Institution of Chief Rabbi Has Outlived Its Usefulness

No Need for Single Jewish Leader In Pluralistic Britain

New Chief: Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Is the new chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. But is he really needed?
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New Chief: Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Is the new chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. But is he really needed?

By Keith Kahn-Harris

Published February 10, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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Finally, after more than a year of deliberation, the United Kingdom has chosen Ephraim Mirvis to be its new chief rabbi, replacing Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Actually, much of that sentence isn’t correct. It isn’t “the United Kingdom” that chooses the chief rabbi. For all its pretensions to established status, the chief rabbinate has only a very limited state-sanctioned function — the licensing of marriages in some synagogues — and the state has no role in his selection.

The chief rabbi isn’t even chosen by a majority of British Jews, just by a selection committee from the centrist Orthodox United Synagogue, to whose synagogues about one-third of the community belong. Even within the United Synagogue, the chief rabbi is not the ultimate authority. Rather, it’s a Haredi-leaning beit din, or rabbinical court, that has the last word on halachic matters. To make matters even more complicated, the majority of United Synagogue members are not Orthodox observant. In fact, the sort of Modern Orthodoxy that Sacks exemplified is probably the least influential tendency in the United Synagogue.

So behind the imposing title of chief rabbi lies an often beleaguered office, struggling to reconcile the United Synagogue’s different wings. Outside the United Synagogue, other denominations, from Reform to Haredi, are clear that the chief rabbi does not represent them. At the national level, other Jewish leaders are invited to most state events alongside him.

As head of Jews College in the 1980s, Sacks was the poster boy for liberal, intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, with a substantial reputation as a public intellectual. He began his term in 1991 with a bold effort to reach out to all wings of the community and kick-start a process of renewal in a stagnating U.K. Jewish community.

But he raised expectations that he could not fulfill, and in the 1990s he was caught up in repeated controversies as his tendency to defer to the ascendant power of right-wing Orthodoxy resulted in grievous insults to non-Orthodox denominations. While his reputation outside the Jewish community has only soared, within the community he often has been a hapless and divisive figure.

The attempt to recruit his successor has not been easy. The Orthodox rabbinate, now dominated by educated Israeli and American rabbis who usually lean to the right, offered a small pool of candidates. An international search ultimately led nowhere.

Mirvis was the best possible choice for the new chief rabbi, given the circumstances. A respected, well-liked figure, he owes his reputation as a rabbi to one of the U.K.’s most vibrant Orthodox synagogues. He is unlikely to be more than a safe pair of hands, and that is probably best for all sides.


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