How the other religions manage it

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth - to give the post its full title - has sometimes been seen as our equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Just as the archbishop heads the Church of England, the state's official church, so the chief rabbi leads UK's largest Jewish denomination.

But with the growth of both non-Orthodoxy on the left and Charedi Judaism on the right, his position as the Jewish community's pre-eminent religious spokesman has increasingly been called into question. Nonetheless, the Progressive movements have resisted the idea of setting up an alternative chief rabbinate, describing it as alien to their ideology.

There are three reasons why Reform Judaism does not need such a post, according to Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, principal rabbi of London's North-Western Reform Synagogue and chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK.

"Firstly, every Reform Jew is responsible for his or her own Jewish decisions. They look to their rabbis for guidance in the light of Jewish tradition, but not to decide for them," he said.

"Reform Judaism sees all of our rabbis as equals and does not need a hierarchy to 'keep them in order'. And a Reform chief rabbinate would invalidate the ability of our rabbis to take a lead on issues within and outside our communities."

Chairmen of the Assembly are elected by their colleagues for two-year terms, but their main function is to preside over rabbinic business . The same is true of the co-chairmen of the Rabbinic Conference of Liberal Judaism.

In recent years, the main spokesmen for Reform and Liberals have been their chief executives who happen to be rabbis. Rabbi Danny Rich continues to hold the reins at Liberal HQ. But, following the retirement of Rabbi Tony Bayfield as professional head of the Reform, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner has now been appointed as its first "movement rabbi", representing Reform to the world at large rather than assuming any kond of leadership role.

To the right, the different Charedi communities are far too protective of their independence ever to acknowledge the authority of a chief rabbi. The main religious authority for the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations is its Beth Din, headed by Dayan Ephraim Padwa: he was chosen by the Union's executive and the rabbis of its constituent synagogues to succeed his late father, Dayan Chanoch Padwa.

Among Charedi communities, however, local synagogue rabbis tend to enjoy more autonomy than their counterparts in the United Synagogue. Meanwhile, Chasidic groups look for leadership to their Rebbes, who are usually based abroad in the USA and Israel.

Uniquely, the yeshivah town of Gateshead maintains the office of town rabbi - taken up three years ago by the American-born Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman - whose prestige traditionally extends beyond Tyneside to the wider Orthodox community as a whole.

Last updated: 9:11am, August 16 2011