An edited version of the following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jerusalem Post online on 1 July, 2012, and in the Australian Jewish News on 21 December, 2012.
Who will succeed Jonathan Sacks as Britain’s chief rabbi is still uncertain. The role is almost mission-impossible. 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 is from the Latin verb “to love”. The prophet had a passionate love of God, His word and His people. Jeremiah (20:9) said he had “a burning fire pent up in my bones which 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.
Every British chief rabbi has faced religious upheaval. Solomon Hirschell was opposed by the Seceders who protested at the narrowness of the City synagogues. Nathan Marcus Adler battled with opponents of the Oral Law. Hermann Adler took up arms against the Liberal movement and its rejection of Scriptural authority. 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.
Jakobovits is called “A Prophet in Israel” in a book by Meir Persoff. Other chief rabbis had episodes of unpopularity; Jakobovits was under constant barrage. Yet it was Jakobovits who 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. Sacks has been and is a great intellectual but he seems to lack prophetic fire.
The chief rabbinate of the future will, however, have to come to terms with the fact that Sacks is not going to fade away. He will continue to write and speak with unique elegance and a soaring mind. Some say he might go to the United States as president of Yeshiva University, but wherever he is he will maintain his eminence.
British Jewry has great rabbis. Ephraim Mirvis and Harvey Belovski, who are on the chief rabbinate shortlist, are both great figures. If British Jewry wants a “professional” who keeps the wheels oiled, either would be an excellent choice. If the community wants a prophet who asks about the future, they might grow into that role, but who knows?
An exceptional leader on both professional and prophetic fronts is unlikely to emerge.
A priestly figure may be easier to find and will strengthen and mould centrist orthodoxy, a task that has long been needed. The question is whether, in addition, the community can find and cope with a prophet.