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London — Observers of Anglo-Jewry say that a renewed focus on communal issues would be welcomed, as Sacks, for all his academic brilliance, was generally regarded as weak in that regard.
“Mirvis will be looking towards his own constituency,” said Meir Persoff, the author of a forthcoming book about the process of choosing Britain’s chief rabbis. “This is exactly what Anglo-Jewry and centrist Orthodoxy needs, someone to be its head.”
According to Persoff, “as a person, rabbi, community man and as a leader who commands the respect and affection of his congregants and wider community, Mirvis is ideal.”
In succeeding Sacks, Mirvis is stepping into a difficult job. While officially employed by the United Synagogue, 140-year-old union of 62 Orthodox communities, the chief rabbi is perceived as the representative of all British Jewry. Increasingly, the needs and views of these two overlapping groups clash.
Sacks discovered this on a number of occasions, like in 1996 when he declined to attend the funeral of a prominent Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn, and condemned him in a private letter as a “destroyer of the faith.” Many say this essentially ruined his relationship with the liberal movements. It did not go unnoticed that, in the Reform statement welcoming Mirvis’s appointment, he was referred to as the “Orthodox chief rabbi.”
Mirvis was not eager to discuss the Reform reaction, but he did indicate that he intended to speak for all British Jews, not just his particular brand of Orthodoxy. According to Persoff, whether this is possible will depend, to some extent, not on him but on the attitude of both the non-Orthodox and the haredi Orthodox communities to the right of the United Synagogue. It also depends on the United Synagogue itself.
“I’ve heard discussion within the United Synagogue about whether to face the truth and change the title of the position to ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue,’” he said. “That’s all it is. But the United Synagogue will not allow [Mirvis] to face that fact and will carry on with the pretense that he is chief rabbi of the whole community.”