“A knight there was,” wrote Geoffrey Chaucer more than 600 years ago, describing the group of people he met on a pilgrimage to Canterbury,
“…and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honor, freedom and all courtesy….
He was a truly perfect, gentle knight.”
Ephraim Mirvis, having served 10 years as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, was awarded a knighthood on January 1, 2023, in King Charles III’s first New Year’s Honors List. The citation read: “for services to the Jewish community, to interfaith relations and to education.”
The words Chaucer chose to portray his knight in The Canterbury Tales fit Sir Ephraim Mirvis like a glove. Congregants speak of the affection and respect he inspired during his rabbinic appointments, while friends and colleagues attest to his sense of humor, his ability to prick pomposity with his power of mimicry and, in his passionate support for Tottenham Hotspurs (“the Spurs”) football team, his down-to-earth humanity.
The first chief rabbi involved in UK party politics
His determination to speak the truth fearlessly as he perceives it was demonstrated in full measure in November 2019. A general election was pending in the UK. For the previous five years, the opposition Labour Party had been led by Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left politician. His support for Palestinian extremists had shocked the UK Jewish community, while charges of antisemitism within the Labour Party grew so strong that in May 2019, the party itself was put under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
No chief rabbi had ever involved himself in party politics, but a couple of weeks before the election Mirvis cast convention aside. He wrote in The Times: “The question I am now most frequently asked is: What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?
“We sit powerless, watching with incredulity as supporters of the Labour leadership have hounded parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism… A new poison, sanctioned from the very top, has taken root in the Labour Party.
“It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When 12 December arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.”
Mirvis’s intervention played a significant part in ensuring Labour suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1936.
Giving a lead to public opinion, and speaking truth as he perceives it, is a hallmark of Mirvis’s approach to his public role. Three days before Mirvis’s knighthood was announced, Amir Ohana was elected in Israel, in a 63-5 vote, as the first-ever gay speaker of the Knesset. As Ohana delivered his acceptance speech, certain members were photographed turning their backs on him. Afterward, one rabbi declared that those voting for Ohana were “a disgrace,” and another called Ohana “diseased”.
Israel’s Channel 13 TV station interviewed Mirvis about Ohana’s appointment. Sir Ephraim, as he now was, was unequivocal on the issue. Every human being is created “in the image of God,” he declared. “This is how we must look at each and every one.”
We all know the [halachic] prohibitions, he said, but at the same time we are forbidden to hate. In short, he maintained that solidarity with LGBTQ+ is in line with the teachings of the Torah.
Some years earlier he had published the first-ever guide for ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools to help make the lives of LGBTQ+ pupils easier. “I wrote from a Torah point of view,” he has said, “exactly how…to guide youth in our communities from a halachic point of view in our schools.” He added that his efforts were to help religious LGBTQ+ pupils who want to “feel part of the religious world of Judaism” without discrimination.
Ephraim Yitzchak Mirvis was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 7, 1956, the son of Lionel and Freida Mirvis. His father, the rabbi of congregations in Cape Town, preached against apartheid and visited political prisoners on Robben Island. His mother was the principal of the Athione teacher training college, which was then the country’s only college for training Black pre-school teachers.
In 1973 he left Cape Town for Israel. Over the next seven years, he studied at a number of yeshivot and obtained his smicha (rabbinic ordination) at Machon Ariel in Jerusalem. Along the way, he qualified as a shochet, mohel, and chazan. In 1980 he married Zimbabwe-born Valerie Kaplan, a former senior social worker with the UK-based Jewish Care.
In 1982, Mirvis moved to Ireland to become rabbi of Dublin’s Adelaide Road Synagogue. This led three years later to his appointment as chief rabbi of Ireland.
In 1991, the UK and Commonwealth acquired a new chief rabbi in Jonathan Sacks, who had been serving as rabbi in London’s prestigious Western Marble Arch Synagogue. In a curious example of events casting their shadow before them, Mirvis was adjudged the most suitable candidate to succeed Sacks into the rabbinic post at Marble Arch.
In May 1996, Mirvis was appointed rabbi at the Finchley United Synagogue, also known as Kinloss, in north London. Under his leadership, the congregation became a powerhouse of educational, social, cultural, and religious activity. A major achievement was to found and direct an innovative community-based adult education program, the Kinloss Learning Centre, which has become an educational model emulated by many other communities. Mirvis was also the founder rabbi and honorary principal of Morasha Jewish Primary School.
The role of women in Orthodox Judaism is something of a hot potato. At Finchley, Mirvis boldly grasped the issue and began supporting the expansion of women’s roles. In 2012, he appointed Britain’s first Orthodox female halachic adviser, Lauren Levin. He also supported Shabbat prayer groups for Orthodox women. “This is without women reading from the Torah,” he explained. “But for women to come together as a group to pray, this is a good thing.”
Even after succeeding Lord Jonathan Sacks as the UK’s chief rabbi, Mirvis pursued his vision of greater female involvement through his Ma’ayan and Neshama programs. He was installed in the post on September 1, 2013, at St John’s Wood United Synagogue in London, in the presence of Charles, then Prince of Wales.
Incidentally, it is recorded that one of Mirvis’s first acts as chief rabbi was to tweet good wishes to Tottenham Hotspur in that afternoon’s match against Arsenal, followed half an hour later by his thanks to Prince Charles for attending. Unfortunately for Mirvis, Tottenham lost 1-0.
Mirvis has established a genuine friendship with the British monarch. Like Charles, inclusivity is an instinctive trait of Mirvis’s personality, explaining both his pursuit of a larger role for women in the administration of Orthodox Judaism and his approach to non-Orthodox Jewish movements. “I made it clear on becoming chief rabbi,” he is reported as saying, “that I would never publicly criticize non-Orthodox Jews. I have good relations with progressive groups, we speak diplomatically and effectively.”
On the same tack, his pursuit of improving interfaith relations is entirely in line with King Charles’s deep interest in supporting the many faiths now represented within the population of the UK. For this, and a host of other reasons, the monarch clearly has a soft spot for Mirvis.
Charles’s coronation was scheduled to take place in Westminster Abbey on Saturday, May 6, 2023. The problem Mirvis and his wife would face in actually reaching the Abbey without using a vehicle was no sooner put to the king than he invited the couple to stay with him and Queen Camilla at Clarence House, within reasonable walking distance (I reckon I could manage it in under half an hour). Said Mirvis: “It was a lovely gesture from the king and queen consort to invite us to stay. They are providing a kosher caterer and making all the Shabbat preparations.”
Sir Ephraim Mirvis is a chief rabbi with whom Britain and the Commonwealth can be well content – a man of principle, unafraid to speak out in favor of the things he believes are right and good. No one could be more worthy of elevation to knighthood. ■