Britain’s new chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who has vowed to remain traditional by barring women rabbis and same-sex marriage, was sworn in on Sunday to face the challenge of uniting the nation’s polarised Jewish community.
About 1,400 guests, including Britain’s heir apparent Prince Charles, attended a ceremony at a north London synagogue as Mirvis replaced the respected Jonathan Sacks after 22 years as the leading spokesman for British Jews.
“A warm welcome to new @chiefrabbi Mirvis & my thanks to Lord Sacks for special contribution he made to our whole country as #ChiefRabbi,” Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted.
South African-born Mirvis, 56, becomes head of Britain’s largest Jewish denomination, but his synagogue network and other mainstream Orthodox make up only half of the 260,000-strong UK Jewish community, the world’s fifth and Europe’s second largest.
As titular head of British Jews, Mirvis faces the same problems confronting the Church of England, such as falling congregations and the challenge of making traditional religion relevant in a modern consumer society.
He signalled the orthodox United Synagogue would retain its traditionalist stance on single-sex marriage, which is at odds with rabbis in the Liberal and Reform synagogues at the forefront of the campaign for same-sex marriage.
“We have a clear Biblical definition of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman, and through that we value traditional family life,” Mirvis said in a BBC interview ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.
As for the possibility of women rabbis, he responded: “In our tradition, men have occupied that role, and that is the format for Orthodox congregations”.
Mirvis is expected to tread a careful course to try to bring the various streams of British Judaism closer.
Rabbis in the liberal-leaning Reform movement have urged Mirvis to abandon the title of chief rabbi and instead call himself the chief Orthodox rabbi to more accurately reflect his position and as a gesture to growing progressive congregations.
Progressive synagogues now account for around a third of all Jewish congregations in Britain.
The rapidly growing strict Orthodox or haredi communities make up much of the rest and they also do not consider the United Synagogue head as their chief rabbi.
But Mirvis, who won plaudits for being the first United Synagogue rabbi to host an address by an imam, has shown no inclination to change his title and has declined to break tradition and visit a non-Orthodox synagogue.