Must the chief be a Zionist?

Today the JC carries an advertisement for the top job in British Jewry: the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Whether the post has been advertised before I don't know, although in 1965 the then selectors said "there should in no circumstances be any advertisement". But the United Synagogue, which makes up most of those congregations, was advised to do so this time. If it were to choose a foreign candidate but could not show it had done all in its power to attract local talent, the new chief could end up without a work permit.

The US recently published a job spec, detailing 15 responsibilities expected of Lord Sacks's successor. His multi-tasking duties will range from judicial (chairing sessions of the London Beth Din) to managerial (dealing with rabbis' "performance issues"). Naturally, he will be "a religious spokesman for Orthodox Judaism": note that it is "Orthodox" rather than "modern Orthodox" - a term the US briefly flirted with a few years ago - that would have put clear water between it and Charedi Orthodoxy.

The chief will be asked to "take a lead in matters concerning the expanding role of women" - i.e. find the halachic answer that would enable women to become US trustees and synagogue chairmen. He will also be "a spokesman on all matters affecting the Jewish community" and "a spiritual voice for the wider community". But there is one portfolio outside the traditional rabbinic remit: he is also expected to be "an advocate for Israel".

"Advocate" suggests a more political brief than simply being a standard-bearer for religious Zionism. Inevitably, a chief rabbi will feel drawn to comment on Israel. But this should come out of his sense of spiritual mission rather than an agenda thrust upon him.

He should also be 'an advocate for Israel'

Some hoped that Lord Sacks might have been a more visible advocate, especially given his access to national media. To be fair, he has intervened on occasions, most forcefully when the Church of England was considering divestment. He has written about Israel and released a CD saluting the 60th anniversary. No doubt he has used his high-level contacts with prime
ministers and others to put in a word. But since he got his fingers burnt with a Guardian interview 10 years ago, he has generally been circumspect with statements on Israel.

Lord Jakobovits was far more vocal - although not in a way that was always liked. It is easy to forget how far out on a limb he went to call for territorial compromise when others dreamt of Greater Israel. Jakobovits was installed a few weeks before the Six Day War, an event that propelled Israel to the top of his concerns. While his views later became anathema to the Zionist right, he was able to rise above his detractors because his criticism of Israel, just as his support for it, was seen to well from deep religious conviction.

There remains, I believe, a yearning among some for a commanding voice, a champion of Israel who could unite British Jewry behind it - a challenge that would probably test even Moses. For all the broad support for a two-state solution, the community is more divided on Israel than in the 1960s and 1970s.

If a chief rabbi wants to keep out of the crossfire, he can speak on Israel only where there is a measure of communal consensus. If he strikes out boldly to the left or the right, the high-profile nature of his office will magnify any controversy. And any chief will have to beware the thin ice of religious politics, which may constrain his freedom to act.

Two years ago, after the Methodists published a hostile report on Israel, the Board of Deputies produced a pamphlet that was intended to explain Zionism to the churches. It carried contributions from leading Masorti, Reform and Liberal rabbis, all of them joint presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews. In their different ways, each linked their identification with Israel with an understanding of Judaism.

Logically, the fourth, Orthodox contribution should have come from the chief rabbi - also a CCJ president. But it was not even from an Orthodox rabbi: the author was a layman. Since the booklet strayed into theological territory, it was felt too risky for a chief rabbi to consort in the same pages with non-Orthodox rabbis, even in defence of Zionism.

Simon Rocker is Judaism editor of the JC

    Last updated: 11:20am, February 3 2012