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    Britain’s Chief Rabbi – time for a new model? (book review)

    Meir Persoff
    Academic Studies Press, 2010

    Reviewed by Rabbi Raymond Apple

    The title of this book sounds highly academic and indeed it is a solidly-researched and careful analysis. But when you read the book it is dynamite, made especially topical by the announcement that Lord Sacks will retire as Britain’s chief rabbi in two years’ time.

    An Anglo-Jewish historian once wrote a hard-hitting article headed “The Chief Rabbinate – a most peculiar practice”. Actually there is something peculiar and British about the chief rabbinate. It more or less came into being by default at the beginning of the 19th century when the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in the City of London was deferred to by congregations that had no rabbi and even by some that did.

    But if the office of chief rabbi did not exist someone would have needed to invent it. The 19th century anglicisation process made it necessary to create institutions modelled on British ways. If London had its “Times”, the Jews had to have a “Jewish Chronicle”. If Christians had an Archbishop of Canterbury, the Jews had to have a chief rabbi.

    Yet despite the façade the chief rabbinate never commanded the total adherence of Anglo-Jewry. The story is told in an even larger book by Meir Persoff, Faith Against Reason: Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate, 1840-1990 (Vallentine Mitchell, 2008).

    Nonetheless the lengthy incumbency of Nathan Marcus Adler in the 19th century gave the office stability and authority to such an extent that when he died there were suggestions that the reform movement should join in electing a successor.

    Throughout the 20th century there were eruptions of antagonism to the chief rabbinate, but now they are harder to overcome because the community no longer has most of its strength concentrated in centrist orthodoxy. Once the community was like a cigar with its bulk in the middle whilst the two ends were narrow; now it is a dumbbell with the centre narrow and the two ends more solid.

    In this context Persoff shows the paradox that is Jonathan Sacks. Highly influential amongst the gentiles, he is highly controversial amongst the Jews. He preaches tolerance of varying points of view and dialogue with dissent, but he is in constant hot water with his intemperate attacks on the non-orthodox.

    It is all here – the Hugo Gryn affair in which he pleased nobody, the Masorti controversy, the peculiar episodes involving the Jewish Continuity movement and the Women in the Community project, issues surrounding conversion, and most recently the JFS enrolment problem.

    He has two jobs in one – titular head of orthodoxy and Jewish ambassador to the gentiles. Once upon a time they more or less worked together, but then there were chief rabbis who did not preach such love and inclusiveness and make everyone feel let down when words and actions did not tally.

    The president of the United Synagogue is adamant that there will be another chief rabbi. Persoff is adamant that the existing model cannot work.

    There is a good case for separating the chief rabbinic roles – a salaried head of the rabbinate of the United Synagogue (with the addition of such other congregations that decide to join in), and a more freewheeling Jewish contribution to the marketplace of ideas that will not necessarily come from a salaried appointment or even from a person who holds any office in the community at all.

    Sacks is a gifted communicator, a thinker, writer, speaker, inspirer. He is British Jewry’s best example of a great mind with much to offer as a leader of thought. After he retires he will obviously continue in this role, and in time others will arise to succeed him.

    But whether this needs to or can be combined with the headship of the United Synagogue is a matter for doubt. And whether it will harm the community if there is no Jewish Archbishop of Canterbury is a matter for thought.

    Persoff has given the community the material on which to base its judgment.

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