'Chief rabbi should be chosen by ballot'

And pressure grows to include more women in the selection process


By Jessica Elgot, July 14, 2011
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Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is standing down from office in 2013

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is standing down from office in 2013

Popular support is growing among United Synagogue members for the next chief rabbi to be elected, with a straw poll of members at a debate this week showing more than 90 per cent favour of a ballot.

And the role of women in central Orthodoxy will also be a crucial issue for Lord Sacks's successor.

At a debate at Mill Hill Synagogue on the future of the chief rabbinate, with Rabbi Yitzhak Schochet, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Sally Berkovic, members of the 70-strong audience gave vocal approval to Rabbi Schochet's suggestion that "if there is an election for president of the United Synagogue, then why not the chief rabbi?"

Just four members of the audience objected to the idea of an election, either by the whole US membership or by the US Council.

United Synagogue winner Stephen Pack

United Synagogue winner Stephen Pack

Rabbi Schochet said the selection process meant the chief rabbi would forever be restricted. "The position of chief rabbi is a stifling one. From the moment of the selection you are beholden to those who selected you. The future of the chief rabbinate is being decided tonight, at the election of the US president. The candidates have pre-conceived ideas about who they want."

He also criticised the United Synagogue consultation process, which he said had alienated the rabbinate and meant the result was not representative of the membership.

"The process of selection is left up to a non-elected bunch of merry men, who sit behind closed doors. [Outgoing US president] Simon Hochauser said that this time it would be different because there would be a consultation process. Only 200 people were involved in the consultation, that's less than one per cent of the community.

"Rabbis are the ones on the ground, we see the challenges facing the next generation. The only consultation we had was the same questionnaire. I know rabbis are incensed by this, bar one or two rabbis who want the position themselves."

Ms Berkovic argued that the entire process was a "male-dominated" debate. "We are more than 50 per cent of the US membership. We all know women in our shuls who are doctors, barristers, academics, but why don't they stand up and make their voices heard on issues like this?"

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who ran Chabad in Oxford for 11 years until 1999, argued that Anglo-Jewry had been stifled by an office in which the chief rabbi had to become "part of the establishment". The post, he believed, should no longer exist. "Rabbis are meant to be unleashed. They are not supposed to conform. The institution itself makes it impossible to speak out."

Although Rabbi Schochet argued for the continuation of the chief rabbinate, he said: "The next chief rabbi must be more inward. It's very nice to be on television, but the main job is to be inspiring to Anglo-Jewry. He must be a rabbis' rabbi. And he must be his own man, who will do what he believes in, regardless of what is proper, and what the Beth Din say."

Despite Rabbi Schochet's criticism of the consultation process, his call for a "rabbi of rabbis" has been supported so far within the United Synagogue, new president, Stephen Pack, has revealed.

Mr Pack, speaking at a hustings meeting last week before his election, said people felt that "the new chief rabbi should have a somewhat different relationship with the rabbinate than the existing chief rabbi has".

He went on: "I am not criticising the existing Chief in any way. I think he is the most wonderful spokesman and leader for Anglo-Jewry. But what seems to come up is that the relationship between the new chief rabbi, and our rabbis, should be somewhat closer".

He said there was a perception of "an apparent disconnect" between the chief rabbi, the London Beth Din, the United Synagogue rabbinate and the lay leadership. "I think trying to make sure we project something which appears to be a common ethos will be really important in the selection of the new Chief. That role of rabbi of rabbis will be crucial to getting that right."

As new president of the US Mr Pack will chair the Chief Rabbinate Trust, ultimately responsible for choosing Lord Sacks's successor after he retires in September 2013.

One major issue in the selection of the next chief rabbi would be his position on the role of women in the United Synagogue, said Peter Zinkin, whom Mr Pack defeated. Over the past six years US leaders have failed to persuade Lord Sacks and the London Beth Din to permit women to become trustees of the US or chairs of local synagogues.

Mr Zinkin said it was "completely absurd" that his wife, who ran Golders Green Synagogue for four years as vice-chairman without a chairman, could not be named chairman, and that if a man had wanted to stand as chairman, she would have had to make way.

Mr Pack said that if women kept "pushing the door", then the rabbis "would have to respond to that pressure".

Last updated: 1:02pm, July 14 2011