Black hats turned upside down

By Geoffrey Alderman, December 18, 2012

While the Board of Deputies prepares to reflect on its future, while the Chief Rabbinate Trust ponders whether it can appoint a genuinely credible successor to Lord Sacks, and while the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation makes ready to resume its search for a new spiritual leader (hoping, no doubt, to do so without repeating the comprehensive hash that it made of this quest last time), a performance is taking place offstage that may well have a much more profound impact than any of these melodramas upon the religious topography of British Jewry.

I refer to matters afoot within the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. This world, usually ultra shy and secretive, its deliberations characterised by nothing so much as touching modesty and pitiful reticence, has erupted - viciously so.

What started as just another unpleasant scandal involving the alleged sexual proclivities of one of its rabbinical authorities has now descended into backbiting, threats and recriminations of a distinctly non-halachic variety. What's more, our knowledge of these matters comes from two very surprising sources - surprising in terms of the norms of public discourse in the Anglo-Charedi world over which the Union claims to preside. I refer to well-placed leaks to sundry non-Charedi journalists and to alarmingly frank exposés on the pages on the internet.

This would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago

Last month Rabbi Chaim Halpern, a leading member of the Union's rabbinate, announced that he was resigning from certain "public positions" he held within that rabbinate (including his seat on its Beth Din), following allegations of inappropriate conduct with a number of women. Chaim Halpern is not just any run-of-the-mill Union rabbi. His father, Elchonon Halpern, is a towering figure in the world of the black hats in Golders Green, and a president of the Union. Indeed, the Halpern family is one of the most respected of the Union's rabbinical dynasties. Now, it seems, it is at the centre of the most serious schism ever within the Union and its affiliates.

This rupture has less to do with the allegations themselves (on the truth of which I am not competent to pronounce) than with the reaction of distinct rabbinical factions within the black-hat world. Some of these factions, driven perhaps by misplaced loyalty to the Halpern dynasty, or by the need to please certain wealthy donors, have defended Rabbi Halpern, arguing (among other things) that the allegations are unproven.

Although Halpern has reportedly resigned from a number of Union-related positions, he remains at the head of his own Golders-Green-based congregation. This clerical resolve might in former times have attracted nothing but praise. But it has been condemned in other Union quarters. And, in some of these other quarters, the threat has been uttered that, unless Halpern leaves north London for good - bag and baggage - they will walk out of the Union and set up a rival body. There is even talk of establishing a kashrut organisation to rival the Kedassia brand marketed under the Union's auspices.

This is serious stuff. It denotes - within the fastest growing section of British Jewry - a social and ethical maturity that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Those who proclaim it are using the power of the social media to thwart the self-censorship of the Charedi press. And it may be that they will win the argument.

Some years ago, the Gedolai Hatorah of Agudas Yisroel pronounced a curse upon the digital age. A newer generation of baalei batim are clearly ignoring this ruling. What we are witnessing is open debate of matters that this generation realises cannot be pushed under the carpet.

In his recently published God, Jews and the Media, Professor Yoel Cohen examines the Charedi relationship with the media. Rather than turn its back on modern forms of communication, the strictly Orthodox world is adapting them for its own purposes. The Halpern affair demonstrates how this works in practice. And those within this world who do not have at least a nodding acquaintance with the digital age risk being left behind. In other words, a revolution is in the making.

Last updated: 10:45am, December 18 2012