haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community,
who view him as too widely educated (he holds first-class degrees in theology
and philosophy from Oxford) and too liberal in his approach to rigid Orthodoxy
to speak on their behalf.
Given the fact that the entire Jewish community
of the UK comprises no more than approximately 270,000 to 300,000 people, once
these groups have been removed, there isn’t a great deal remaining.
yet, it is generally accepted that when the chief rabbi speaks in public, when
he delivers a message of congratulations or condolences to the government or the
royal family, he is speaking on behalf of the entire Jewish
MANY NAMES of potential successors have already been bandied
about. There would appear to be no natural candidate from the UK Rabbinate, and
it would be extremely difficult to elevate any one rabbi from the rabbinate and
transform him into an acceptable authority over his past
Moreover, given the desire to appoint someone capable of at
least 20 years of service – as has been the case with all chief rabbis ever
since the post was originally established in the 19th century – it would have to
be someone in their mid to late 40s. The longevity of the position has always
enabled the incumbent to grow with his job. If he has not always been
universally accepted as the right choice at the time of his appointment, he has
always had adequate time to make the job his own and to earn the respect of the
When Rabbi Jakobovitz was chosen to the post in the
mid-1960s he was brought back from the prestigious Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New
York which, in turn, followed a spell as chief rabbi of Ireland, even though he
had begun his rabbinical career in the UK itself.
The other short-listed
candidates for the post at the time were former Israeli diplomat (and son of
Israel’s first chief rabbi) Yaakov Herzog, who was actually offered the job but
turned it down on grounds of ill health, and charismatic former chief rabbi of
South Africa, Rabbi Professor Louis Rabinowitz, who later became deputy mayor of
Jerusalem and who had also begun his ministerial career in the UK, the country
of his birth.
But all three, despite their strong British connections and
upbringing, had made their fame further afield, and were able to come back into
the community from elsewhere.
Sacks, too, started out as a United
Synagogue rabbi, but as an outstanding scholar, had also occupied the position
of principal of the London Jews College (now known as the London School for
Jewish Studies) and had been groomed for the position over a number of
In recent weeks, a number of prominent Israeli rabbis, Ashkenazi
Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi and current Chief Rabbi
of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, and the former cabinet minister and rabbi of Oslo
Michael Melchior have all been mentioned.
The candidacy of Metzger is
unthinkable given the political nature of his backers, which would be quite
unacceptable to the British Jewish community. Lau, an eminent global speaker,
and also the president of Yad Vashem, is too old, despite his proven ability to
relate to both secular and rigidly Orthodox communities and his undoubted skills
as an orator in both English and Hebrew.
Melchior too would probably fail
the age test, despite his clear qualifications for the position, having grown up
in the house of Denmark’s famed chief rabbi, Bent Melchior, and having served as
the chief rabbi of Oslo before his immigration to Israel and becoming a minister
in successive Israeli governments as a representative of the moderate religious
He would appear to be the best qualified of the three
Israeli candidates, if the selection committee were to look in this
The present chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, is
considered a candidate and would certainly fulfill the age criterion, although
it is argued that he has moved too far to the Right in recent years to make him
acceptable to the mainstream of the United Synagogue selection
It would be ironic if the first South African home-grown chief
rabbi were to occupy the position in the UK; all previous incumbents of the
position in South Africa (Louis Rabinowitz, Bernard Casper and Cyril Harris)
were British rabbis, all born in Scotland and all of whom initially made their
mark within the British community. This would be the equivalent of a reverse
brain drain as far as the British community is concerned.
There will be
much political intrigue and community politics over the next year, as the
selection committee goes about its business. There have been some who argue that
the position of chief rabbi is no longer necessary, but it is highly unlikely
that the call to cancel the position will be implemented. It is possible that
the Committee will go for an older person who will serve in the job for a
shorter period of approximately 10 years instead of the normal 20 plus, thus
opening the candidacy to a much larger reservoir of potential
Whatever the final decision, the new chief rabbi will have a
hard act to follow.
Lord Jonathan Sacks has served the position with
distinction and it will be asking almost the impossible for someone to step into
his shoes.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.