Pick a rabbi who speaks for us all

Look, you're welcome to tell me this is none of my business. But until you do, I'm just going to get on and say my piece. I hope that's all right. I want to chip in about the choice of a new Chief Rabbi. I notice that there is a debate going on about the selection process.

One part of this concerns how democratic the choice should be, and another part involves a dispute about what the job is really for. I want to make a contribution to both debates.

I am not an orthodox Jew. I was brought up as a member of Steven Katz's Hendon Reform Synagogue, and after moving home I have joined the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. I have had two excellent rabbis, but I don't think, much as I adore him, that the United Synagogues will regard Rabbi Aaron Goldstein as a candidate for chief.

I accept this. I realise that on almost every imaginable religious question, the new Chief Rabbi will be more conservative than I am.

I realise an orthodox man with a beard will be Chief Rabbi

I always remember the shock and disappointment of some of my newspaper colleagues when the last Pope was chosen. Oh no, they exclaimed. They have chosen an old, white hardliner who doesn't like homosexuality and abortion. Who did they expect would be chosen, I asked. Tony Blair?

So I realise that an orthodox man with a beard is going to be Chief Rabbi and I don't object.

I also don't really mind whether the United Synagogue decides to choose the new man by a traditional selection board or by one member one vote.

I can certainly see a strong case for involving more women in the process, and if it were my own community I would feel passionately about it, but, again, that's really up to the United.

But what I do want, what I do care about, is that when the final choice is made there is a little thought given to me.

You see, working as a journalist, I realise that there is only ever going to be one Chief Rabbi.

Try to explain to a busy news desk that the Chief Rabbi is only chief of some rabbis and some Jews and… well, you'll lose them by the second sentence. It is inevitable that whoever is chosen will end up speaking for all Jews even if he is not really their representative.

The only way of preventing this is for Jews outside the US to aggressively undermine the new Chief with the press in order to make it clear his limited authority. But this would be very regrettable, and for a reason beyond the fact that we are all Jews and that aggressively undermining people shouldn't be what we do.

It would be regrettable because a strong, credible, Chief benefits all of us. As Lord Sacks has shown.

It is easy for Jews to underestimate the respect which Jonathan Sacks commands outside the community.

He is a towering figure, able to explain the role of religion even to those who doubt its value.

When a natural disaster befalls mankind, he is one of the few Britons able to consider its meaning in a way that makes sense and brings comfort.

And this respect, and intellectual contribution, is something that all Jews gain from.

The status that Lord Sacks enjoys means he is able to speak with immense authority on issues that matter to us all - antisemitism, for instance, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

It is also strengthens our position on issues that require non-Jews to accept the rituals and practices of Jews. Shechita, for instance.

So I note what is being said within the US about choosing a Chief who is, as Rabbi Schochet puts it, "more inward" and be, as the new US President Stephen Pack says, more of a "rabbi of rabbis".

When choosing someone new there is always a bit of a rebellion against what has gone before.

But I beg them not to ignore the role the Chief has for all Jews, not just US ones. And that, in turn, means picking someone who can speak to non-Jews.

If fellow feeling doesn't lead the selectors to heed this advice, let me try something else.

I don't think the pre-eminence of the Chief and, therefore, the leadership authority of the US, would survive choosing someone who was not capable of being outward as well as inward.

Daniel Finkelstein is Executive Editor of The Times

    Last updated: 9:37am, July 22 2011