How Chief Rabbi has sold off US autonomy

By Stephen Games, November 12, 2010

Does the Chief Rabbinate have a future?

The question is usually framed in terms of whether it is fair for the head of the United Synagogue to act as if he represented the whole of Anglo-Jewry.

That is an important issue because, as Geoffrey Alderman noted in his book, Controversy and Crisis, although the US is still the largest single denomination in Anglo-Jewry, it is now outnumbered in terms of members by seven other communal bodies.

But another question hangs over the Chief Rabbinate. Even if some new, cross-communal institution were to be formed to represent British Jews, and the Chief Rabbi shrank back into the United Synagogue, the US still has to sort out what its leader stands for. At the moment, that is far from clear.

A century-and-a-half ago, the Chief Rabbi was all powerful. Although Jews' College was set up in 1852 to train ministers, Nathan Adler jealously kept the title "rabbi" for himself, and dominated his Beth Din. Today, it is the Beth Din that dominates the Chief Rabbi and it's not a Beth Din that bears any relationship to Anglo-Judaism as we've known it.

Three of the four US Beth Din dayanim daven in non-US shuls

Of the four dayanim who make up the Beth Din today, three daven in non-US shuls. Menachem Gelley, the head of the Beth Din, leads the Beis Hamedrash Ohr Chodosh ("for young Bnei Torah baalei batim … and young mishpochos"). Yonason Abraham is rabbi of the New Hendon Beis Hamedrash. Shmuel Simons is mostly seen at Hagers shtibl. Only one - Ivan Binstock - has a US pulpit: St John's Wood, where he has been since 1996.

The implication is that US shuls are too compromising for the dayanim who serve them. This is not surprising, given their background. Only one - Dayan Binstock again - has a university education. Dayans Gelley and Simons both studied at Ponevezh, Israel's hardline Lithuanian yeshivah, before moving to the Gateshead Kollel; Dayan Abraham went from Gateshead Yeshivah to Lakewood in New Jersey.

They may be the best men for the job, but three of the four leading rabbis of the US have therefore grown up in an educational atmosphere in which women don't exist, and in which the fruits of Western civilisation are scorned as secular aberrations designed to tempt the holy from Torah.

No wonder the problem of agunah has dragged on for so long (it's not a condition men suffer from). No wonder Orthodox women have been left to start support groups for SEN children (their husbands are too busy learning). No wonder, too, that the Beth Din has told converts that they should live only in Hendon or Golders Green and that female converts must wear wigs and cannot wear trousers.

The paradox for the US is that it is the gulf the dayanim have opened up between themselves and the US's more open Orthodoxy that qualifies them as its gate-keepers. Thanks to the Beth Din, the US retains a place - lowly, admittedly - in the world network of Orthodox communities, in spite of the relative laxity of its members.

On the other hand, membership of that network means bowing to the authority of foreign rabbis with no reciprocal interest in Anglo-Jewry other than regarding it as a vassal. It is like being part of the Roman Empire: the Pax Judaica brings benefits but at the cost of one's own once proud autonomy.

Rank-and-file members of the United Synagogue have grumbled about this for years. That is why Jonathan Sacks was so welcome in 1991. He didn't come from a rabbinic family, wasn't born abroad, had a glittering academic CV, and gained his religious training entirely in London. He looked like one of us, and seemed all set to rebuild the United Synagogue in its own image.

He failed. Meir Persoff, in Another Way, Another Time, reminds us that Lord Kalms blamed the United Synagogue for not giving the Chief Rabbi the power of earlier Chief Rabbis - a repetition, he argues, of the bureaucratic small-mindedness that crippled Lord Jakobovits. But the Chief Rabbi, and the executive of the US, have been equally hobbled by their submission to Orthodox intimidation. An example can be found from the charedi website Dei'ah veDibbur, which some years ago scolded Lord Sacks and the executive for wanting to engage with Liberal, Reform and Masorti groups. The author warned the US and its Chief Rabbi to back off and defer to its disapproving dayanim, or risk being delegitimised by the Orthodox community. And they did.

It is this atmosphere of threat that has turned Lord Sacks's incumbency into one of appeasement. In the Hugo Gryn affair, the Dignity of Difference affair, and the JFS affair, to name but three, the figurehead of Anglo-Jewry could have shown that there are higher virtues than primitive religious piety, but flunked it.

We have to do better than this. We don't want to cut our ties with Orthodoxy but we can't go on pretending that Western Enlightenment didn't happen. Lord Sacks retires in 2013. His successor must be someone who dares call the charedi bluff.

Stephen Games is a writer and United Synagogue member. His latest book is 'Pevsner: The Early Life, Germany and Art' (Continuum)

Last updated: 10:56am, November 12 2010