Is Sacks Britain’s Last Chief Rabbi?

By MP9996
May 16, 2010

The Right Man in the Wrong Job
Is Jonathan Sacks Great Britain’s Last Chief Rabbi?

By Lawrence Grossman
Jewish Daily Forward, 21 May, 2010.

Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Schocken Books, 304 pages, $26.95

Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate
By Meir Persoff
Academic Studies Press, 396 pages, £26.99 (pbk)/£54.50 (hbk)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, is the great enigma of the Jewish world. He is a tactful and dignified representative of the Jewish community to the British public, and articulates a compelling vision of Judaism that inspires many on both sides of the Atlantic. Influential British Jews, however, including some who were involved in his selection, rue the day Sacks was named Chief Rabbi and expect that when he reaches the retirement age of 65 in 2013 the position will be abolished.

Chief Rabbi since 1991 and recipient last year of a life peerage, which comes with a seat in the House of Lords, Sacks is an esteemed figure in Britain. A rough Jewish analog to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he has the ear of government ministers, frequently appears on radio and television, and is the most recognizable and respected Jewish voice on issues of the day. Sacks is also blessed with brilliant oratorical skills and a sharp intellect, honed by university training in philosophy. These help make him a sophisticated exponent of Modern Orthodoxy – traditional Judaism explicated in the language and categories of contemporary thought – a synthesis popular at Yeshiva University a generation ago, but more recently eclipsed by forms of Orthodoxy indifferent or hostile to secular intellectuality. Among the nearly 20 books Sacks has published is the Koren Sacks Siddur, a highly praised prayer book with English translation and commentary, clearly conceived as a Modern Orthodox alternative to the popular but intellectually premodern ArtScroll edition.

Sacks’s latest book, “Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century,“ demonstrates once again Sacks’s ability to construct a compelling, forward-looking vision of Judaism from classical texts of the tradition. The book’s central insight is the seeming paradox that Judaism, as set forth in the Bible, is the religion of a particular people but serves a universal God. The God who rules over everything, who created humanity in His image and desires the recognition of all mankind, does not approve of a universal religion – the aspiration of both Christianity and Islam – because that would erode human diversity and produce uniformity. Judaism, for those who profess it, indicates that God wills the preservation of group identity, “the dignity of difference.”

To be true to themselves, then, Jews must remain separate from other faiths even while engaging with them in the common task of doing God’s will. Sacks shows how this delicate balance has been upset in modern times as some Jews have opted for versions of universalism (humanistic or Marxist) and left Judaism, while many of those who remained (especially among the Zionists and the Orthodox) turned inward, convinced that the world hates Jews or that secular culture undermines traditional Judaism. Sacks calls on Jews to reject this “segregationist orthodoxy” that imposes “the ghetto of the mind” and engage freely with other cultures and religions.

Since, he continues, “a people that dwells alone will eventually be full of people who dwell alone,” Sacks also bemoans the corrosive effects of internal Jewish intolerance. Denying legitimacy to our fellow Jews, he writes, is not authentically Jewish; it is contrary to “the rabbinic ethic of the pursuit of knowledge as an extended argument between differing views within a fellowship of learning.” In place of intra-Jewish, no-holds-barred ideological warfare, Sacks calls for reviving “the Jewish conversation.”

Meir Persoff, a British historian and veteran journalist, wants the same thing, but charges that Sacks himself has repeatedly stifled respectful conversation within British Jewry. Persoff’s new book, “Another Way, Another Time,” is the first full-scale study of the Sacks chief rabbinate, and the picture presented is devastating.

With the aid of copious original sources such as newspapers, correspondence and interviews, Persoff shows how Sacks’s top priority has been staying in the good graces of the Haredi, or strictly Orthodox, faction, whose high birthrate has made it the fastest-growing component of British Jewry. To achieve this, he has repeatedly acted to delegitimize the non-Orthodox movements – Reform, Liberal and Masorti – sometimes in ways personally insulting to their leaders. He has even gone so far as to delegitimize himself, withdrawing the first edition of a book he published in 2002 that aroused Haredi complaints, and rewriting the offending passages before republication. Ironically, it is clear from the documentation that Persoff has gathered that the Orthodox circles Sacks strives to placate will never consider him Orthodox enough no matter what he does.

