Books: Choosing the top hat

Meir Persoff’s scholarly work chronicles the selection process of the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the Commonwealth.

Prince Charles wearing a kippa 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)
Prince Charles wearing a kippa 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)
On September 1, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was installed as the 11th chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the Commonwealth. Aaron Hart, the first man to fill this post, began his term of service in 1704.
Hats in the Ring: Choosing Britain’s Chief Rabbis from Adler to Sacks documents, in great detail, the process involved in choosing British chief rabbis four through 10: Nathan Marcus Adler (served from 1845-1890), Hermann Adler (1891-1911), Joseph Herman Hertz (1913-1946), Sir Israel Brodie (1948- 1965), Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (1967- 1991) and Lord Jonathan Sacks (1991- 2013). Meir Persoff also writes of Yaacov Herzog, who initially was chosen over Jakobovits but fell ill before he could assume his duties.
The author uses original sources to chronicle what went on behind the scenes as United Synagogue lay leaders drew up lists of candidates, argued about them, vetted them and wooed them. Likewise, original sources are relied upon to draw a picture of how each front-runner greeted the invitation to take on a prestigious yet politically and religiously fraught position of import.
Every section concludes with the installation address of the chosen chief rabbi.
Hats in the Ring is exactly what its subtitle indicates: a study in the choosing process. It contains no history and little about the incumbencies of the six rabbis. Though either of these perspectives probably would have added greater popular appeal to the book, Persoff has already written about these topics in previous books – one on Jakobovits, one on Sacks and one on the history of the British chief rabbinate.
For the average reader, the machinations and internal politics of Anglo-Jewish institutions are somewhat less than fascinating. Yet this meticulously researched and footnoted book does add a valuable dimension to our understanding of a peculiar establishment that has wielded a fair amount of power in our age. Anyone who grew up on the Hertz Pentateuch or who has lately purchased a Koren Sacks Siddur would agree that the British chief rabbinate’s influence extends beyond the United Kingdom.
That influence was much stronger prior to the State of Israel than it is today, if one is to take Nathan Adler’s acceptance letter as anything other than hyperbolic: “Thereby you have crowned me with honour and eminence, in conveying to me the intelligence that the Lord has enlarged His grace unto me, and planted my lot in a pleasant place – in the seat of the house of David, and on the throne of Solomon.”
Like most previous and future British chief rabbis and rivals for his position (Samson Raphael Hirsch among them), Nathan Adler was not British. He had been chief rabbi of Hanover and English was not his mother tongue. When his son, Hermann, accepted the post upon his father’s death, he noted: “My position is of an essentially different character.
I have grown up in your midst. I have endeavoured to draw my mental nurture from the rich stores of our dear England’s thought and learning.”
Persoff points out that over the years “the qualifications sought of the successful candidates varied enormously, in keeping with the requirements – and currents – of the times.”
Whoever occupied the office was, invariably, one of the world’s most respected Orthodox rabbis of his era.
Among those approached by selection committees were luminaries such as David da Sola Pool, Leo Jung, Isidor Grunfeld, Isaac Herzog, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, She’ar Yashuv Cohen, Emanuel Rackman and Norman Lamm.
Interestingly, Joseph Hertz was the first rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which later became the epicenter of Conservative Judaism.
Solomon Schechter, then president of JTS, recommended Hertz as someone “whose Orthodoxy is unquestioned.”
Some things, however, never change.
Hermann Adler’s 20-year tenure was marked by dissatisfaction from the Left and the Right, as well as disputes “over liturgical reform, ministerial appointments, rabbinical credentials, shechita supervision, intra-communal relations, the Beth Din’s authority [and] Sabbath- afternoon services,” issues that continue to roil Jewish communities more than 100 years later.
Even that long ago, in 1911, some questioned the relevance of the chief rabbinate. One Birmingham rabbi wrote that “in accordance with Jewish law, there is no room for a chief rabbi who could be a rabbi over all other rabbis in the country, according to whose sole authority and rule all the affairs concerning Judaism should be managed.”
In 1989, leaders of the Liberal Jewish community announced they had “decided to stop treating the office of chief rabbi as the titular head of all Britain’s 300,000 Jews.”
Amid continuing fractiousness and questions of relevance, the challenge that now faces Rabbi Mirvis is great indeed.
Sure to resonate most strongly with British and Anglophile Jews, as well as serious students of modern Jewish history, Hats in the Ring provides a wealth of insights into the effort to procure for Great Britain “a spiritual guide, competent to maintain piety and peace,” as the position was described in 1843.