It's the 21st century - time to elect our leader

By TheJC.com, August 11, 2011
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In 2013, a new chief rabbi will be appointed. He has a tough act to follow. Lord Sacks is not universally popular - who is? - but whatever disagreements he may have prompted within Anglo-Jewry by his various actions and inactions, he has become a towering figure within our nation. Almost alone among religious leaders, he commands respect across all beliefs and none.

But in that very first sentence lies the cause of Lord Sacks's problems and the seeds of those of the next chief rabbi. And the cause is the word appointed.

Lord Sacks has never had a mandate of any sort to do anything, for good or bad. His successes have been a product not of his office but of his intellect and personality. But in his capacity as chief rabbi he was simply the appointee of a self-selecting, self-appointed and entirely secret unrepresentative clique within the United Synagogue.

As such, whenever he has faced conflict with the Beth Din - over, for instance, his book The Dignity of Difference - the Chief Rabbi has, to be blunt, been forced to do as he has been told. The method of his arrival in the post was the equivalent of surgically removing any leadership backbone he might once have had.

Synagogue members want a say and they cannot see a good reason not to

Do we really want to repeat this story once again, with a different cast of characters but exactly the same result - a chief rabbi prevented from the very start from showing leadership because he is beholden to a clique?

There is an alternative. Instead of the emergence of a new chief rabbi through appointment, let him be elected. At a stroke, all the problems which beset Lord Sacks would be removed. His actions would be his actions, not those of a leader forever obligated to others. He will make mistakes; but they will be his mistakes, for which he will want to take full responsibility. And he will have a mandate, having been elected to the job. A leader with a mandate is indeed a leader. An appointee is just that.

But there is more to it than just the chief rabbi. The JC has been canvassing opinion on this issue ever since Lord Sacks announced his departure. The demand for an election is overwhelming from synagogue members. They want a say, and they cannot see a good reason not to have a say.

There will need to be issues ironed out - first past the post or alternative vote, for instance; one round or two - but these are incidental to the principle.

So too the spurious objection that there is no clarity on just who should be able to vote. Certainly there is a useful debate to be had over the role of the chief rabbi, and whether it is right that he is simply the chief rabbi of the United Synagogue. But whether he should be elected solely by United members, or by Federation members too, or by the widest possible franchise of Orthodox Jews, is again an incidental matter which can be agreed.

It is simply wrong that in the 21st century British Jews can seriously be expected to acquiesce in the next chief rabbi's appointment by a coterie of secret insiders. The Israelis do not. The Turks do not. The French do not. They all have different conceptions of the role, and different franchises. But they all elect their chief rabbi.

If the upper echelons of the United Synagogue accept that times have changed and move to an election, they will strike an important blow and show that they have a serious role to play as leaders of Anglo-Jewry. If they do not, they will demonstrate the exact opposite.

Last updated: 12:02pm, August 11 2011