How Lord Sacks came to be chief

In an extract from his new book, Hats in the Ring, on choosing Britain's chief rabbis, Meir Persoff recalls the moment when Jonathan Sacks was picked for the top


Addressing the Chief Rabbinate Conference committee in London on the last Sunday in February 1990 – some 15 months after commencing its search for a successor to Lord Jakobovits – United Synagogue president Sidney Frosh, who had headed the seven-man “sifting” (selection) committee, revealed that during the previous year, his team had had “correspondence from all over the country, offering advice and endorsing support for more than one rabbi”.

Suggested candidates had been located in Britain, Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, ranging from communal rabbis and dayanim to heads of yeshivot and academics. It had soon become clear, however, that “if at all possible, the new Chief Rabbi should be an Englishman, or at least conversant with the Anglo-Jewish scene”.

“On Sunday, February 11,” Frosh told his colleagues, “the sifting committee met with Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu and Dayan Isaac Berger, of the London Beth Din, in order to seek their perception of the essential qualities necessary for the position of Chief Rabbi and Av Beth Din and, at the same time, their view of the credentials and suitability of the two leading personalities, Rabbi Cyril Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

“The dayanim indicated that both were acceptable to them, but that they had a stronger preference for Rabbi Sacks.”

A similar preference, said Frosh, had earlier been expressed by the executive committee of the United Synagogue Rabbinical Council.

'My chief rabbinate will aim to heal some of the rifts that divide the community'

“After the dayanim left our meeting, and after considerable discussion, it was unanimously agreed that a recommendation go forward to the Chief Rabbinate Conference that a call be issued to Rabbi Sacks.

“Two days later, a deputation comprising [US vice-president] Victor Lucas, [Professor] Leslie Wagner and myself, accompanied by [US chief executive] Jonathan Lew, called upon Rabbi Sacks and his wife. We indicated that we were prepared to recommend the call on the understanding that he would disengage himself as speedily as possible from his present posts.

“It was left to Rabbi Sacks to consider the matter and to advise me within a few days whether he would accept the call. He met with me after Shabbat of last week and said that he would be honoured to accept the call and the high responsibilities of leadership that went with it.

“It was his wish, however, that prior to his installation, he would spend a period of intensive study in Israel under the tutelage of gedolim [Torah sages], during which, along with such study, he would be able to familiarise himself with the work of the Chief Rabbinate and batei din in Israel; this would, he believed, enhance the authority of the office.

“He would also spend time with Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits and the dayanim of the London Beth Din to apprise himself of the general and particular problems currently facing the Anglo-Jewish community.”

Frosh later commented: “This has been no compromise appointment. He is the best man for the job – an intellectual, a communicator and a unifier. In my view, this is the most prestigious Chief Rabbinate in the diaspora. That is why the selection took so long. It was never going to be anyone’s sinecure.”

Agreeing that Sacks’s age had been an important factor (he was then 42), Frosh added: “We must have a young approach. Rabbi Sacks is a person who can relate to the wide spread of the community, particularly young people, helping them to become more committed to Judaism. He is one of the new breed of Jewish intellectuals, well qualified to deal with contemporary issues in both the Jewish and the wider context.”

“I feel honoured and privileged,” said Sacks of his nomination, “My family and I are very excited. My Chief Rabbinate will aim to heal some of the rifts that divide the community. It will encourage debate and will not shy away from communicating Jewish values to the wider community. “I am determined, as far as possible, to emphasise what unites Jews and to encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect. But there can be no compromise in matters of halachah. There are no short cuts.”

The appointment was formally ratified at a gathering of the Chief Rabbinate Conference on the first day of April 1990, when its 200 delegates voted unanimously to rubber-stamp the call.

Despite earlier reservations, Lord Jakobovits greeted the outcome “with particular delight”. Rabbi Sacks’s record of leadership and scholarship, he affirmed, “provides every promise of a richly blessed incumbency”.

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