No Holds Barred: Fixing failures of the UK Chief Rabbinate

The office of the chief rabbi has become, in essence, an official straitjacket, stripping almost any occupant of opinions and conviction.

jonathan sacks 311 (photo credit: AP)
jonathan sacks 311
(photo credit: AP)
The announcement that UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will retire in 2013 forces a reckoning both of the man and the office. As a spokesman for Judaism, Sacks’s rhetorical brilliance and masterful prose presented it on the airwaves and in print as elegant, luminous and wise.
But a chief rabbi is not principally an ambassador or a writer but a leader, and judged by this criteria Sacks, over the last two decades, failed to demonstrate the single most important component of leadership, moral courage.
Moses was the first rabbi. He was a stutterer and his collected writings were unoriginal, having been dictated by a higher power. But what made him a great leader was his rejection of spinelessness and his readiness to sacrifice his social standing for the good of his people. The first thing the Bible relates about Moses as a grown man was that he was an Egyptian prince who witnessed the affliction of a Hebrew slave and sacrificed his fancy noble titles to save his brother.
But under Sacks’s watch, a tsunami of anti-Semitism has broken all over the British Isles, with bans on Israeli academics at university conferences, arrest warrants being issued against leading Israeli politicians and high courts usurping the community’s right to define its own Jewishness being only the tip of the iceberg.
Where has Sacks been on these important issues and on defense of Israel? Either joining the chorus of condemnation – asked about Israel’s conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinians, he famously told The Guardian in 2002 that “there are things that happen on a daily basis that make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew” – or, for the most part, silent.
In addition, with the notable exception of Limmud, which started as an independent, grassroots initiative, not a single new idea for Jewry has come out of Britain in the 20 plus years that Sacks has presided over it, a curious phenomenon given his unparalleled genius as a philosopher and thinker. Which exposes not just Sacks’s deficiencies as a leader but the deficiencies of the office itself.
The office of the chief rabbi has become, in essence, an official straitjacket, stripping almost any occupant of opinions and conviction. Like the queen, you become a waving figurehead, reduced to official ceremonies like opening synagogues and installing rabbis. You fear taking a stand lest you upset some slice of the ever-warring factions of Anglo Jewry or worse, British officialdom, whose sympathies often lie with Israel’s critics but who have conferred your peerage. Like a baseball team that wins the World Series when in essence they are only North American champions, the chief rabbi of the UK in reality presides only over a large portion of the UK’s synagogues, giving the title-holder a small mandate within which to maneuver. Even then, you are not elected but appointed and have no mandate of the people, making it nigh impossible to please even some of the people some of the time.
THE WORST part, however, is how the office stifles the creativity of the UK rabbinate, creating a structure akin to Roman Catholicism where priests must conform not only to official doctrines of the faith but the particular views of Vatican superiors. The US has no chief rabbi, which largely accounts for the entrepreneurial spirit of its rabbis and the creativity of American Jewry. Rabbis rise to the top through merit and ideas alone.
Sacks proves the point. He gained little by becoming chief rabbi. His dazzling mind and eloquent writings would have made him Britain’s leading rabbinical spokesman even without the title. The United Synagogue gained even less, choosing someone with the disposition of a diplomat when it required the tough-as-nails determination of a chief executive. The cost has been high. In the 2001 UK census, Jews were the only group in the country in which the number of people in the 75-plus cohorts outnumbered those in the 65–74 cohort.
But where Sacks’s failure has been felt most is on the British university campuses.
When I arrived in Oxford in 1988, I saw the early seeds of anti-Israel activism. We did everything in our power to fight back by staging massive responses by the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres. Fast-forward two decades and the battle seems lost. British universities are now entrenched nesting grounds of Islamic extremist activism.
Sacks has finally acknowledged the problem, lecturing last week in London about how he has just toured British universities and found that Jewish students on campus “have become despondent and demoralized at the failure of university authorities to take firm and decisive action” against anti-Semitic hate speech. That this was allowed to happen on the watch of the most gifted Jewish spokesman of his generation, with unmatched government and media contacts, will go down as perhaps the greatest failure of any chief rabbi in British history.
It’s time for British Jewry to radically overhaul a failing community.
The first step would be to abolish the Chief Rabbinate and channel the savings toward grants for charismatic young rabbis to revive dying communities and empty synagogues strewn throughout Britain. My friend and former Oxford student David Slager has pioneered this effort with Chabad rabbis on campuses all over the UK. The United Synagogue should join the effort ensuring that every outlying community has an inspiring leader to inspire involvement.
Next, replace the central office of the chief rabbi with a central bureau for national Jewish events, a committee of people who arrange for world-renowned speakers to come to the UK and tour outlying communities. We had immense success at Oxford attracting thousands of students to hear world personalities speaking on Jewish values. Just imagine how communities like Brighton, Birmingham, and Bristol could increase regular synagogue attendance if they had a monthly speaker of great eminence to draw people in.
Finally, settle all the controversies that squander communal capital.
Sacks never fully recovered from disputes over gays marching in Jewish parades, Orthodox clergy attending the funeral of a beloved Reform colleague and the painful aguna issue. State boldly and bravely that Orthodoxy warmly welcome gays to shul. There are 613 commandments in the Torah and if you break two you still have 611 left. Orthodox rabbis can share platforms with their Reform colleagues, just as they do all over the US. Men who refuse to give their wives a get will be refused aliyot and have synagogue membership suspended.
Well, now that it’s all settled, let’s get back to saving a once glorious community whose brightest years still lie ahead.
The writer served at Oxford University for 11 years where he won The Times of London ‘Preacher of the Year’ competition. The author of 24 books, he has just published a guide to living a life of Jewish values entitled, Renewal.