For my 20th birthday, my mother gave me the book Traditional Alternatives by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I was fresh out of yeshivah and studying in university, and this book had a profound effect on me. It explained the origins and complexities of my Jewish identity. It gave me a language to articulate the values and principles on which modern Jewish life was based. The author became the Chief Rabbi and every new book he publishes turns up on my birthday. That body of work is my constant reference. It underpins my teaching and philosophy.
'Rabbi' means teacher and Lord Sacks is our community's chief teacher. His output really is remarkable. Every second Shabbat he travels to a different community to educate and inspire, almost every major Jewish communal event wants him as their keynote speaker, his articles are regularly printed in both Jewish and British newspapers, his weekly Torah essays are downloaded by thousands, his siddur is used daily in numerous synagogues, and whenever I visit a community in America or Israel as a guest lecturer, people always tell me, "Rafi, your Chief Rabbi is my teacher."
So why does he get such a hard time in the pages of the JC? This is my theory: it's because our community wants even more. We want our Chief Rabbi to solve all our community's issues - denominational division, increasing assimilation, conversion criteria, distraught agunot, legal challenges to kashrut and, while he's at it, could he please stop antisemitism and secure Israel's future.
These are unrealistic expectations because there are no undemanding solutions. Every Jewish community faces these challenges. They are the struggle of remaining loyal to our tradition while responding to modernity. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has only been able to catalyse change in some areas.
Stephen Games recently argued in these pages that Chief Rabbi Sacks has sold off the autonomy of the United Synagogue, but in reality there has been a division of roles between the Chief Rabbinate and the London Bet Din that goes back over 75 years. Chief Rabbi Hertz wanted to enhance the prestige and authority of his Beth Din so he persuaded Reb Chatzkel Abramsky, a leading East European Charedi rabbi, to become its senior dayan.
He has made me believe there is a future for Anglo-Jewry
Since then, the London Beth Din has led on halachah (Jewish law) while the Chief Rabbinate had led on hashkafa (Jewish outlook and values).
Of course there is overlap between these two areas which is why there is sometimes friction. Leaders in the United Synagogue have always understood this, so they try to ensure one does not dominate the other. This division is unique to Anglo-Jewry which is why only here is 'dayan' a recognised title of communal power. In Israel and America, none of the 'gedolim' (great Rabbis) have dayan as their title.
As the discussion about the next Chief Rabbi intensifies, it is vital to look at this structure and to ask members of the United Synagogue if this division is what they want. Its problems are obvious: no one single authority, public arguments and embarrassing compromises.
But I think those are also its virtues. All important issues have to be debated. In ideological terms, it forces modern orthodoxy and Charedi Judaism to stay and work together.
In my experience, it has led to more openness and understanding, something that is lacking in the Jewish world today.
Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks makes me believe there is a future for Anglo-Jewry. He constantly deepens my understanding of Jewish ideals and he shows me that wisdom and sincerity are what it takes to be a great Jewish leader.