A Reform chief rabbinate soon?

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 26, 2008

The real threat of the latest call for unity is that signatories will set up their own United Reformed Synagogue

So much has already been written about the Statement of Community Collaboration jointly authored by the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements that I hesitate to add to the discussion. I do so only because I don't think that the significance of the Statement can be properly understood without taking a long-term view of its origins and meaning. Blame the historian in me if you like.

I cannot believe that the Statement would ever have been issued during the lifetime of Rabbi Louis Jacobs who - whatever his actual title - was in fact the Moro D'asra of the Masorti movement in this country. The Moro D'asra ("The Master of the Place") is the ultimate religious authority, towering over any beis din by virtue of his reputation, learning and charisma. That was the position occupied by the late Rabbi Jacobs within Masorti Judaism in this country.

But Rabbi Jacobs's theology could be located squarely within the minhag Anglia - the theory and practice of the United Synagogue as it existed between its foundation and, say, the end of the Second World War. Divine service at Rabbi Jacobs's New London Synagogue was little different from that of the United Synagogue during that era. His supporters were drawn to him partly for that very reason. On account of his views on the origin of the Torah he may well have been considered a heretic in some quarters. But his rabbinical diplomas - granted by highly reputable Orthodox rabbis in the north of England - were never revoked.

So people who joined the New London Synagogue could believe, and claim with some truth, that they had simply become members of an alternative Orthodox establishment. This is clearly no longer the case. The current move must if it continues result in the birth of the Jewish equivalent of the United Reformed Church, into which, for the greater good of their Calvinist beliefs, a number of non-Anglican churches agreed to sink their remaining differences some 36 years ago. And, viewed from this perspective, such a Jewish equivalent will make Anglo-Jewish "unity" in this country less rather than more likely.

But what does Anglo-Jewish "unity" actually mean? As far as the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC) is concerned, the Judaism preached by Dr Jacobs (their spokespersons routinely refuse to refer to him as "Rabbi") was not Judaism at all. Nor is there, in their eyes, anything - repeat, anything - remotely "Jewish" about Reform or Liberal "Judaism".

And I cannot believe that the framers of the Statement of Community Collaboration ever supposed that it would be treated, by the Charedim, with anything other than the utter contempt in which the Charedim hold those framers and everything they stand for.

But the reaction of the United Synagogue is a different matter. Thus far we have heard only some emollient noises and some well-crafted waffle from the US's lay leader, Simon Hochhauser. From Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, its spiritual head, we have, thus far heard nothing. But these gentlemen know that they have a big problem on their hands.

The problem was in fact expertly foreshadowed by Sir Jonathan in his famous letter (January 20, 1997) to Rabbi Chanoch Padwa, the late Moro D'asra of the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Justifying his decision to attend a memorial meeting for Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Sir Jonathan pleaded that if he did not go some way towards appeasing the reformers, they might establish their own "Chief rabbinate" and persuade the government to somehow recognise them as an alternative but (and here's the rub) authentic representative voice of the Jewish people in this country.

This is indeed what could happen if what we might term the United Reformed Synagogue (URS) sees the light of day. So, whilst on the one hand this unwelcome apparition must be contained, on the other it too must be appeased. And the recent declaration of partial independence by the United Synagogue's Council of Rabbis points the way ahead here. Whilst at "head office" little will change (if the URS leadership thinks, for instance, that Sir Jonathan will welcome children of non-Orthodox conversions into his schools they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land), at local level some concessions might be made - for instance, sharing platforms at meetings of neighbourhood policing committees.

A decade ago I would have said that the non-Orthodox would have accepted such crumbs. I do not think they will do so now.

Last updated: 11:32am, September 25 2008



Thu, 09/25/2008 - 19:57

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I don't see a Reform Chief Rabbi any time soon. First of all the concept of centralised Rabbinical power doesn't fit well with Liberals and Progressives. Second, the point of the United Chief Rabbi was to keep out liberals and progressives and to safeguard pure Orthodox Judaism. Third, any Chief Rabbi would have to be a major public figure to comand respect throughout the Commonwealth and English-speaking Jewish world, some one comparable to Sir Jonathan or Lord Jakobovits. On balance it's better to have one Chief Rabbi who consults the Reform and Liberals on matters of common concern.