Duelling rabbis' real agenda

The divisions in the Rabbinical Council are driven more by election than by education


A public rift has broken out among the rabbinate of the United Synagogue. What are we to make of it?

Two weeks ago in the JC, rabbis Naftali Brawer (Borehamwood) and Michael Harris (Hampstead) issued an extraordinary call for the US to reach an accommodation with the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements in order to facilitate a change in the law so as to reverse the Supreme Court judgment in the JFS case.

Such a reversal would permit a Jewish faith school, whether private or taxpayer-funded, to once again choose pupils (assuming the school is oversubscribed) by reference to the status of either of the parents.

We can argue about whether, from a purely practical standpoint, this would be a wise strategy to adopt. I personally don’t think it would. The reasons why the Board of Deputies decided not to press ahead with a parliamentary initiative related not merely to the alleged necessity of gaining prior cross-communal agreement. There is in fact no such necessity, though in this connection I must point out that the standpoint of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews is far from clear, and that their ecclesiastical authority (Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy) enjoys parity of authority with Lord Sacks insofar as giving religious direction to the Deputies is concerned.

The row between US rabbis signals, above all, the fight to succeed Chief Rabbi Sacks

Even if every section of British Jewry — from the Liberals of St John’s Wood to the Taliban of Stamford Hill —were in agreement I would still counsel against a parliamentary initiative. Any attempt at legislative reversal of the JFS judgment would inevitably be exploited by those who oppose faith schools.

Other groups, such as Muslim fundamentalists and the BNP, would be bound to use the occasion to press for their own special treatment under the Race Relations Act. Already an election issue, this great matter would then quickly metamorphose into an ugly sectarian debate the like of which this country has not seen for over a century. No political party at Westminster could relish such a prospect.

In practical terms, therefore, the initiative that Rabbis Harris and Brawer called for two weeks ago has no prospect of success, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that this may not have been their sole purpose in writing as they did. These important rabbis called not merely for limited co-operation across the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide. They actually referred to the religious leaders of the Masorti, Reform and Liberal movements as rabbis — and declared these movements to be “mainstream”.

In doing so, what they wrote was nothing less than a manifesto, which is best considered in the context not of the JFS case but of the much more important debate that is already under way over the choice of a successor to the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. And, in rejecting this manifest, their colleagues on the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue have signalled that this battle — which is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the United Synagogue — has now been joined.

I am not a member of the US, but I have never doubted or denied its centrality to the public religious character of British Jewry. I do not believe British Jewry was ever well served by having one “Chief Rabbi” but I have never denied or doubted the esteem in which this office has been held in the non-Jewish world.

This was indeed one of the arguments used by Jonathan Sacks in his infamous 1997 letter to the then religious head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, justifying his intention to speak publicly in praise of the Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn.

The problem has been this: Rabbi Sacks praised Rabbi Gryn in public but damned him in private; he damned the Masorti movement in one newspaper (the Jewish Tribune, January 12 1995) but praised it in another (the JC) a week later. He declared that “Jewish Continuity” would fund projects of educational renewal across the board, but later wriggled out of this undertaking.

That has been the problem. Rabbis Brawer and Harris have now offered us one solution, namely to relegate or at least isolate dogma in the search for communal unity, as Chief Rabbi Hertz once did.

Their rabbinical colleagues in the United Synagogue are of course perfectly entitled to reject this solution. But if they do so it surely behoves them to offer us a realistic alternative.

    Last updated: 12:08am, April 25 2010

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