Let us vote for next chief rabbi

By Miriam Shaviv, April 11, 2011

It is still two and a half years until the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, retires, but the process of choosing his successor is already in full swing.

Late last month, the United Synagogue announced that it was consulting leaders of Orthodox congregations, groups representing women, young people and rabbis about the type of chief rabbi they would like to see; that the US council would meet in May in London and another meeting would be held in Manchester, to discuss the results; and that US president Simon Hochhauser, before he retires from his post in July, would be drawing up a job description for the next chief.

It is gratifying to see that the US is taking the views of its constituents so seriously. But why stop at consultations? Why should the US not make the selection of the next chief rabbi into a proper election, with declared candidates, a series of public debates and, finally, a vote for each US member?

The benefits, both for the Jewish public and for the US itself, would be immense.

The fact is that the unelected, unaccountable status of most of the men (and they are mostly men) at the helm of our main organisations is the source of much bitterness and cynicism about Jewish community life among "regular" Jews.

The fact that most of our leaders are unelected is the source of much cynicism

Lord Sacks himself has not been immune to such murmurings of discontent from congregants who complain that his own path to Hamilton Terrace was smoothed by the support of a wealthy "kingmaker", Lord Kalms.

By making the process fully transparent - instead of having a chief imposed on us by a committee behind closed doors - the US would instantly bestow the kind of legitimacy upon the next chief rabbi that few of our other community leaders have and which, in truth, the de facto head of Anglo-Jewry needs.

It would also help him avoid one of the main stumbling blocks faced by Lord Sacks in pushing through his religious agenda - the objections of the London Beth Din and others who are not even members of the US - because he would have a popular mandate.

Indeed, a properly handled election process would ensure that the next chief had a well-thought-out platform and vision, not just the "right" personality and religious leanings (though those will clearly be factors).

With an election campaign, we could have an urgently needed debate about the direction of the Orthodox community in particular, and Anglo-Jewry in general (albeit only once every quarter of a century or so).

Candidates would have to clearly set out their positions on, for example, conversion, women's role in the synagogue, attitudes towards Progressive Judaism, and even the role of the chief rabbi himself - all issues over which there has been considerable tension in US shuls during the past few years - allowing members to evaluate the arguments critically.

Hopefully, the candidates would not just be speaking but also listening to what US members actually want. This being so, we would end up with a chief rabbi whose platform is closer to the people's than it would otherwise be, and who is more accountable to them.

This open airing of the issues is not a process that the United Synagogue should fear. On the contrary. The US's main problem is that it is an organisation, not a movement, and generates very little grass-roots enthusiasm. A series of chief-rabbinical debates would electrify its membership, giving individuals a real stake in the US's direction, making them emotionally invested in its future, and more thoughtful about religious life.

Membership would doubtless shoot up, and existing members would become more involved. How could the US afford not to take this opportunity?

Nor should the US be afraid that its members will make the "wrong" choice. We are, after all, trusted to pick our own Prime Minister. In what way are we less qualified to pick a chief rabbi?

In 2008, the US learned to trust its members a little more when it finally allowed lay people to speak at funerals.

It is time to put its faith in its members once again. It should be remembered that the US is there to serve those members, not the other way around.

Empowering them to have a say in the identity - and agenda - of the next chief rabbi, would completely re-energise the organisation. And it would be the making of the winning candidate.

Last updated: 4:11pm, April 11 2011