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?
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

In fact, the office of chief rabbi is long past its sell-by date. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the chief rabbi, whose office was modeled closely on the established Church of England, provided an arguably useful service in demonstrating to non-Jewish British society that Jews were respectable enough to be emancipated. But in today’s multicultural Britain, where even the established church doesn’t command the loyalty of more than a small minority of Britons, the chief rabbinate is clearly anachronistic.

Indeed, it’s more than anachronistic. The most baleful effect of the chief rabbinate has been to retard the progress of Modern Orthodoxy in Anglo-Jewry. In its efforts to maintain itself as a quasi-established Orthodox denomination, the United Synagogue has become an institution that satisfies few.

It’s clear why the United States has never had a chief rabbi. In a religiously pluralist country, with no established church, there was no need or desire to set up a Jewish primate. In the innately free-market approach of American society, in which Jews, like everyone else, crave choice, it was always going to be impossible for any one leading denomination to claim superior status.

The effect of this pluralism has been to ensure that the United States has been the engine room of development of all the significant currents of contemporary Judaism — Haredi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and so on. Unlike in the U.K., different currents can develop themselves without having a chief rabbinate challenging their legitimacy.

And yet the chief rabbinate has had one odd effect on Anglo-Jewry. The ossified established structure of the community has forced British Jews to be incredibly creative should they wish to escape its shackles. The chief rabbinate gave the generation of innovators who have transformed Anglo-Jewry since the 1980s something to kick against.

The shining example of this is Limmud, the non-denominational, do-it-yourself Jewish learning movement, which holds annual conferences. Developed in the early 1980s out of intense frustration at the stultifying anti-intellectualism and conservatism of Anglo-Jewry, Limmud has grown to be a global educational phenomenon whose effect on the community has been profound.

It is significant, then, that though Sacks was a Limmud regular in the 1980s, he never attended during his chief rabbinate, his participation effectively having been vetoed by a beit din horrified at its pluralism. Mirvis may or may not attend Limmud, but it hardly matters now: Anglo-Jewry has learned how to develop a vibrant community without the chief rabbinate’s help.

Keith Kahn-Harris is an associate fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.