Interview: Stanley Kalms

The dream of a more inclusive community has not been realised, says Jonathan Sack's patron.

By Michael Freedland, October 11, 2011
Kalms says the Chief Rabbi has been unable to overcome opposition to his plans because he has no power base within the United Synagogue

Kalms says the Chief Rabbi has been unable to overcome opposition to his plans because he has no power base within the United Synagogue

The last time a Chief Rabbi was appointed, Stanley Kalms was the kingmaker. Now, more than 20 years later, Lord Kalms of Edgware says he would not want the job again. Not that it is on offer, or that anyone is likely to fill the role he had in selecting the then Dr Jonathan Sacks for the position. Kalms now regards it as a worthless search for a pretty unimportant post. And that is putting it mildly.

In 1967, it was businessman Isaac Wolfson who told the United Synagogue: "I will find you a Chief Rabbi", and picked Immanuel Jakobovits. In 1990, it was Kalms, boss of the Dixons retail empire, who chose Sacks.

Today, Kalms says, the model for the next spiritual leader of the "United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth" should be Jakobovits not Sacks. But then he adds bluntly: "Chief Rabbi? Big deal. Who the hell cares?"

Kalms does admire Sacks - even though he once called on him to resign. He says that the Chief Rabbi is a great philosopher, a great orator, a great academic, just not so great as far as leading his community is concerned. As he says: "Jonathan promised inclusiveness. In that he has been a great failure. He failed in everything". But he adds: "He failed, but he tried. There is a big difference between that and failing without trying."

Kalms reveals that he is as ambivalent about the role he himself played in 1990 as he is of the man he selected. But to what extent was he really Sacks's kingmaker?

Lord Sacks

Lord Sacks

"Kingmaker is a little OTT. But I was an enthusiastic patron of his, against the advice of many. Lord Jakobovits was extremely cautious. He recognised Jonathan's shortcomings. He wanted someone of his own model - there was a fellow in Canada he was keen on."

But Kalms had his way. "Yes, I think it was true in the sense that Jonathan was a rabbi at Golders Green and through my influence he became the principal of Jews' College and we had our international conference that put him, overnight, right in the forefront of the thinking, modern rabbis who had a contribution to make, morally as well as intellectually.

"I just created the publicity and the opportunity. When a candidate had to be chosen the United Synagogue honorary officers were in a dilemma. They just didn't know how to deal with it. They had to make a decision and there was no other candidate - by a long way. Jonathan was a young Englishman who made outstanding speeches, spoke about inclusiveness with a passion, about Israel with a passion, about moral values. He walked it. I just opened the door."

As for the next Chief Rabbi, who will replace Sacks when he steps down in 2013, Kalms says: "We just want a good guy, a sensible man who doesn't say the wrong things. We don't want a war between the Chasidim and the left-wing."

Kalms is pretty sure that a kingmaker will not emerge this time round, simply because there is no one capable of doing the job, any more than there is an outstanding candidate to be Chief. "To be another kingmaker, what you essentially need is to have a king in waiting. I don't even see a prince in waiting," he says.

So none of the likely candidates to replace Sacks is his equal?

"Jonathan stands out as a speaker, as an intellectual, as a personality," says Kalms. "He is so many miles ahead of the next guy, I would be ashamed to put my name to anybody who was not as good as Jonathan."

But he is careful to add: "I recognise the successes and the failures, and his lack of ability to bring the community together. Today, the left-wing, the Reform movement and modern Orthodoxy, are antagonistic precisely because of the history of Jonathan's period of office. It is an obscenity in the world today. One of the things that Jews have to do is be collective and that has not been the skill of Jonathan's ministry."

Given a choice between Sacks and Jakobovits, who would he rather have as Chief Rabbi?

