The Chief Rabbinate: a rock or Victorian relic?

Miri Freud-Kandel reviews two contrasting books on British Jewry’s foremost eligious institution.

June 10, 2010
A trio of Chief Rabbis: (from left) Lord Sacks, Joseph Hertz and Lord Jakobovits

A trio of Chief Rabbis: (from left) Lord Sacks, Joseph Hertz and Lord Jakobovits

Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate
Meir Persoff, Academic Studies Press, £54.50 (26.99 pb)

Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880-1970
Benjamin J. Elton, Manchester University Press, £60

Is there a simple answer to the question of what is the role of the Chief Rabbinate? What has the current Chief Rabbi achieved within Anglo-Jewry and more broadly as a religious representative? Is his office viable and have any of the elected Chief Rabbis ever genuinely served as religious guides whose teachings and values have been followed by Jews in Britain? These are some of the questions addressed by two new studies of the religious leadership of British Jewry.

Persoff's work argues that "many (if not most) regard the Chief Rabbinate as divisive, and would not miss it should it cease to exist". He builds to this statement by analysing how the inclusivist vision explicitly laid down as a template for the Sacks Chief Rabbinate has repeatedly failed to be implemented.

Persoff collates an impressive array of sources to demonstrate how separatism, bitter infighting and a marked failure to cultivate inclusivism have prevailed. He examines the variety of crises that have mired the Chief Rabbi, including the fate of Jewish Continuity, the Women in the Community project, and the Hugo Gryn affair. He also highlights the Chief Rabbi's role in recent controversies over conversion, especially as played out in the JFS trial.

In a chapter entitled "The Mirage of Unity", Persoff shows that calls have repeatedly been made throughout the history of the Chief Rabbinate for the abolition of the office. He assesses how from both the religious left and right, it has been criticised either as unrepresentative or as an inappropriate secular construct.

While drawing attention to the perpetual problems of the Chief Rabbinate, Persoff largely follows the received historiography of Anglo-Jewry. This suggests that a once largely unified community, which sought to uphold an umbrella model encompassing all who wished to be included, has become increasingly polarised as a result of religious shifts.

Elton's work, in contrast, argues that a study of the theologies of Britain's Chief Rabbis between 1880-1970 highlights undeviating consistency and influential leadership. He insists that evidence of religious shifts is misplaced. Yet his eagerness to revise received historiography somewhat blinkers his research.

Elton's thesis is that the demographic transformation of the community caused by eastern European immigration merely enabled later Chief Rabbis to implement religious sensibilities to which they were consistently attached. While this argument is essentially sound, it cannot negate the fact that a religious shift nonetheless occurred in Anglo-Jewry, away from primarily Victorian religious values that had underpinned the institutions that have shaped the community.

Quite aside from internal shifts, the transformation of British sensibilities towards religion over that period are also significant. Indeed Persoff's analysis points to the growing importance of ethnicity, rather than religion, as a factor in Anglo-Jewish identity.

Elton asserts that theology provides the key tool to understanding the religious direction of Anglo-Jewry. He constructs a new method to define religious positions, broadly based on whether they acknowledge or reject modernity. His new definitions have the advantage of moving away from terms like Orthodox or Reform, which often have multiple and therefore confusing meanings. But his application of them impairs his ability properly to understand the nuances of the theologies of individuals he considers.

For example, his treatment of Jakobovits and other heirs to the German neo-Orthodox tradition is undermined by a failure to take into account the strict boundaries to modernity's influence that have emerged in neo-Orthodoxy.

Elton focuses on attitudes to divine revelation as the key determinant of any individual's theology. Highlighting a consistency among Chief Rabbis on this doctrine, he makes it critical to his argument against religious change. Yet this grants insufficient weight to other factors. It is not surprising that a community dominated by ostensibly Orthodox institutions has had Chief Rabbis and dayanim who have upheld the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven). A work that emphasises the importance of theology to understand Anglo-Jewry better cannot really afford to oversimplify theological arguments.

Persoff quotes an anonymous commentator in 1912 who suggested that prior to the appointment of a successor to Hermann Adler, Anglo-Jewry was managing perfectly well without a Chief Rabbi. As Lord Sacks approaches retirement in 2013, Persoff argues against the lasting value of the post. Meanwhile Elton argues that it has been responsible for the strength of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. The latest data on synagogue affiliation highlights, notwithstanding Elton's argument, how Anglo-Jewry is changing. Mainstream Orthodoxy is losing its majority share - indicating the seeming necessity to reconsider the future role of a Chief Rabbi.

Maybe Anglo-Jewry is so secure it can be represented by committee, acknowledging the presence of majority and minority opinions without reducing its coherence or strength. Alternatively, it is so deeply divided that seeking to maintain a single religious representative has simply become too disingenuous.

Historically, the means of securing real power to the office of Chief Rabbi has been an incumbent's ability to develop independent sources of authority. The lack of inherent power in the Chief Rabbinate, in some respects an intentional feature of a rabbinical office created by lay leaders, has increased the importance of individual personality.

The current Chief Rabbi's proliferation of publications and foreign lecture tours provide a primary means for him to achieve influence beyond his office. They may also point to the influence he could wield after retirement, unconstrained by his office, should he choose to do so.

Dr Freud-Kandel is lecturer in modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

Last updated: 11:42am, June 10 2010