Why not Chief Rabbi Boteach?

By Louise Mensch, January 19, 2012
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Let's start with the obvious. It is not for a gentile to "endorse" any candidate for the position of chief rabbi. Nor did I, in my letter to the JC which, last week, inspired a leader and an article. What I said was that I welcomed the possible addition of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to the list of candidates the community may consider for the post. That is something I stand by, and I was disappointed to see Rabbi Boteach's candidacy dismissed on the basis of his popularity in America.

I knew Shmuley long before he became famous. He had started the L'Chaim Society at Oxford University, and I asked if he would consider admitting me. He was welcoming, and talked to me for a long time, describing how a brick wrapped in rags and intending to be set alight had been thrown the previous night into the room where his baby was sleeping. That was my first intimation as a naive Christian girl that antisemitism remained a major problem - as it still is on many UK campuses in 2012.

Judaism is not a proselytising religion, and Shmuley never tried to convert me. But he did welcome me to Chabad and allowed me to attend its Thursday-night suppers and debates. I even spoke in one, arguing in favour of intermarriage (Shmuley was virulently against and I was unanimously defeated). Hearing him teach from Torah and Tanach was a beautiful experience that stayed with me. He is a serious theologian who has successfully promoted the idea that Jewish values, tradition and culture have much to offer and teach the non-Jewish world.

Why, then, should any gentile care about who is considered for the chief rabbinate? Eighteen months as an MP has taught me that any friend of Israel and our Jewish community must care. Lords Sacks and Jakobovits were both elevated to the House of Lords and, while there is common consent that the chief rabbi should take his place there, who will advocate for other Jewish leaders, beyond the United Synagogue, to have equality with Christian bishops?

Shmuley never tried to convert me

Too often, the anti-Israel bias in the UK's media is so intense that Jewish correspondents tell me they feel like giving up; they are almost resigned to living with hostility from all sides. My comments in the JC and my Telegraph article on the Fogel massacres touched a nerve, not because others hadn't said the same but because the community felt that, finally, the lack of coverage had been noticed. The BBC denied to the select committee that any anti-Israeli bias existed.

The community needs a strong voice. The names of Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa; Rabbi Michael Melchior of Israel, and Britain's own Rabbis Ephraim Mirvis and Harvey Belovski have been mentioned as candidates. Whoever is chosen, it will be good for the country if the decision on the chief rabbinate gives an opportunity to highlight the difficulties facing our Jewish community, from rising antisemitic attacks to the threats of academic boycotts.

It will be great to find a chief rabbi who will not remain silent against bias, and who will remind our nation of its long and glorious Jewish heritage - the Jewish Museum displays a 13th-century mikvah, excavated in the City of London 10 years ago.

I hope a vibrant contest for the chief rabbinate will focus the nation's attention on the contribution of the entire community, and I look forward to hearing Lord Sacks's successor making that case in parliament. Rabbi Boteach's entry into the contest would surely attract interest. For that reason alone, I hope he throws his hat into the ring.

Louise Mensch is MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire

Last updated: 3:56pm, January 19 2012