Next Chief Rabbi should take job tips from Steve

By Shmuley Boteach, December 1, 2011

The Chief Rabbi's criticism of Apple founder Steve Jobs for having created a selfish consumer culture that ultimately magnified human unhappiness, provides insight into an institutional mindset that needs to change as the UK prepares for a post-Sacks era.

As it stands now, the United Synagogue and the office of the chief rabbinate are what Microsoft once was - imperial, anti-democratic and domineering - while Britain's Jewish youth are Apple, rejecting the tired "way things have always been done" in favour of a less formal, more personal, magical and stylish Judaism.

And, like Apple consumers, they are abandoning the hegemony of the once-dominant brand and embracing non-mainstream alternatives.

But where Microsoft learned from its mistakes to follow Apple's model of outstanding products, rather than rely on its once-mighty monopoly, the US, with its disappointing announcement that about eight people will choose the next Chief Rabbi - albeit with a populist dressing of hundreds of "consultants" - continues to haemorrhage market share at a terminal rate.

Rather than dismiss a man who built the world's most valuable technology company and created products many use to read Lord Sacks's writings, it would behove the US to create a true "Jobs" description for the next Chief Rabbi.

In explaining Apple's demise in the decade that he was out of the company, Steve Jobs said: "The products suck. There's no sex in them any more." Britain has brilliant rabbis. But there is nothing sexy about spiritual leaders who cannot express an opinion lest they clash with officialdom and are therefore rendered boring, neutered monoliths.

The success of the next Chief Rabbi will be measured by how much he makes himself obsolete rather than how much he shines, empowering his fellow rabbis to add their own colour and vitality to the Anglo-Jewish enterprise.

The contempt shown to rabbis in favour of the money men is evident, since the US has said that not a single rabbi will sit on the committee that will choose the next chief. Jobs was emphatic that it isn't cash that determines the fate of companies but the degree to which employees feel personally invested. "When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D," he said. "It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it."

Famously, Jobs refused to use focus groups to develop Apple products, believing instead that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them". Here we get to the greatest error of all. As the JC reported: "Following a consultation exercise within the US and the regions, it emerged that the quality people most want in a Chief Rabbi is to be "a fantastic communicator" - someone who could not only address the Orthodox sector but "be able to communicate on behalf of Anglo-Jewry".

But a Chief Rabbi is not an ambassador - he's a leader, not a spokesman but an activist. The single most important quality of leadership is not eloquence - Moses was a stutterer, as was George VI - but moral courage. The next Chief Rabbi must be someone who thinks grandly, acts boldly, and is unafraid of controversy. He must bring women down from the balcony and build mechitzahs in the middle of shuls; focus less on choirs and more on educational services that leave congregants spiritually enriched; allow women to give dvar torahs from the pulpit; invite gay men and women into shuls and tell them that amid their lifestyle there are 611 mitzvot left to keep.

He must inspire Jewish students to fight courageously for Israel on campus and walk through universities with yarmulkes displayed proudly. Eschewing any desire to be a knight or a lord, he must be prepared to criticise and condemn British officialdom when it turns a blind eye to antisemitism, and call out British policy and press when they favour tyrants and terrorists. He is not part of the establishment but a thorn in its side. He lives not on the fence but on the side of those who take sides.

Steve Jobs believed Apple's success came "from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much." Above all, the next Chief Rabbi must get Anglo-Jewry to stop its tendency to self-immolate through petty squabbles and civil conflict.

He must dismiss forever the offensive ban on Orthodox rabbis sharing platforms with Reform colleagues and unify the community by showing respect to our non-Orthodox brothers, even as he argues that unity is best founded on a single denominator of Jewish identity and status.

Shmuley Boteach is an American Orthodox rabbi and author

Last updated: 12:50pm, December 1 2011