Persoff makes his case that Sacks, by nature a thinker rather than a politician, made a poor career choice in seeking the chief rabbinate. But the book does not come to grips with the question of whether even someone far more politically adroit could have succeeded, given the structural constraints of the position that Persoff himself describes in detail. Simply put, a man who represents only the most moderate form of Orthodoxy – which used to be, but is no longer, professed by most British Jews – cannot also speak for the entire spectrum of the Jewish community, which today ranges religiously from far left to far right. In that sense Sacks may be an unfortunate victim of history. If so, the book’s title is certainly apt: the position of Chief Rabbi was “another way” for “another time,” but not for the religiously fractured present.

Sacks draws standing-room-only crowds on his speaking tours of the United States, where there is no Chief Rabbi and where the beleaguered Modern Orthodox consider him a breath of religious fresh air. Both his eloquent exposition of traditional Judaism and his commitment to respectful disagreement would be unconstrained by extraneous considerations should he wish to retire to an American pulpit or university campus. We should be so fortunate!

Lawrence Grossman is editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

The Chief Rabbinate: a rock or Victorian relic?

Miri Freud-Kandel reviews two contrasting books on British Jewry’s foremost religious institution

Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate
Meir Persoff, Academic Studies Press, £54.50 (26.99 pb)

Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880-1970
Benjamin J. Elton, Manchester University Press, £60

Is there a simple answer to the question of what is the role of the Chief Rabbinate? What has the current Chief Rabbi achieved within Anglo-Jewry and more broadly as a religious representative? Is his office viable and have any of the elected Chief Rabbis ever genuinely served as religious guides whose teachings and values have been followed by Jews in Britain? These are some of the questions addressed by two new studies of the religious leadership of British Jewry.

Persoff's work argues that "many (if not most) regard the Chief Rabbinate as divisive, and would not miss it should it cease to exist". He builds to this statement by analysing how the inclusivist vision explicitly laid down as a template for the Sacks Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly failed to be implemented.

Persoff collates an impressive array of sources to demonstrate how separatism, bitter infighting and a marked failure to cultivate inclusivism have prevailed. He examines the variety of crises that have mired the Chief Rabbi, including the fate of Jewish Continuity, the Women in the Community project, and the Hugo Gryn affair. He also highlights the Chief Rabbi's role in recent controversies over conversion, especially as played out in the JFS trial.

In a chapter entitled "The Mirage of Unity", Persoff shows that calls have repeatedly been made throughout the history of the Chief Rabbinate for the abolition of the office. He assesses how from both the religious left and right, it has been criticised either as unrepresentative or as an inappropriate secular construct.

While drawing attention to the perpetual problems of the Chief Rabbinate, Persoff largely follows the received historiography of Anglo-Jewry. This suggests that a once largely unified community, which sought to uphold an umbrella model encompassing all who wished to be included, has become increasingly polarised as a result of religious shifts.

Elton's work, in contrast, argues that a study of the theologies of Britain's Chief Rabbis between 1880-1970 highlights undeviating consistency and influential leadership. He insists that evidence of religious shifts is misplaced. Yet his eagerness to revise received historiography somewhat blinkers his research.

Elton's thesis is that the demographic transformation of the community caused by eastern European immigration merely enabled later Chief Rabbis to implement religious sensibilities to which they were consistently attached. While this argument is essentially sound, it cannot negate the fact that a religious shift nonetheless occurred in Anglo-Jewry, away from primarily Victorian religious values that had underpinned the institutions that have shaped the community.

Quite aside from internal shifts, the transformation of British sensibilities towards religion over that period are also significant. Indeed Persoff's analysis points to the growing importance of ethnicity, rather than religion, as a factor in Anglo-Jewish identity.

