No rabbi can ‘represent’ us all

Any peerage granted to a Jewish leader should be purely in a personal capacity

By Geoffrey Alderman, April 30, 2009

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, soon to step down as head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has never been afraid to speak his mind. But some off-the-cuff remarks he made over the recent Passover/Easter period are likely to have set several cats among the pigeons, though I doubt that his Eminence will have realised this at the time.

When the good cardinal, who is now 76, first announced his departure, he observed wryly that he wanted to be the first holder of his office to actually retire — all his predecessors having died in office. Well, these days, 76 is no great age, so what does Cardinal O’Connor (may he live until 120!) want to do in retirement? When asked this question some months ago he was quick to deny that he might accept a life peerage (thus becoming the first Catholic bishop to sit in the House of Lords since 1553). His predecessor, Basil Hume, had declined Tony Blair’s offer of a seat in the Upper House, arguing that he would have more influence outside the chamber than in it, and it seemed that Cormac Murphy, in retirement, was minded to follow this wise precedent.

But, in an interview on the BBC’s World Service two weeks ago, he signalled that he was thinking of changing his mind. And he revealed to his listeners that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was actually considering a plan to invite representatives of other faiths to accept life peerages: “I think that the Prime Minister wants to bring religious leaders into the House of Lords to make sure that their voice is heard. That obviously wouldn’t just include myself as a Roman Catholic but also the Chief Rabbi and a prominent Muslim perhaps, because he thinks that these kind of voices in public life have a value.”

At present, only the archbishops and senior bishops of the Church of England sit as of right in the upper chamber. On the face of it, therefore, the idea of putting the heads of other faiths into the Lords might be said to have a certain appeal. Let all faiths be “represented” there, and their views heard on matters of concern to faith communities. But it seems to me that, for Jews, this good intention has some serious drawbacks.

To begin with, we need to understand that Gordon Brown’s proposal, as revealed by Cardinal O’Connor, goes way beyond the apparent precedent set by Margaret Thatcher, who ennobled Immanuel Jakobovits in 1988. True, Rabbi Jakobovits was still then Chief Rabbi. But the peerage was granted ad personam, not ex officio. In other words, it was bestowed on Rabbi Jakobovits personally. It was in no way tied to the office he held. So, although he retired as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in 1991, he continued to sit in the Lords until his death some eight years later.

If the Jakobovits peerage had been conferred ex officio, I have no doubt that the howls of protest from those Anglo-Jewish groups who do not recognise the Chief Rabbi as their religious leader would have been long and loud. After all, if the ecclesiastical authority of the United Hebrew Congregations is to sit, as of right, in the Lords, what about the ecclesiastical authorities of the Liberal, Reform and Masorti movements? The Federation of Synagogues? The fast-growing Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations? If ecclesiastical supremos are to sit, as of right, in the Lords, the claim of Dayan Moshe Chaim Ephraim Padwa (“father” of its Beth Din) to a peerage could not possibly be denied.

The idea that Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, or indeed any one Jewish cleric, could represent at Westminster the viewpoints of the entire spectrum of religious leanings with which contemporary British Jewry is now blessed is really too absurd to merit serious attention. If Sir Jonathan were to be offered a peerage, we should insist that it be conferred ad personam.

But even with this proviso I am not sure that I could support it. The House of Lords is an anachronism in a country that claims to be a democracy. As a peer, Lord Jakobovits was a communal embarrassment — witness, for example, his parliamentary assertion that gays and lesbians might be genetically engineered out of existence.

If Sir Jonathan Sacks — or any other rabbi — wishes to pursue a parliamentary career, let him (or her) first resign from ecclesiastical office.

Last updated: 11:08am, April 30 2009