Rabbi to the stars, popular author...UK chief rabbi?

The New Jersey native - and 'Jerusalem Post' columnist – isn’t ruling it out.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Shmuely Boteach 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
COVENTRY, UK – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the “rabbi to the stars” who penned the best seller Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Love and Intimacy, is sorry, but he cannot accept the position of chief rabbi of the UK.
“I’ve recently been voted intergalactic chief rabbi of the Milky Way and several solar systems,” he told a crowd of British Jews at Limmud UK on Monday, a Jewish education confab held in Coventry. “Anything else will be a demotion and will come with a paycheck cut.”
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All joking aside, the New Jersey native - and Jerusalem Post columnist – who spent over a decade setting up L’Chaim, a successful and sometimes controversial Jewish student union at Oxford University, isn’t ruling it out. Not that he’s been offered the job. The decision as to who the succeeds Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, UK’s longtime chief rabbi, when he steps down next year, will only be announced by an ad hoc committee of eight in September. But if the right set of circumstances were to present themselves, the Orthodox rabbi famous for his unorthodox methods and for being a one-time friend of the late pop star Michael Jackson would think favorably upon succeeding Sacks.
“It’s not impossible,” he said of such a hypothetical. He “became a man” during his time at Oxford, holds British citizenship and is well acquainted with Anglo Jewry.
“If they want someone with strong conviction and to breathe new life into it with lots of things that I spoke about today, they would open their pool of candidates – not just to me but to others,” he said.
If he were offered the job – and he was careful during the interview not to outright declare his candidacy, falling just short of such a move – it would have to be redefined.
“The chief rabbinate would be one thing and one thing only: Save a dying community. Inspire them, resuscitate them, rejuvenate them, get Jewish students on campus to be proud, get them to respectfully fight back as we did in Oxford.
“Create some sort of unity with Reform and Reform Jews because in such a small community how can we have so much conflict? It’s not a possibility.”
He said the next chief rabbi should act to improve relations between the rabbinate and gays, an issue which some liberal Jews say was one of Sacks’s biggest failures.
Gay Jews should be invited to synagogue, Boteach said.
“Who cares what your persuasion is? Come put on tefillin and daven (pray).” But not everybody would be onboard with the idea of Boteach being at the religious helm of Anglo Jewry – and he knows it.
Jewish educator and Limmud legend Clive Lawton, who moderated the panel where Boteach spoke, mercilessly roasted the rabbi, presenting him as a person “who writes books about things that aren’t supposed to be kosher and then makes them kosher like kosher bacon, kosher Jesus [the title of Boteach’s newest tome] and so on.”
The other panelists also took turns flinging barbs at him while the audience giggled in delight.
Boteach shrugged off the not-so-veiled criticism and drove home his main message for the evening, which was the importance of fighting anti-Semitism in Britain, with the usual mix of eloquence and confidence.
He received several rounds of applause from the audience but not all were won over.
One prominent British Jew said afterwards “there’s no way he’d be given [the rabbinate].”
So who, if not Boteach? Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Maidenhead Synagogue, a Reform congregation, has a strong opinion on who the next chief rabbi should be.
Sacks, he said, should be the last religious leader to hold the “strange” office created by the British in 1840.
“We should reject the title that shackles British Jewry,” he said at a panel. “It is a misnomer which gives the impression that he is representing all Jews whereas he only represents the United Synagogue,” an Orthodox coalition of congregations.
And yet, the search for the next chief rabbi of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland continues. But one thing is certain, said Romain in his lecture. Whoever the next chief rabbi will be, it will “definitely be a he.”