"I would say Jakobovits. He was a man of entirely different qualities who had a greater conviction of where he stood in the world. He had great confidence. He had a very good back-up system in [his wife] the late, lovely Amelie, which was extremely helpful. He was more politically aware the Jonathan will ever be. He understood the limitations of his office and that the only way through the escape hatch was to incorporate the good will of the tycoons of the community who could create the means and resources for the things he wanted to do. So having bashed his head against this glass ceiling, he then looked around, made friends with a lot of those within the community who had the means. He established the Jewish Educational Development Trust - I was the first chairman of that - which gave him the power base. There was a time when he wasn't even speaking to the president of the United Synagogue, which was remarkable thing to do, to tell your boss that he was persona non grata."

Mind you, there was a time when Kalms had his own bust-up with Jakobovits. "It didn't last for long. I said that he shouldn't have gone into the House of Lords, but I later changed my mind about that."

Sacks, on the other hand, according to Kalms, "operates under an inferiority complex as far as the dayanim are concerned. He has no rabbinical background. In Talmudic terms he knows he is not the greatest scholar. That is not where his mind works. On the intellectual side, he leaves them a mile behind in the race. He tried to accommodate the right-wing because he knew they would otherwise undermine his lack of rabbinic credentials. Jakobovits and Amelie came from deeply rabbinic backgrounds.

"When I first met Jonathan, Lord Jakobovits was nearing his retirement age and the United Synagogue were trying very hard to get rid of him - because he was a renegade Chief Rabbi as far as they were concerned. He rattled cages. On the other hand, he was a shalom maker. He had the meshugenah right-wing coming to his house. He had the left coming to his house. The first time my wife and I went for dinner at the house, with the frummers all sitting around me, Amelie whispered in my ear: 'They won't eat here'. He was head of the Beth Din and they didn't think he was kosher enough for them. He was an extremely good man within his purpose. That must be the model for the future. Not Jonathan. He can't rattle the chains of the United Synagogue. He has no power base at all."

But it did not look like that to Kalms in 1990. "You had to look at the talent available then. Compared with Jonathan there was no one in the same league." But Sacks has proved himself, in his view, as someone who "couldn't take the beating that is part of this community's raison d'etre. He couldn't take attacks from the JC or from the right-wing who are the most insidious of our friends".

Therefore, the "inclusiveness" which had been the platform on which he stood, flew out of the window.

Say Kalms: "He thought he could bring the whole community together. In the end, he was not able, according to the authority given to him, to act completely on his own purposes because of the disciplines set by the honorary officers who had their own agenda."

But he agrees that "it is not fair to say Jonathan has done nothing. He has made some progress with the get issue. He exposed the Chasidim for what they are. He identified the mechitzah that the right-wing put up. But he shouldn't have given in over that book [The Dignity of Difference, which Sacks was forced to alter in a second edition after the Beth Din stated that some passages could be read as inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs]. The United Synagogue made him give in, not the right-wing. The right-wing exposed him, but the United Synagogue wet themselves. No man of intelligence would be an honorary officer of the United Synagogue. I was one for two years. Talk about living in the world of the dead! It was beyond belief. In the US in those days, the only debates around the table which gave any joy were when they were attacking a rabbi for misbehaviour - like when a rabbi in the West End kissed a woman at a simchah. He had to apologise."

He insists that Lord Jakobovits would never have apologised for policies which he considered important. "He would not have backed down."

Sacks will be far better off when he leaves the post, Kalms believes. "Jonathan could be somewhere in the lead of modern thinking about Judaism. He could be a major Jewish thinker."

So how should a successor be appointed? Not by an election, Kalms is certain of that.

"The idea of having a communal vote is nonsense. There would have to be a hustings. Put three rabbis on a platform, what could they say? 'I'll keep the halachah'. 'I'll keep the halachah'. 'I'll keep the halachah'. There wouldn't be a piece of paper between them. The system we've got is all right for one of the most unimportant decisions ever to be made."

Has he any ideas on who it will be? Perhaps an American? An Israeli? "No. It would be a great mistake to take someone from overseas. It would be like choosing a foreigner to be Prime Minister."

Last updated: 10:49am, October 11 2011