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December 17, 2012 7:24 pm

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the British Chief Rabbinate

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis with London's Mayor Boris Johnson. Photo: United Synagogue.

The centrist orthodox Jewish community of Britain, known as “The United Synagogue,” (established by Act of Parliament in 1870 as the Jewish equivalent of The Church of England) has just appointed Ephraim Mirvis to succeed Jonathan Sacks as its Chief Rabbi.

Rabbi Mirvis is popular and affable. He is the South African born minister of the huge Finchley Synagogue in North London, often parodied for looking like the grill of a Rolls Royce. He is the very model of a successful community, pastoral rabbi. In many ways he is the antithesis of Jonathan Sacks. He is a person’s person, sensitive and socially aware. His Judaism comes more from his heart than his mind. He is a competent speaker and will be able to play his representational role safely without stirring up any hornets nests. He is also a wise enough politician to make sure he will neither offend nor provoke any sector of the community. He will not challenge the authority of either the Beth Din or the Charedi Rabbinate. He will not “Set the Thames on fire.” He is not an academic. But he will focus on his flock and tend to its needs. He is a very safe pair of hands and, I might add, has a very bright, effective and supportive wife.

Will his appointment matter? Once upon a time, when Great Britain had an Empire the Chief Rabbi bestrode the Anglo Jewish world. Men like Marcus Adler and his son Nathan who ruled over Anglo Jewry from 1845 to 1911 molded the community in their image, a synthesis of Judaism and the Church of England. That was when English Jewry like its American counterpart was concerned with casting off the burdens of strict Eastern European orthodoxy. The banner was accommodation; integration if not assimilation.

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Chief Rabbi Hertz (1913-1946) managed to maintain that delicate balance that allowed the vast majority of Anglo Jews to stay within the Orthodox camp though they themselves were lax in their commitment. Americans find it hard to understand why if most Anglo Jews are not orthodox in their private lives, they still belong to the United Synagogue which is to the Right of the American Conservative Movement. Neither is Reform strong in Britain. This reflects the culture of Britain where one is more aware of what is socially correct rather than religiously consistent!

Under Hertz the factors that would change the face and character of Anglo Jewry began to emerge. During the reign of the gentle ineffectual Israel Brody who succeeded him, the tension between open minded traditionalism and the newly arriving Eastern European Orthodoxy, erupted. The ‘Jacobs Affair’ was a battle over the soul of Anglo Jewry that the right wing won. Brodie ceded authority to the Beth Din and they in turn aligned themselves with the Ultra-Orthodox world. In effect a huge gap opened up between the laity and the religious powers of the United Synagogue. Although Immanuel Jakobovits who followed Brodie was perhaps the most orthodox of British Chief Rabbis he tried to keep the rival elements of the community together and largely succeeded. At the same time he was the first Chief Rabbi to play a role on the wider stage becoming a close friend and adviser of Margaret Thatcher. But on his watch the Beth Din completely cemented its grip on United Synagogue orthodoxy and to all intents and purposes what was once “The Court of the Chief Rabbi” now became the sole authority on religious matters within the United Synagogue and beyond, a position once zealously guarded by the Adlers.

Jonathan Sacks was appointed in the hope of dealing with the growing challenge of the Charedi world by returning the United Synagogue to its constituency of more centrist orthodoxy. But a series of failures of judgment effectively forced him to give up the struggle. He focused instead on public speaking, writing and communication, first with the non-Jewish and then the Jewish world, in which he has been exceedingly successful. But he effectively abandoned any religious leadership role within the community by capitulating to the increasingly extreme trend within Anglo Jewry.

Over the years Britain has declined on the world stage and Anglo Jewry continued to lose its position in the Jewish World. It has shrunk in numbers to around 250, 000 and the twin centers of the USA and Israel increasingly dominate Jewish life around the globe and rightly so. In contrast to the USA and Israel, Anglo Jewry lacks any serious Jewish academic life. Given the fact that in general the rabbinate is now no longer seen as conducive to academic scholarship but has concentrated more and more on social cohesion, it is hardly surprising that Anglo Jewry has less and less impact on world Jewish affairs.

The role of Chief Rabbi has now effectively become a symbolic, diplomatic role rather than one of dynamic leadership. It is a position that requires the holder to service his community rather than to lead it. Whereas Sacks seemed hampered by the constraints of his position, Mirvis will enjoy it far more because he is far better at it. He cannot now hope to stem the increasing stranglehold that the Beth Din and the Right has over Anglo Jewry. The Dayanim of the Beth Din would never have agreed to his appointment had they not felt secure that he would not challenge their authority.

The model of a centralized Chief Rabbinate looks to have failed as a paradigm for effective, dynamic Judaism. The more open flexible American model of much freer association is now seen as a far more creative model. Increasingly people make their own decisions as to where they choose to place themselves on the Jewish spectrum and in many communities there is increasing choice and variety.

In Anglo Jewry the ideological battle to offer an ideological alternative to the Charedi world has been lost for now. But the continuing need to service the community requires dedicated pastoral leadership. In this regard the appointment of Rabbi Mirvis is appropriate and wise.

Jeremy Rosen served as the rabbi of several independent orthodox synagogues in Scotland and England before retiring to the USA.

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  • Andrew Gilbert

    So he won’t go to Anglo Jewry greatest achievement of the recent times and its greatest export … LIMMUD?

    • Jeremy

      I certainly hope he does. I will be most disappointed if not.

  • sarah

    after Sacks behaviour and the Gryn affair we need a peoples rabbi and those of us who left the United Synagogue due to Sacks will be delighted with the new appointment if it is confirmed!

    • I wouldn’t bet on it Sarah. Expecting the Chief Rabbi who is supposed to represent Judaism and authentic Jewish values based on Torah to support any kind of “reformed” Judaism is frankly naïve. It’s like a Drafts/Checkers player demanding that the head of the local Chess club represents them.

      • Isaac

        There’s nothing authentic about “Orthodox” Judaism!

        • Jeremy

          I agree labels are completely unsatisfactory. In a sense no label is authentic. Authenticity lies in behavior!

          • Isaac

            I wasn’t just referring to the label.

  • Rabbi Mirvis may not be “an academic” by which Jeremy Rosen means, Rabbi Mirvis will not quote from some Oxbridge professor of Ethics or wax lyrical during a weekly Torah lesson over words of theology by a 15th century Church of England bishop. Rabbi Mirvis is however a Talmid Chacham (wise and knowledgeable in Torah) steeped in true Torah values as well as a firm supporter of Israel’s right to the Land of Israel. It it these things which make Rabbi Mirvis an excellent choice for Chief Rabbi. Hatzlacha!