Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis: Champion of the middle way

“I’m noticing a phenomenon. The world is changing and people are being drawn to the poles. We have a great challenge to maintain the strength of our middle ground."


The threats from extremism and populism pose the greatest challenges to Britain's Jewish community, according to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and they require a concerted effort to combat them.

Speaking to the JC ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration as American president this week, and after a year dogged by allegations of antisemitism in British politics, the Chief Rabbi pledges to work to “guarantee the continuity of the middle ground”.

“I’m noticing a phenomenon,” he explains. “The world is changing and people are being drawn to the poles. We have a great challenge to maintain the strength of our middle ground.

“Worldwide, that middle-ground is starting to thin out and people are veering towards extremes. I’m very much a champion of the middle-ground. We have such a strong tradition of that within British Jewry.

“We need to adopt understanding and tolerance, and at the same time be understanding of all people and seek peace and unity.”

A Chief Rabbi who eschews much of the pomp and ceremony associated with the role over the past three centuries, Rabbi Mirvis greets me at the front door of his Hendon home, ushering me out of the rain into a smart, modern meeting-room lined with books spanning politics, religion and sociology.

His message of positivity, delivered in his comforting South African accent, seems heavily at odds with the atmosphere of fear and desperation around the globe that he describes.

Explaining his analysis of that zeitgeist, Rabbi Mirvis admits: “We are currently living in a very challenging world. We have seen a shift in recent times. If previously one had referred to a divided world it would perhaps have been to divisions between East and West, between liberal and conservative, between the left and the right.

“Today there is a new fault-line running through our political establishment globally. I would refer to it as being ‘particular versus universal’ — there are others who refer to it as being ‘drawbridge up versus drawbridge down’, ‘open versus closed’.”

Three key questions face our societies, he says, on immigration, trade and cultural changes. The response at the ballot box — in the Brexit referendum and the election of Mr Trump, who Rabbi Mirvis memorably called “a racist”— has proved that “people are drifting to the extremes”.

“It is the easier option,” says Rabbi Mirvis as he acknowledges how “old alignments have just fizzled away” to leave a “new world” which has left many in the political, economic and religious centre dumbfounded.

He seeks assurance, unsurprisingly, in his faith and strength of his belief in the “enormous amount” Judaism can contribute to the world.

Our experiences as Jews can offer a blueprint for others, suggests Rabbi Mirvis. “The way of our lives is a fusion of the particular and the universal. We believe in an exclusivist faith, in preserving our own separate identity, our own calendar and festivals and schools. We unashamedly want to be proud of what makes us different.

“At the same time, an integral part of our Jewishness is our commitment to all of society. Our Jewish way is to embrace both ideals. It’s part of our identity, it’s what the Rambam calls the ‘golden mean’.

“We champion a life of moderation, taking the middle path… instead of just opting for the easy path of going to one extreme or another. This is a complicated, complex world. We need to deal with the issues as they exist.”

For Rabbi Mirvis that has meant a direct, hands-on approach, particularly in political and education matters. He confirms lobbying Department of Education officials on Jewish faith schools — “I see it as being my responsibility” — but is coy about his relationship with Theresa May.

The pair have enjoyed private meetings in Downing Street, and Mrs May famously spent the evening before becoming Prime Minister last July having dinner in the Mirvis family home.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the daughter of a vicar and son of a rabbi have grown close and perhaps share a similar outlook on the aforementioned concerns affecting the world.

Rabbi Mirvis will not confirm this, saying only that Mrs May was “somebody who sought to keep a commitment, and coming to our home was a gesture to our community. It was not a gesture to me personally — but for my wife and myself it was an enormous pleasure to welcome her.

“There are things which, as Chief Rabbi, I do behind the scenes — there are numerous meetings I have with a host of people, in the interests of our community, and I think what happens behind the scenes belongs behind the scenes.”

Nor will he expand on his previous comments about Labour and its antisemitism crisis. Heavily critical of party leader Jeremy Corbyn during 2016, Rabbi Mirvis says he was pleased Labour accepted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism last month, following Mrs May’s “wonderful” decision that the government would adopt it.

But he warns 2017 is “a year which is crying out for implementation” of the recommendations in the controversial Chakrabarti report into Labour antisemitism — a report he previously described as a “whitewash”.

“Now we need to see action,” he says, days before the party dropped the Oxford University antisemitism case.

Had he felt a sense of responsibility to speak out so vociferously over the past 12 months?

“Absolutely. Where it is appropriate, then it is totally in order to say that which is responsible, in order to provide a lead. If my role was just to carry out duties, to be a functionary, then of what value is it?

“Leadership involves conviction, leading from the front, and sometimes you might ruffle some feathers. But if the purpose is to change mind-sets and improve what we have, then I believe it is the right thing to do.”

The issue of partnership minyanim, which has threatened to dog the domestic agenda, has been dealt with “sensitively”, he says.

“It’s important to be absolutely clear on what is right and what is wrong in our tradition. I am someone who always wants to reach out, to include, to make people feel comfortable, to engage with people, and that has been our line. Clearly it is an issue, but it’s one of many important issues we are dealing with.”

A youthful 60-year-old, Rabbi Mirvis is jovial in his tone and takes particular pleasure in discussing his travels around Britain’s Jewish communities.

In just over three years as Chief Rabbi, he has visited all but around 10 Orthodox synagogues and communities in this country, as well as many across the Commonwealth.

“For me, every community in the UK is important. I care about somebody in some outlying district of Cornwall as much as I do for the member of one of our most thriving communities in north-west London.

“I love going out there. It’s very touching. Invariably the person introducing me says ‘this is the first visit of a chief rabbi since…’ and often it’s a long time before, and sometimes it’s the first visit of a chief rabbi full stop.”

It is Rabbi Mirvis’s hope that as provincial communities dwindle in their numbers over the next decade, Jews in larger conurbations will work to support their regional cousins.

His Centre for Rabbinic Excellence is already doing so, assisting rabbis and congregations nationwide with programmes and funding. Since its inception in 2014, the CRE has seen around 160 young men and women sent to more than 50 synagogues outside London to run services, organise communal meals and support shul-goers.

The South African-born rabbi’s ambition stretches beyond these shores thanks to his Ben Azzai programme, launched last year in an effort to broaden the horizons of young British Jews too-often cocooned in small enclaves of north-west London.

A group of 16 participants travelled to India last month and will, Rabbi Mirvis predicts, become “ambassadors” engaged in social action projects, promoting his mantra of responsibility towards all of mankind. “As Chief Rabbi, my role is to serve as a catalyst to get other people involved,” he says.

Rabbi Mirvis understands there has been criticism of his approach to partnership minyanim, concern about school places and the future of Jewish education, and disgruntlement over his efforts to encourage young Jews out of a bubble and into the wider world.

But he is unequivocal about his approach. “My aim always is that if you don’t agree with me I hope at least you will respect me for my sincerity in what I am trying to do. I’m not a person to shy beneath the parapet — I believe that’s what leadership is about, to set a tone and to hopefully enable people to know what derech (path) I would like them to go on and to respond responsibly.”

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