Why America has no chief rabbi

Absence of communal hierarchy in US means that individual rabbis can innovate without having to fit into existing infrastructure of control.

jonathan sacks 311 (photo credit: AP)
jonathan sacks 311
(photo credit: AP)
In my 11 years living in England I often observed, as did many others, that Anglo-Jewry lacked the vibrancy and innovation characteristic of American Judaism. The absence of an electrifying sense of Jewishness and communal dynamism was a much-discussed subject among the Anglo-Jewish leadership. In areas like per capita philanthropy and social services, Anglo-Jewry led the world. But in communal programming and affiliation it was hemorrhaging numbers at an alarming rate.
Some said that Anglo-Jewry’s relatively small number accounted for fewer truly original ideas. Others spoke of the natural reticence and lower-key disposition of the British in general and Anglo-Jewry in particular.
In truth, the principal reason for the stagnant state of Anglo-Jewry relative to its American counterpart lay elsewhere. Anglo-Jewry is profoundly hierarchical, while American Jewry is profoundly meritocratic. Britain, for example, has a chief rabbi who is the community’s titular head and ambassador to the wider community, while in America, a rabbi’s standing is judged not by any communal appointment or particular title but by effort and impact alone. The absence of a communal hierarchy means that individual rabbis and communal leaders can innovate and try new and transformative programming without having to fit into an existing infrastructure of control or thought.
In both countries it is interesting to note that the two most successful ideas over the past two decades – Limmud in the UK and Birthright in the US – originated with activists who were working outside the main organs of the established community. And that’s because giant bureaucracies often stifle originality. But in the UK where the bureaucracy affects the most important leaders of all – its spiritual guides – it is extremely challenging for rabbis to go up against the spiritual status quo.
We see the same problem manifesting itself in Israel where rabbinical innovation is strongly limited by the hierarchical demands of an established Chief Rabbinate. In effect, a rabbi is made to feel that someone is watching over him at all times. Being an impactful leader requires the freedom to maneuver and innovate. But wherever there is a Chief Rabbinate, there is strong pressure to fit in and conform. And I only partially buy the argument that having an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate helps to solidify Orthodoxy as the community’s main and established current.
In the final analysis, an ossified Orthodoxy that retains hegemony by communal fiat will always feel oppressive and invite rebellion, whereas an Orthodoxy that is alive and pulsating will rise to the fore naturally and be embraced organically. In America there is no Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Yet few would argue that Orthodoxy is now the community’s most potent, effective and vibrant force. And it became that way without being artificially propped up.
THERE IS more. Having a chief rabbi assumes community cohesion in name rather than fact. Whoever, therefore, occupies the position is immediately compromised by having to be all things to all people. In the UK, the community is bitterly divided between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. One of the things I found most distasteful about being an Orthodox rabbi in the UK was the constraints put on me from working publicly with my Conservative and Reform brethren on matters of great communal concern. In the US it would be unthinkable for an Orthodox rabbi to be prevented from working, say, to defend Israel on campus with his Reform counterparts. But in the UK sharing a public platform with the non-Orthodox clergy is sacrilege.
This prohibition served in no small measure to sow unlimited enmity between Reform and Orthodox Jews even in areas where there should be clear unity and agreement. The most famous example was when we Orthodox rabbis were prevented from attending the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor and Britain’s most celebrated Reform rabbi. Is it not better for Orthodox rabbis to use Halacha as their guide rather than rigid communal orthodoxies? And can you imagine any Halacha that would forbid a rabbi, of all people, from burying another Jew?
The limitations of having a Chief Rabbinate explains a paradox of British Jewry under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. On the one hand, Sacks is universally admired as one of the original Jewish thinkers of our time. A gifted communicator in both the written and spoken word, he combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern understanding of contemporary events and social currents. Yet, the UK community has stagnated and shriveled under his leadership.
Indeed, the paradox of Sacks’s Chief Rabbinate is how, amid Britain being privileged with arguably the most effective Jewish apologist of our generation, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has exploded under his watch as never before. Some of the highlights include the British High Court ruling, unbelievably, that the Orthodox community has no right to determine whom the members of its own community are, the arrest warrant issued against former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni by a British court, the decree that produce from the West Bank had to labeled as having been grown by Jewish settlers and the ban by the British academic establishment of Israeli academics at its conferences.
How could such an outpouring of anti-Jewish emotion erupt under Sacks?The answer is that in many of these cases he only tangentially engagedhimself. A chief rabbi is a member of the establishment, andestablishment figures – seeking respectability above all else – usuallyseek to avoid confrontation.
The closest thing America ever had to a chief rabbi was Stephen S. Wisewho chose to be very guarded and tightlipped during the Holocaust,shirking from nearly every political confrontation with his closefriend Franklin Roosevelt. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced abrilliant documentary about his tragic reticence entitled Against the Tide,which serves as a moving and cautionary tale of the Jewish communityever concentrating too much power in a single, establishment voice.

The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network and has just published The Blessing of Enough. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.