In 209 years only two chief rabbis went to the vote

By Miri Freud-Kandel, August 11, 2011
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Nathan Marcus Adler: elected

Nathan Marcus Adler: elected

Chief rabbinate elections have historically been characterised more by autocracy than democracy.

Solomon Hirschell was the first recognised chief rabbi in Anglo-Jewry but he developed the post out of his ministry of London's Great Synagogue between 1802 and 1842. His successor, Nathan Marcus Adler, was the first to be elected to the post. As this election took place in 1845, before the formation of the United Synagogue, officially formed in 1870, this appointment was free of the superintendence that the honorary officers of the US would subsequently assume.

In 1890 no formal election was required to appoint Adler's successor. His son, Hermann Adler, who had been functioning as effective Chief Rabbi since 1879 due to his father's poor health, received unanimous support for his elevation to the post in his own right. Nonetheless, this appointment highlighted the disinclination to support any sort of democracy in the election process of chief rabbis. Although the recently formed Federation was invited to participate in the 1890 appointment - and accept chief rabbinical authority - their representatives were not offered any sort of influence over proceedings. A blueprint of US dominance was established over the chief rabbinate at this juncture.

At the time of its formation, the London-based US had accepted responsibility for the chief rabbinate as part of its mandate. Assuming the primary financial burden for the post, a presumption of broader control followed. By 1913, when Joseph Herman Hertz was appointed as successor to the Adlerian dynasty, the extent of US control over the process was demonstrated by the allocation of just seven votes to all Manchester Jewry while Hampstead Synagogue was given 35.

Joseph Hermann Hertz: elected

Joseph Hermann Hertz: elected

Although an election was required to secure Hertz's appointment, despite pleas to allow a unanimous selection to grant him the unanimity that Hermann Adler had enjoyed, the result was a foregone conclusion. Lord Rothschild, as US president, appears to have felt that it was entirely appropriate for him to act as kingmaker, and he proceeded accordingly. Identifying Hertz as a suitable chief rabbi, it was Hertz who was duly elected.

The three subsequent appointments of 20th-century chief rabbis enabled Robert Waley Cohen, Isaac Wolfson and Stanley Kalms to ensure the selection of their preferred candidates. Israel Brodie, was the British born, Oxford-educated, Jews' College trained candidate whom Waley Cohen insisted should be appointed to serve a post-WWII British & Commonwealth Jewry.

Following Waley Cohen's many battles with Hertz during his Chief Rabbinate, it was hoped that Brodie would be a chief rabbi willing to be more amenable to the concerns of the United Synagogue's honourary officers. As the first chief rabbi to have a retirement age imposed on his tenure, as Brodie's chief rabbinate drew to a close Wolfson repeatedly assured the US that he would find someone suitable as Brodie's successor.

Adamant that an election be avoided, he delayed the selection process while persuading his preferred candidate to accept the post. Following his ratification, though, Yaacov (Jacob) Herzog had to withdraw due to poor health, leaving Wolfson again to take command, persuading Immanuel Jakobovits to accept the post.

One of the notable features of our current Chief Rabbi has been the public loss of faith his chief backer came to express, which illustrates just one of the many problems of autocratic appointments.

Dr Freud-Kandel lectures at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

    Last updated: 8:10am, August 16 2011