The Blog

Whose Chief Is It Anyway?

Strange as it may seem, the Liberal and Reform movements' model of religious leadership - a conference of rabbis who reach decisions by consensus - is actually closer to traditional Judaism than the Chief Rabbinate...

In 2009, Britain's senior Orthodox rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, became a Lord. At his Parliamentary introduction ceremony, he affirmed his loyalty to the Queen, bowed to the throne and then - as is traditional - shook hands with the Lord Speaker before taking his seat. But 'Lord Speaker' is actually a unisex title, and the hand Sacks shook was that of a woman, Baroness Hayman. This pleasant vignette was only visible to those of us who saw the event live: it was edited out from the version posted on What self-respecting Orthodox rabbi would be filmed touching a woman, after all!

This month, a distinctly different inauguration took place. Sacks' successor, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, was 'installed' as Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, the largest single denomination in the Jewish community with just under 40% of British Jews as its members.

At his ceremony in St John's Wood Synagogue, there was no risk of him coming into contact with any women, because they were all peering down at proceedings from a balcony - even the rabbis amongst them, Laura Janner-Klausner representing the Reform movement, and Charley Baginsky from my own Liberal Judaism (see right).

Strange as it may seem, the Liberal and Reform movements' model of religious leadership - a conference of rabbis who reach decisions by consensus - is actually closer to traditional Judaism than the Chief Rabbinate. "After the majority must one incline," we are told by the sages of the Talmud, in a passage [1] which itself is all about a group of rabbis sitting down to discuss and reach a conclusion on questions of Jewish law.

We are exhorted to "train many scholars" [2] because by confining opportunities to an elite, how many great religious leaders may be lost to the community? And the more voices contributing their opinion the better, because "the jealousy of scribes increases wisdom" [3]. This is the basis of John Stuart Mills' later 'collision of adverse opinions' argument for free speech.

There was never a Jewish papacy because single-person rule is anathema to our notion of community. So fervent was Rabbah the Talmudist on this point that he made it an absolute prohibition: "Any office conferring authority over the community must be filled by at least two persons" [4]. What would he make of the modern one-man-band Chief Rabbinate of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth?

To be fair, the idea of 'a chief rabbi' was never a Jewish one at all. It was invented by secular governments who insisted that the Jews in their country put forward one leader for them to deal with. Britain is unusual in having world's the only chief rabbinate that wasn't created by the state, but even so our government has appreciated having a single point of contact, designating "the Chief Rabbi for the time being" as responsible for issuing kosher slaughter licenses, regulating the admissions policy of certain Jewish schools, etc., etc.

And this in turn raises the practical, rather than theological, problems with there being a single voice for the whole of British Jewry. It's an obvious problem: we have more than one voice. To be precise, we have 263,346 voices, but on most issues four or five can cover most of the opinions: still three or four more than the Chief Rabbi can offer.

On topics ranging from same-sex marriage to female rabbis, those of us in the non-Orthodox movements should not be content for Ephraim Mirvis to speak for us - or to be seen to speak for us by non-Jews who don't understand our community's pluralism.

The problem is exacerbated by the United Synagogue's refusal to recognise our rabbis as rabbis. There are some issues that we all agree on, and in a properly functioning community, those would be the moments when Mirvis would stand on a platform next to his colleagues from every Jewish denomination, and show unity. And there are some issues on which we disagree, in which case each movement should - politely - speak for themselves without pretending to speak for anyone else.

Rabbi Mirvis definitely doesn't have an easy job ahead of him, and I'm sure the last thing he wants to do is take advice from a 20-something Liberal Jew, especially since the first time we met, I gave him evil looks for not offering me a lift through Budapest in his chauffeur-driven car (long story).

But I'm going to make some recommendations anyway:

  1. Don't make it your business to represent the whole of Anglo-Jewry: this is as much for your benefit as for mine, because it's an impossible task, and one no single voice could do with any degree of sincerity. Strive to speak for the United Synagogue with authority and erudition, but remember the advice of Rabbah: the duty of representing the whole community should not be held by one person.
  2. Empower others within the United Synagogue - rabbis and non-rabbis, men and non-men - to share your burdens and be visionaries alongside you. Good decisions are only made with the help of criticism, and future leaders will only flourish in a culture that values their contribution.
  3. Recognise other movements and their (our) religious leaders. The American rabbi Solomon Schechter wrote: "In Parliament, 'His Majesty's Opposition' [...] sounds like a paradox, yet it contains a deep truth, implying as it does that both His Majesty's government as well as His Majesty's opposition form one large community, working for the welfare of the country and the prosperity of the nation. The same principle may also be applied to theology [...] There is hardly any phenomenon in Judaism [...] which has not served a certain purpose in the divine economy of our history."

Or, to sum up this entire article with one sentence from a scholar much wiser than myself: "Do not scorn any person, and do not discount anything. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place" [5].

(Oh. And in case you haven't heard of it, every year at the Limmud Conference, 2,000 Jews come together to learn and engage in cross-communal dialogue. Jonathan Sacks never came. You'd be more than welcome - come and join us and be extraordinary.)

[1] Baba Metzia 59b

[2] Pirke Avot 1:1

[3] Baba Bathra 21a

[4] Baba Bathra 8b

[5] Pirke Avot 4:3