Who will pick the new Chief Rabbi?


If hacking were legal, then the BlackBerry of Stephen Pack, the United Synagogue's new president, would be a prime target for those wanting inside knowledge of Anglo-Jewish affairs.

It is he who now must lead the search to find the next chief rabbi after Lord Sacks retires in September 2013 - and even though the post has not yet been advertised, the inquiries are coming in.

"I've already received emails from all over the world from potential candidates," he said. "Some of them are very credible. The list is getting longer."

But before any recruitment process starts, there are two issues to resolve. What kind of chief rabbi should the next one be? And how should he be chosen?

Broadly speaking, the job combines two different roles. One is ambassador of Judaism to the outside world; the other is "rabbi of rabbis", the senior rabbi of the United Synagogue and other central Orthodox communities. While the roles are not mutually exclusive, the question is which will be given greater emphasis.

'Choosing a Chief Rabbi is a complex exercise — but I won’t rule out an election'

So far, the appeal of the rabbis' rabbi seems to be gaining ground, according to early indications from a consultation of synagogue leaders and various interest groups commissioned by the Chief Rabbinate Trust, the charity responsible for the Chief Rabbi's Office.

While Lord Sacks has dominated the religious stage nationally and internationally, there is support for a more parochially-focused successor, a rabbi who will be seen as more of a spokesman for central Orthodoxy than Jewry as a whole, who will act as a mentor to rabbis and be more closely involved in the workings of the US, particularly the London Beth Din.

In theory, constitutionally, the chief rabbi is the supreme authority of the United Synagogue, and the Beth Din is there to advise him. In practice, it is the Beth Din that has been seen increasingly to call the religious shots, and the current Chief Rabbi has been accused of yielding too much ground to it.

While the Beth Din may have the technical expertise on ritual matters such as kashrut or eruvs, some believe that the chief rabbi should exert much greater influence when it comes to making policy, for example on rabbis going to Limmud, or women holding office in the US.

One of the arguments for an elected chief rabbi is that it would give the holder of the office a popular mandate for setting the religious direction of the US – although the Beth Din, of course, would continue to assert that it is rabbinic precedent, not democracy, that determines Jewish law.

Mr Pack, while he could see the attraction of an election - and was elected himself - was not "wedded to the idea", however. Choosing a chief rabbi is "quite a long and complex exercise," he said.

"I can't see how people can make an educated decision. They would go on the basis of gut feeling and publicity." But he added: "I do not want to rule an election out."

His preference was to appoint a small working group of around seven people who would draw up a shortlist and interview the candidates. Their recommendation would be then submitted for approval to a larger representative group of around 30, made up of delegates from various constituencies under the aegis of the chief rabbi, but also possibly from outside. Mr Pack proposes to chair both groups himself.

When Lord Sacks was appointed, the decision was taken by a body known as the Chief Rabbinate Council, composed of around 200 members although a smaller selection committee of 35 was set up to recommend a name.

The council was superseded in 2002 by the much smaller Chief Rabbinate Trust, comprising three United Synagogue officers, three other trustees nominated by the US and three trustees representing regional and other communities.

It is the trust that took over responsibility from the US for funding the office, which now costs around £800,000. The US currently pays around £300,000; other revenue comes from marriage authorisation plus a small amount from other communities, while private donors contribute £300,000 a year.

The creation of the trust gave the Chief Rabbi greater leeway to raise money for his own projects rather than be so dependent on the United Synagogue, as in the past.

At any one time, there is a cohort of about 40 donors, explained the trust's chairman Peter Sheldon, a former president of the US. But he rejected any suggestion that this funding arrangement ties the Chief Rabbi too closely to his financial backers.

"There are people who donated money in the past who withdrew funding because of something they didn't like," he said. "But the Chief Rabbi doesn't change his policy or his principles because somebody says he doesn't like it."

But the funding of the office may well be a factor in who next occupies it. A chief rabbi who operates more narrowly within the ambit of the United Synagogue will probably be less costly to maintain.

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