An edited version of the following letter appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 20 April, 2012.
The role of British chief rabbi (“With Jonathan Sacks retiring, British Jews mixed on relevancy of chief rabbi,” April 18) is almost mission-impossible. Nobody knows for certain what to expect of the incumbent. The job specification, taken down and polished between incumbencies, is precise on some aspects and silent on others. Every holder of the office moulded it anew. In some ways this brought benefit to the man and the community; in others it was a drawback, because there were challenges that were not properly faced and priorities that got too little attention.
The problem echoes an old dichotomy between priest and prophet. The priest safeguarded the ritual and administered the system; the prophet spoke out on the nature of society. The first role required knowledge, energy and efficiency; the second, vision and courage. Some priests were prophets, some prophets were priests, but generally both camps concentrated on one task or the other, not both.
Professor Robert Gordis called the priest a religious professional and the prophet an amateur, in the basic sense of the term, which derives from the Latin verb “to love”. The prophet had a passionate love of God, His word and His people. Like Jeremiah (20:9) he had “a burning fire pent up in my bones, that I cannot contain”. The prophet spoke out because he could do no other. Not dependent on the establishment for a living, he could ruffle and discomfit the populace. He was criticised, hated, humiliated and even exiled.
It is true that every British chief rabbi has confronted religious upheaval. Solomon Hirschell was faced by the so-called Seceders who objected to the liturgical policies of the City synagogues. Nathan Marcus Adler battled with opponents of the Oral Law and critics of the religious laws of divorce. Hermann Adler took up arms against the Liberal movement and its rejection of the authority of Scripture. JH Hertz fought for the Sabbath and Zionism, and against Sir Robert Waley Cohen. Israel Brodie resisted the non-conventional theology of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Immanuel Jakobovits struggled on so many fronts that an Israeli Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, told British Jewry, “Spew out this man”. Jonathan Sacks could please neither the right nor the left.
I don’t know who suffered the most. Jakobovits is called “A Prophet in Israel” in a book about him by Meir Persoff. Others had episodes of unpopularity; Jakobovits came closest to the prophetic mould. When Mrs Thatcher looked for a religious roar she came to Jakobovits. Not that his ideas were necessarily the only or best way to a quality society, but they raised the sights and elevated the tone of national debate.
British Jewry has to decide what it wants – a “professional” who keeps the wheels oiled, or a prophet who asks about the future. Both require scholarship, stamina and skills. An exceptional leader on both fronts is unlikely. A priestly figure may be easier to find. The question is whether, in addition, the community can find and cope with a prophet. A free-wheeler with a prophetic voice might not be financially beholden to the community, but he will come at the price of freedom of the pulpit.
(Emeritus rabbi, the Great Synagogue, Sydney)