What do we want from the next Chief Rabbi?

Historian Ben Elton argues that Lord Sacks's successor should focus more on internal Jewish affairs


Voice of Judaism: Lord Sacks (centre) reaches a global audience via the Youtube video of the song Oseh Shalom

Voice of Judaism: Lord Sacks (centre) reaches a global audience via the Youtube video of the song Oseh Shalom

Chief Rabbi Hertz once remarked, "Chief Rabbis never retire and only rarely die." That is not quite true anymore; they do retire now, but just as infrequently. Britain has had only six Chief Rabbis since Nathan Adler arrived in 1845. We appoint a new one every 20-30 years, a process now under way, ahead of Lord Sacks's retirement in 2013.

Chief Rabbis last such a long time that they have come to define the office and the Chief Rabbinate in each incumbency had become what its holder has made of it. Now it looks like the United Synagogue wants to play a more powerful role in defining the office, because it is trying to establish a job description for the new Chief Rabbi. I think they would do well to look back to the early days of the office, to the time of Nathan Marcus Adler, who assumed the role in 1845.

The upheavals of the past 150 years are now over. The waves of immigration have long ceased and we have been settled for some time. The existence of many denominations is not a matter of current controversy, but a fact on the ground. The US itself is no longer divided between advanced progressives and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Hermann Adler had to keep both new immigrants and Hampstead intellectuals in the big tent of the US. J.H. Hertz felt it his duty to go into battle against Liberal Judaism. Israel Brodie held the line against the supporters of Louis Jacobs. But now the dividing lines between the US and non-Orthodox movements are clear, forceful boundary maintenance is no longer needed.

What do we want instead from a new Chief Rabbi? Perhaps a light unto the nations. There is no more respected a religious leader in Britain today than the Chief Rabbi. But that is precisely why his successor does not need to make that his primary role. Lord Sacks, we hope, has 20 or more busy years ahead of him. He will remain a brilliant spokesman on Jewish values for the outside world.

Lord Sacks's retirement also means that while the new Chief Rabbi must present a clear interpretation of Judaism, and thoughtful support for Israel, he will not have the burden of being the Orthodox rabbi the outside world automatically turns to when it wants to hear the community's religious voice.

When Nathan Adler came to London, he met a community not unlike ours. It was established and confident. There was poverty but many Jews were materially comfortable. There was a Reform movement but it was not gaining much ground. There was an attachment to tradition, even if standards of observance varied. Adler was the right man for his time, and someone similar would be right for ours. Adler was an acknowledged master of traditional learning, but with a strong secular education. He loved our tradition, but he understood the need for progress and development. He knew that to survive traditional Judaism had to persuade and attract, it could not demand and coerce.

Nathan Adler was an inward-facing Chief Rabbi, who addressed himself to the needs of the community, but because of his hard work, erudition and character he won the admiration of many beyond the Jewish community too. Adler told the congregation at his induction, "I have determined to devote my exertions to your service, wholly and unreservedly." So he tackled the unattractive aspects of the synagogue service that were alienating the young. He set up a school and Jews' College to improve Jewish education. He was a strong presence in the community, visiting synagogues, teaching, sitting on the Beth Din and giving halachic guidance.

Lord Sacks has achieved much. His writings have given many Jews and non-Jews renewed respect for Judaism and for Israel. He will continue to perform this role, which is why the new Chief Rabbi can concentrate on the practical religious leadership of his community. He should teach Torah of the highest level in a modern Orthodox mode. He should give regular shiurim, not just set pieces, but week in and week out. He could train a cadre of rabbis who are able to learn and to teach and who also understand the modern world and British Jewry. He should promote Orthodoxy by making it attractive intellectually, materially and culturally.

The new Chief Rabbi should work with the London Beth Din so that their rulings are tailored to the community, understanding the need for leniency whenever possible, so that halachic observance is a realistic option for people who do not consider themselves frum, even if others wish to be more strict.

Finally, he should be able to articulate his vision for the community and to others in the Jewish world, from the most to the least traditional. We no longer need to maintain boundaries so watchfully, because in today's Anglo-Jewry we are not going to confuse what is Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal, and which body stands for which theology. That means we can deepen relationships of mutual respect between the religious and lay leaderships without fear of betraying our principles. In that way, he will gain the confidence of Anglo-Jewry, strengthen Orthodox Judaism and gain the respect of the wider world too.

Ben Elton is the author of Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970

    Last updated: 10:42am, June 10 2011