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British Jews Don't Need Another Chief Rabbi

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British Jews are about to experience a religious revolution parallel to that going on in the Church of England. After being used to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks leading the helm for just over 20 years, a new Chief Rabbi has been appointed.

If the church is still hopelessly divided over women bishops and gay marriages, the Jewish community is also facing major question marks. The biggest one is: do we want another chief rabbi at all?

This is partly because of the strange origins of the office, which, far being a traditional Jewish institution, is relatively modern and began in Britain.

It started in 1840 when the then handful of independent synagogues - all Orthodox - came together to form the United Synagogue. They were aware of the central role that the Archbishop of Canterbury had in church life and so invented the position of a Chief Rabbi who was to have a parallel role.

Other countries may have a chief rabbi of a town or region, but no national figure (save Israel, where it was imposed by the British military authorities during the Mandate years, mistakenly thinking it was an accepted Jewish practice!)

Still, while the office of chief rabbi initially proved very helpful in unifying the disparate congregations, its continuing existence is now threatened by the fact that British Jewry has changed dramatically.

It is much more diverse, no longer monolithically Orthodox, but with sizable Reform and Liberal movements, who seek to harmonise tradition and modernity and who do not recognise the Chief Rabbi's authority. Several other Orthodox groups have emerged in recent decades who are also beyond his remit.

These long-simmering tensions have come to the fore during the incumbency of Jonathan Sacks and may now be beyond repair.

His leadership has been remarkable for the great contrast between the successes of his external role and the problems surrounding his internal one.

His great communication skills have made him a superb ambassador for Judaism to the country at large, but inside the Jewish world, his policies towards gays, women, Limmud (a cross-communal study programme) and the non-Orthodox have made him a divisive figure.

Many Jews who admire the religious pluralism that Sacks preaches to wider society have been bewildered by his refusal to apply the same principles within the Jewish community.

The result is that he has appeared to many a Jekyll and Hyde character - the liberal intellectual Dr Jonathan and the conservative unyielding Rabbi Sacks - and further weakened his office.

All these factors beg the question of whether it is possible anymore to have a Chief Rabbi - a title that is widely seen as the person who represents British Jewry, even though technically it is only of the United Synagogue and central Orthodoxy. The idea of a single figurehead for such a multi-denominational community is well past it sell-by date.

The person who has emerged as the new Chief Rabbi - Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis - is a competent congregational rabbi, and known neither for being an arch reactionary nor a modernising innovater. The hope is that he will be a safe pair of hands and avoid controversy

However, it is highly debateable whether he should keep the title of Chief Rabbi. The most honest option would be to jettison it entirely because of the way it shackles the image of British Jews as a whole to one type of Judaism.

It might be far better for rabbi mirvis to be called the senior orthodox rabbi and Rabbi Sacks to be known as the last chief rabbi. It would be more realistic for Jews, and much less confusing for wider society.

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