Selecting a new British chief rabbi

Lord Jonathan Sacks has served the position with distinction and it will be asking almost the impossible for someone to step into his shoes.

rabbi sacks UK 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rabbi sacks UK 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
It won’t 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.
The 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 year.
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.
And 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 community.
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 colleagues.
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 wider community.
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 years.
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 faction, Meimad.
He would appear to be the best qualified of the three Israeli candidates, if the selection committee were to look in this direction.
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 committee.
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 candidates.
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.