The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks stirred controversy this week when he described the growth of Charedi sectarianism as a threat to world Jewry.
He used one of his last addresses in office — a dinner to honour him before his retirement in two months — to highlight the “global danger” that Jews face from two trends.
The first was “continuing assimilation and outmarriage”, with one in two young diaspora Jews choosing not to have a Jewish marriage or have a Jewish home.
The second, he said, “in the opposite direction, is the growth of what in Israel is called the Edah Charedit or what some people call ultra-Orthodoxy — the Orthodoxy that segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.
“So the two fastest growing elements in the Jewish world are those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”
With Jews in the centre ground becoming fewer every year, the phenomenon was “very dangerous”, he said.
“If there is antisemitism or anti-Zionism in the future, who is going to fight it? The Jews who abandon Judaism? Or the Jews who abandon the world? Neither…
“I have to tell you it is worse than dangerous. It is an abdication of the role of Jews and Judaism in the world. We are here to engage with the world, to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”
But his comments drew a strong reaction from other rabbis.
Rabbi Avraham Pinter, a senior educational figure from London’s strictly Orthodox community, said that it was “regrettable and unfortunate” for the Chief Rabbi to have used the occasion to “denigrate any section of the Jewish community”.
To describe the growth of the Charedi sector as a danger was “rather hysterical”, he believed.
Rabbi Pinter said he was confident that the Chief Rabbi was not talking about the Charedi community in the UK and that the elements he had referred to represented only a “fringe in Israel”.
The recently recorded rise in the UK Jewish population reflected the growth of the Charedim, Rabbi Pinter said. “I am sure Rabbi Sacks will join me in seeing this as a cause of celebration and hopefully this will be a catalyst for growth in all sections of Am Yisrael [the Jewish People]. But only in unity and mutual respect will we achieve this.”
One US rabbi, who did not wish to be named, also took issue with Lord Sacks. “A very sizeable portion of the Charedi world are people who embrace the world and make an enormous contribution to world Jewry. To categorise the Charedi world as rejecting the world is distorted and false. And to equate them with those who assimilate as a threat to the future is misguided.”
Another US rabbi said that the Chief Rabbi’s remarks “would make several rabbis feel uncomfortable”.
But former US president Simon Hochhauser, who supports the Chief Rabbi’s stance, said: “As Chief Rabbi, he was politically constrained by the position. Perhaps now he feels freer to express himself in the way he would like.”
Asked to comment, a spokesman for the Union of the Orthodox Hebrew Congregations said it wished Lord Sacks “berachah and hatzlachah (blessing and success) in his retirement”.
Educational philanthropist Benjamin Perl said that British Jews should “concentrate on stopping the tide of UK assimilation. My message to the new Chief Rabbi is, leave the UN to look after the world and spend all your waking hours on the flock that elected you.”
In a new pamphlet, “A Judaism Engaged with the World”, handed to guests at the dinner, Lord Sacks acknowledged “the awe-inspiring” commitment of the strictly Orthodox Jewish community which had revived Jewish learning and practice post-War.
While Lord Sacks has not announced his plans post-retirement, he said his work would be to try to inspire “a new generation” of Jewish leaders.