The most awesome date in the Jewish calendar — Day of Atonement — occurred last week, accompanied by a religious debate that is convulsing British Jewry and will have enormous consequences for both its future direction and the way it is perceived by the rest of society.
After 20 years in office, Lord Sacks is approaching his retirement as Chief Rabbi, and a successor is being sought. Unlike previous occasions, however, it is not simply a matter of picking a suitable candidate. This time the question is whether we want another Chief Rabbi at all.
The office itself has surprising origins, because, far from being a traditional Jewish institution, it is relatively recent, and has Christian influences. It arose in 1840, when the Jewish community, which was then much smaller, began to become more organised and play a greater part in wider society. Known as the United Synagogue, the new body modelled itself on the structure of the Church of England, and the central position of the Archbishop of Canterbury was translated into the invention of a Chief Rabbi who was to have overall authority.
Yet, while the office of Chief Rabbi initially proved very helpful in unifying the disparate congregations, its continuing existence is now threatened by the fact that British Jewry has changed dramatically. It is much more diverse, no longer monolithically Orthodox, but with sizable Reform and Liberal movements, which try to marry the best of traditional Judaism with the insights and knowledge of modernity. They do not recognise the Chief Rabbi’s authority, a position shared by several other Orthodox groups that have emerged in the past century.
These tensions first erupted into the open in the mid-1960s, and then simmered down into an uneasy truce. They have flared up again during the incumbency of Lord Sacks, however, and may now be beyond repair.
HIS leadership has been remarkable for the great contrast between the successes of his external position and the failures of his internal one. On a personal level, there is no doubting his intellectual brilliance, his being equally at home in Jewish and secular scholarship. This is combined with his great communication skills, both in broadcasting and writing.
He has been a superb ambassador for Judaism, representing it regularly through Thought for the Day on Radio 4, and the Credo column of The Times. He has also contributed to the national debate on a range of ethical issues, from his Reith Lectures to his many books to his interfaith work. His elevation to the House of Lords did not come with the job, but reflected his personal stature.
The internal story is very different, however: when he became Chief Rabbi, there were great hopes that, because of his abilities, he would prove a force for harmony. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.
This was partly because he was seen as failing to stand up to more conservative elements within Orthodoxy. He did not, for instance, push through reforms to remedy the glass ceiling faced by women in the community, and he tried to maintain discriminatory entrance requirements for Jewish day schools.
The dismay caused by all this was compounded because he actively criticised the two most respected non-Orthodox rabbis in the country, describing Louis Jacobs as “an intellectual thief”, and attacking the Auschwitz survivor Hugo Gryn as a destroyer of Judaism. Both episodes aroused widespread condemnation, even among his own flock, and have remained like an albatross round his neck ever since.
Many Jews who admired the religious pluralism that Lord Sacks preached to the wider world were bewildered by his refusal to apply the same principles within the Jewish community. Since taking office, for instance, he has not set foot in a Reform synagogue.
The result is a view shared across all strands of the Jewish community about his Jekyll-and-Hyde character: the liberal intellectual Dr Jonathan; and the conservative unyielding Rabbi Sacks.
SUCH factors raise the question whether it is possible any more to have someone carrying the label of Chief Rabbi, which the outside world sees as representing British Jewry — or whether it is now past its sell-by date.
Of course, as those in the Church will know, it is rare for religious institutions to change their structures willingly, and reform often comes long after it should have happened.
So, too, within the Jewish world: a selection panel is being established to ponder possible successors, and names of both British and foreign rabbis are being considered. Whereas, to his credit, Lord Sacks’s outstanding reputation made him the natural person to take over from his predecessor, there is no obvious choice this time.
The search is premature, however; for discussion should be focused first on the actual title the person is given. The most honest option, I believe, would be to jettison the notion of a Chief Rabbi entirely, because of the way it shackles British Jews with the image of being a unified group, and masks their multi-denominational character.
On his retirement, Lord Sacks will remain in the House of Lords and play a continuing part there, but he should be known as the final “Chief Rabbi”. British Jewry may lose a once-convenient figurehead, but we will gain a new maturity.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.