‘Safe’ choice is probably the last

By Geoffrey Alderman, December 24, 2012

As a non-member of the United Synagogue, my interest in the process by which it has chosen a new chief rabbi is naturally limited. But, as a historian of Britain’s Jewish communities, my curiosity is intense.

I can claim no inside knowledge of the process. I have been the recipient of no “leaks”, nor have I searched for any. I know only what I have read in print and online, plus snippets of gossip that have been regaled to me at an assortment of weddings and funerals (especially funerals).

The view that I now offer is based primarily upon the distilled essence of these “information highways” (or perhaps “back alleys” would be a better term), but it is based also on some opinions I have formed about the politics behind the chief-rabbinical selection process.

We all know that a number of internationally distinguished rabbis were interviewed for the job. In the world of Orthodox rabbinical personae some are unquestionably heavyweights, with enviable theological credentials. We also know that these worthies either ruled themselves out or were ruled out. We have to ask why.

The US is bipolar. This is not a criticism, merely a statement of fact. Its lay membership is more radical (by which I mean more liberal) than its clerical leadership and whereas in times past this membership was more than happy to pay rabbis to be Orthodox on its behalf, this is no longer the case.

Take the issue of the place of women in the management of the US. Here — and without wishing to venture into the argument myself— we can see from recent events that a radical membership is pushing a conservative rabbinate.

A “creative tension” between rabbi and congregation may do both a power of good. Rabbis are expected to publicly berate their congregations from time to time, and congregations may not feel that they are getting value for their subscriptions unless they are — from time to time — suitably berated. But only within limits.

While the US naturally wishes to continue to be accepted within and as part of the Orthodox world, that world has been moving relentlessly to the religious right over the past quarter-century.

If a chief rabbi genuinely wished to reflect and articulate, within that world, the mindset of the current US membership he would (I suspect) find himself certainly marginalised and even ostracised by many Orthodox rabbinical colleagues, especially in Israel and the USA.

In short, the tenancy of Hamilton Terrace now affords but a poor and transient recompense for the stress that the job of chief rabbi offers. It is little wonder that some excellent candidates withdrew, or let it be known that they did not wish to be considered.

But that is not the whole story.

The shadow of the present incumbent of Hamilton Terrace has inevitably hovered over the process of choosing his successor. Jonathan Sacks —like his Anglican counterpart Rowan Williams — is a superb communicator but a lousy politician.

What the US rank-and-file wants (what some of them, indeed, have told me they want) is “a safe pair of hands” — someone who will know when to shut up, who will perform the duties of the office with quiet humility, and who will know when not to put pen to paper.

South-African born Ephraim Mirvis fits this bill. A Talmud Chochom he is not. A prolific writer and intellectual he is not. But then, neither was Israel Brodie. Like Brodie, however, Mirvis is endowed with common sense, is an accomplished communal worker and a good, dependable committee man.

I’m not saying that, in a perfect world, Mirvis would necessarily be the ideal man for the job. We don’t live in a perfect world. But as we reach the end of what has been an over-protracted and needlessly secretive selection process it seems to me that the selectors ran out of other options.

Mirvis is now 56 years of age. If he is offered a contract to the age of 65 he will, I believe, give nine years of faithful service, at the end of which I suspect the religious topography of British Jewry would have undergone fundamental change — in crude terms, the growth of the left and right at the expense of the centre — rendering the very office of “Chief Rabbi” quite redundant.

Last updated: 11:45am, December 24 2012