Hats in the Ring

by Meir Persoff


The Chief Rabbi may now represent less than half of British Jews but no communal office attracts greater interest. In the third of his studies of the chief rabbinate, former JC Judaism editor Dr Meir Persoff looks at how six of its incumbents were chosen, from Nathan Adler in 1844 to Lord Sacks.

The United Synagogue may have been criticised for taking two years to anoint Ephraim Mirvis. But after Solomon Hirschell died early in 1842, it took until late 1844 that Adler was selected. (Of course there was no Skype then).

Even then, the Voice of Jacob paper was rooting for the chief rabbi "to be elected by all". Adler defeated three candidates - including the great German commentator Shimshon Raphael Hirsch - in a ballot cast by delegates from shuls across the UK. Democratically, we seem to have moved backwards.

Mirvis was selected by an inner ring of just six men and two women - though that was an advance - with another 15 having a veto, all bound to pledges of confidentiality. By contrast, 115 delegates chose Joseph Hertz over Moses Hyamson in 1913 in a vote that went ahead despite Lord Rothschild's attempts to have only Hertz's on the ballot sheet.

Persoff chronicles the political tensions that ever threatened hopes for the chief rabbi to be a figure of unity. In 1965, the Liberals could offer their "full co-operation" to Yaacov Herzog, the Israeli diplomat chosen to be Chief (he pulled out because of ill-health). But by 1989, the Liberals were very publicly distancing themselves from the office.

Persoff relies on substantial quotation from letters, resolutions of meetings and news reports at the time. This provides valuable source material and helps give a feel for the period, though some of the wordy Victorian prose in early chapters might have been paraphrased. What enlivens the book is his access to the personal papers of some of the protagonists, such as Lord Jakobovits or Ann Harris, wife of the late chief rabbi of South Africa, who was courted as a rival to Sacks.

It also sheds light on relations between Jakobovits and his successor. At one point, Lord Kalms, the leading champion of Sacks's candidacy, accused Jakobovits of failing to recognise the younger man's talents. Jakobovits - said to have preferred Emanuel Feldman of Atlanta - responded: "He [Sacks] knows… the failure to strike up proper bonds between us is certainly not due to any lack of trying on my part." Though at Sacks's installation, Jakobovits could generously acclaim the new chief rabbi's "exceptional endowments" and his entry into office "with a higher public profile than any of your predecessors".

    Last updated: 2:57pm, May 2 2013