Elton asserts that theology provides the key tool to understanding the religious direction of Anglo-Jewry. He constructs a new method to define religious positions, broadly based on whether they acknowledge or reject modernity. His new definitions have the advantage of moving away from terms like Orthodox or Reform, which often have multiple and therefore confusing meanings. But his application of them impairs his ability properly to understand the nuances of the theologies of individuals he considers.

For example, his treatment of Jakobovits and other heirs to the German neo-Orthodox tradition is undermined by a failure to take into account the strict boundaries to modernity's influence that have emerged in neo-Orthodoxy.

Elton focuses on attitudes to divine revelation as the key determinant of any individual's theology. Highlighting a consistency among Chief Rabbis on this doctrine, he makes it critical to his argument against religious change. Yet this grants insufficient weight to other factors. It is not surprising that a community dominated by ostensibly Orthodox institutions has had Chief Rabbis and dayanim who have upheld the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven). A work that emphasises the importance of theology to understand Anglo-Jewry better cannot really afford to oversimplify theological arguments.

Persoff quotes an anonymous commentator in 1912 who suggested that prior to the appointment of a successor to Hermann Adler, Anglo-Jewry was managing perfectly well without a Chief Rabbi. As Lord Sacks approaches retirement in 2013, Persoff argues against the lasting value of the post. Meanwhile Elton argues that it has been responsible for the strength of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. The latest data on synagogue affiliation highlights, notwithstanding Elton's argument, how Anglo-Jewry is changing. Mainstream Orthodoxy is losing its majority share - indicating the seeming necessity to reconsider the future role of a Chief Rabbi.

Maybe Anglo-Jewry is so secure it can be represented by committee, acknowledging the presence of majority and minority opinions without reducing its coherence or strength. Alternatively, it is so deeply divided that seeking to maintain a single religious representative has simply become too disingenuous.

Historically, the means of securing real power to the office of Chief Rabbi has been an incumbent's ability to develop independent sources of authority. The lack of inherent power in the Chief Rabbinate, in some respects an intentional feature of a rabbinical office created by lay leaders, has increased the importance of individual personality.

The current Chief Rabbi's proliferation of publications and foreign lecture tours provide a primary means for him to achieve influence beyond his office. They may also point to the influence he could wield after retirement, unconstrained by his office, should he choose to do so.

Dr Freud-Kandel is lecturer in modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

New book stirs controversy about British Chief Rabbi

By Winston Pickett, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Jerusalem Post, 9 May, 2010

A new book that criticizes Britain’s Chief Rabbi is opening old wounds and sparking a new debate about whether the institution of the British Chief Rabbi has outlived its usefulness.

“Another Way, Another Time” examines the tenure of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, known formally as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.

Author Meir Persoff, who has written two academic studies on the Chief Rabbinate, argues that despite Sacks’s pledge at the outset of his tenure to be inclusive – Sacks is Orthodox – the position has become divisive in an increasingly diverse Jewish community. “The Chief Rabbinate has run its course, and an alternative form of leadership is called for which recognizes the plurality of the community,” Persoff writes.

The book has reignited a long-simmering debate in Britain’s Jewish community about Sacks, who declined to be interviewed for the book as well as this article.

Some staunchly defend both the office and the influential role he has played for the community; Sacks recently was inducted into the House of Lords. Others say the position should be eliminated when Sacks retires in three years, because no one person can represent the multifarious viewpoints of Britain’s Jewish community.

The position of Chief Rabbi emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries among the Ashkenazi Jews of London as a form of representation to English authorities – the Jewish equivalent of the archbishop of Canterbury. The position gained formal recognition by an act of Parliament in 1870. Within the Jewish community, the Chief Rabbi has authority only over the United Synagogue, the modern Orthodox movement and Britain’s largest synagogue movement.

Nevertheless, both the office and the stature of those who have held it have given the Chief Rabbi the appearance and de facto authority over the years of representing Anglo Jewry, particularly in the eyes of the non-Jewish British public.

This is what so irks many non-Orthodox Jews, particularly in cases where they believe that Sacks does not represent their perspective or interests.

