Time for Jew in the pew to ask searching questions

By Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, August 11, 2011

When the election for president of the United Synagogue was under way, rumours were circulating that the contenders each had his own preferred candidate he would like to see "selected" as the next chief rabbi. The president would de facto become a member of the ambiguous group known as the Chief Rabbinate Trust and could then exert his influence to achieve his aims.

Whether or not those rumours were true and whether the result reflected more than just who people wanted to see as president, the reality is that the process of selection is flawed.

Who are the Chief Rabbinate trustees? How are they appointed and what makes them representative of the United Synagogue constituency? Indeed, who gave them the mandate to select the next chief rabbi, especially considering that for the most part the post operates independent of the United Synagogue? How many under the age of 40, representing a critical element of the United Synagogue, sit on this board? How many women are involved?

One former member of the Chief Rabbinate Trust, who resigned some time ago, told me: "If you were to become Chief Rabbi I would consider rejoining the trust." Flattering though that may be, it reflects the fallacy of the system.

Rather than a selection process which is fraught with complexity and lacking in transparency, there should be an election to include a far wider representation of the US. Wherever I have presented the case for an election, I find an overwhelming majority in agreement with me. Those who disagree make one of two arguments. Some draw comparisons with other Jewish religious leadership, such as Chasidic "Rebbes," who are never elected. True, but they are not quite selected either. They emerge of their own, most often by familial succession and by virtue of their unique spiritual stature.

Others will insist that no world religious leaders are elected by universal vote. Maybe not a universal vote, but isn't the Pope elected by 120 men from the College of Cardinals? On that basis, the rabbinate should certainly have a vote. Indeed, the chief rabbi is first and foremost the rabbis' rabbi. What say, if any, do rabbis have in the process? Shouldn't it be them, rather than a lay leadership, making the decision?

It could well be argued that apart from the rabbinate, there should be some lay input in an election. As such, at the very least this should include the US Council representatives. Potential candidates could present before them, and they in turn could vote with a two- thirds majority required.

To date, the extent to which any "interest groups" have been included, has been limited to filling out a questionnaire on what they deem to be required qualities for a chief rabbi. The collective view will be taken into account when drawing up a job description, but they will have no input beyond that as to the adequacy of any particular candidate.

The decision that will be made on the next chief rabbi will impact on an entire new generation. People tend to ask inquisitively about the process. Many will air concerns about the status quo. But there needs to be more of a concerted objection by the paying membership if there is to be any change to a presently questionable system.

Yitzchak Schochet is rabbi of Mill Hill United Synagogue

    Last updated: 8:25am, August 16 2011