I believe that the unity of the Jewish people is fundamental to our survival. I believe that many, if not all, of the disasters that have overtaken us throughout history have been due, in part at least, to our disunity. I believe that Jewish self-hatred is wicked and that it is contrary to the Divine Will. These beliefs go to the core of my existence. Accordingly, in my own small way, I have done and continue to do what I can to reach out to all manner of Jews, whether or not I personally approve of their beliefs or lifestyles.
I have had no hesitation in accepting invitations to speak to Liberal, Reform, Masorti and even Charedi audiences. As for my Zionism, it is an ineluctable part of my Jewish identity. Yet I have consented to share public platforms with members of Neturei Karta, strong in the conviction that while their anti-Zionist politics constitute a chillul haShem [profanation of the Divine Name], my willingness to engage with them constitutes a countervailing kiddush haShem [sanctification of the Divine Name].
I make these declarations by way of prelude to a consideration of the challenges — or, more narrowly, the overriding challenge — that faces Ephraim Mirvis as the new chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations.
There was a time when this body represented, if not the totality, then certainly the overwhelming majority of Jews in the United Kingdom. This is no longer the case. But even if the United Hebrew Congregations now embrace (as I believe they do) less than half of the Jews in Britain, they still constitute the largest single organised component of a British Jewry that is now a rather complex, multi-faceted entity.
Rabbi Mirvis must decide if he is going to reach out to these other components. The expectation that he will be attending Limmud is encouraging. But it is by no means the most formidable hurdle he has to jump.
Occasions will arise when he will have to make bold decisions: whether to attend the funeral of a prominent non-Orthodox Jew, whether to speak (perhaps harshly) to a non-Orthodox audience or even (perhaps equally harshly) to a strictly Orthodox gathering; to warn that the Torah is not a supermarket, from which one can buy what one likes and reject what one does not like; but, equally, to counsel that self-ascribed piety can never constitute a mandate to tolerate that which the Torah itself condemns as evil, and that to ignore such evil is itself a heinous sin that contradicts the supposed piety of those who thus indulge themselves; above all, to proclaim, publicly, that the Almighty watches over all Jews, and not just those who flatter themselves that they constitute an elite.
You may say that I am setting a tough agenda. So I am. When, a short time after his appointment, Jonathan Sacks came to consult me, I told him that he was inheriting as chief rabbi an office weaker than it had ever been hitherto.
This is even truer in the case of Ephraim Mirvis. British Jewry is more finely fragmented now than it was in 1991. The Masorti movement, whom my predecessor Chaim Bermant once dismissed as a nine-day wonder, now occupies an important place within the Anglo-Jewish family of congregations.
The Charedim are certainly growing, but are brutally disunited. A Manchester-based academic with whom I recently discussed the definition of Charedi advised me that the word “is generally agreed to include strict observance of Shabbos and Yom Tov, tahara hamishpocha [laws of family purity], observing kashrus inside and outside the home, keeping all fast days and some form of regular learning. Women will also expect to observe modesty in dress and men will keep their heads covered at all times.”
I noted that his definition made no mention of watching television, using the internet or making use of an eruv. The truth is that modernity has fractured the Charedim now, in the 21st century, as assuredly as, in the guise of emancipation, it tore them asunder two centuries ago.
If he wishes to be thought of as, in whatever nebulous sense, the religious spokesperson for British Jews beyond the circle of the United Hebrew Congregations that elected him, Rabbi Mirvis will have to confront all these fault lines. Ultimately he will be judged by his success in crossing them.