“My main critique of the office is that it doesn’t allow for the plurality of the community to express itself,” said Jonathan Wittenberg, a leading Conservative rabbi. “To say that the one figure represents the whole community is misleading. Better would be an office that offers a more shared sense of both the diversity and the strength of Jewish leadership that exists in this country.”

Defenders of Sacks, whose philosophical books are popular and whose advice has been sought by non-Jewish religious leaders and even prime ministers, say the need for an eloquent spokesman for the Jews is paramount at a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Britain.

“Few Jews are as well known and highly regarded by the non-Jewish world, a fact not insignificant in determining our relations with others,” Sigmund Sternberg, one of Britain’s chief financial backers of the Reform movement, wrote in the London-based Jewish Chronicle.

The president of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochhauser, said the notion that the Chief Rabbi speaks for all British Jews is false. The Chief Rabbi’s true role, he said, is as a bastion of centrist Orthodoxy in a movement increasingly dominated by right-wing Orthodox and the haredim.

“The strength of the Chief Rabbinate is its flexibility throughout its history in maintaining a middle ground,” Hochhauser said. “He is not the Chief Rabbi of the haredi community any more than he is Chief Rabbi of the non-Orthodox movements.”

Coloring the debate over the chief rabbi are several controversial episodes during Sacks’s tenure. The latest was when an internal communal dispute over the admissions policy of a Jewish school reached the unwanted spotlight of England’s Supreme Court. The result was a ruling that labeled the admissions policy of the school – which is Orthodox, state supported and operated under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate – as discriminatory. The school had refused to admit a student who was not Jewish according to Halacha.

“The difficulties that have arisen during the Sacks era are on such a scale that it may be time to abolish the office of chief rabbi entirely,” Jonathan Romain, a Reform rabbi, wrote in The Guardian. “It is a misleading title, as it gives the impression that the Chief Rabbi represents British Jewry as a whole, whereas he only represents the Orthodox, and not even all Orthodox Jews.”

Sacks’s critics say his record contrasts sharply with the expectation of inclusivity that he set when he took office in 1991. At the time Sacks said that he wished to reach out “to every Jew with open arms and an open heart.” Two years later he published One People?, a book in which he championed “inclusivism.”

Acknowledging there was no prospect of a return to traditional Jewish observance by the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews, Sacks wrote that it therefore was necessary for Orthodox Jews to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist, to seek “a nuanced understanding of secular and liberal Jews,” and to attach “positive significance to the fact that liberal Judaisms have played their part in keeping alive for many Jews the values of Jewish identity, faith, and practice.” The stance was welcomed by non-Orthodox Jews in Britain.

But by the mid-1990s Sacks’s efforts at inclusivity ran aground. He canceled a planned appearance at a memorial service for Reform leader and Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of Britain’s most popular Jewish public figures, after the haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations protested.

The controversy intensified when the Jewish Chronicle published a leaked copy of Sacks’ reply to the head of the union, Rabbi Chenoch Padwa, in which he portrayed himself as an “enemy” of the non-Orthodox movements.

The affair exposed the internal divisions among British Jewry. Of the approximately 70 per cent of British Jews who are affiliated, some 47% are Orthodox, 16% are Reform or Liberal, 4% are haredi, 2% are Sephardi and 1% are Conservative, according to the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

The Gryn affair eroded support for Sacks and sparked the creation of a commission to examine who speaks for British Jewry. The result was the Community of Communities report published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2000, which without directly singling out the Chief Rabbinate, affirmed the need for an “independent, cross-communal coordinating structure” to represent British Jews on religious and secular matters.

Persoff’s book, while mostly a detailed and scholarly review of Sacks’s 20-year tenure, has sparked new conversation about abolishing the Chief Rabbi position. Based on the reaction playing out on the pages of the country’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, it appears that most British Jews believe that in these times of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, it’s important to have an eloquent spokesman for British Jews.


Jonathan Hoffman

Sun, 05/16/2010 - 11:27

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"A rough Jewish analog to the Archbishop of Canterbury"

Hardly. The Church of England is the 'established' religion in the UK and the Archbishop is a member of the House of Lords ex officio. The Chief Rabbi by contrast has to earn it.


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