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July 3, 2011 6:25 pm

Loosening Anglo-Jewry’s Corset

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. Photo: Cooperniall.

Eleven years ago, I lived in the UK and, though I served primarily as rabbi to students at Oxford University, I gradually expanded the scope of my activities until I was well entrenched in mainstream Anglo-Jewish life.

Amid my affection and admiration for a community renowned for its high Jewish day school attendance, generous social welfare programmes, and committed communal charities, I slowly became alienated from the dysfunctional nature of Anglo-Jewish life.

Every week saw unseemly public squabbling between Reform and Orthodox, Masorti and the United Synagogue. One week gays and lesbians would clamour that they were left out of a Jewish pride parade and the next week agunot would march on the Chief Rabbi’s office to protest about their chained existence.

It got so bad that when a much-loved Reform Rabbi and Holocaust survivor died, the Orthodox clergy did not perform the mitzvah of participating in his funeral. These disputes often spilled over into the mainstream press, which seemed obsessed with Anglo-Jews being constantly at each other’s throats.

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As a marriage counsellor,  I have witnessed many couples whose main form of getting along is the fact that they don’t get along. Argumentation mitigates the stultifying boredom that would otherwise define the relationship. Is it possible, I asked, that Anglo-Jewry suffered from this same addiction?

There is a reason why American Jewry, for all its shortcomings, does not exhibit these same ills and it has everything to do with the UK’s centralised communal structure.

In the States, there is no Chief Rabbi and all synagogues are, at best, loosely affiliated. This creates an entrepreneurial environment where rabbis and lay leaders rise and fall by creativity and effectiveness alone rather than the extent to which they bend to become cogs in a communal machine. What determines, say, the acceptability of a new initiative on the part of an Orthodox rabbi in America is not conformity or subservience but, rather, innovation within the confines of Jewish law – which is much more flexible than one would otherwise suppose.

I always found it absurd, counterproductive – and insulting – that Orthodox rabbis in the UK, contrary to their American counterparts, could not appear alongside Reform colleagues on public panels, even when the discussions were utterly unconnected to Halakhic issues. The JC recently found it newsworthy to report that the Chief Rabbi had invited Reform leaders to a private meeting. In America, this would not have merited inclusion in a private blog.

I am a passionately Orthodox Jew and there is something to be said for how the United Synagogue and Chief Rabbinate have allowed Orthodoxy to be the standard bearers of Jewry in the UK. But at what cost? Aside from Rabbi Sacks, the UK is failing to produce the creative spiritual and lay leaders that must rejuvenate a  dwindling community.

Here in the United States, Birthright was started by two businessmen. In the UK, with the notable exception of Limmud – a grass-roots movement that did not stem from, and was not sanctioned by, officialdom – Anglo-Jewry has yet to produce a single idea that has universally impacted upon its community.

Centralised officialdom and bureaucracy are way too invested in being proper and avoiding controversy.  British Jewry has curiously failed to produced anything akin to AIPAC, the enormously powerful American Jewish lobby, not because of smaller numbers but because, in Britain, many in the community would deem it unseemly to overtly flex its political or financial muscle on Israel’s behalf.

American Jewry’s lack of a central structure makes the cordial competition  between bodies like the ADL or Simon Wiesenthal Centre far more interested in results than in propriety.

Which leads me to my important point. We American Jews have watched in shock and amazement at the tsunami of antisemitism that has washed over Britain in the past decade. From unthinkable bans on Israeli academics at university conferences, to arrest warrants being issued against Israeli government ministers, to high courts usurping the Jewish community’s right to define its own members, to bans on Israeli advertising where the Kotel is featured, to a sewer of anti-Israel hate speech on UK campuses that the Chief Rabbi has, albeit belatedly, admitted publicly is making Jewish students “despondent and demoralised at the failure of university authorities to take firm and decisive action, lines of bigotry are being crossed with insufficient opposition

Most puzzling is that this eruption of Jew-hatred has all happened on the watch of the man universally recognized as the single most eloquent spokesman for Judaism in the English-speaking world with unlimited access to a fawning media. So why was Chief Rabbi Sacks’s voice muted? Because the very office is a straitjacket. It allows for dazzling exegesis on the parsha and bland rabbinical investitures. But it neuters its occupant from saying anything of conviction that would ruffle the feathers of establishment figures one hangs out with at Royal Weddings.

In the 2001 census, the only group in the UK where 75-plus cohorts outnumbered those in the 65-74 age group was Anglo-Jewry.  But were its  girdle to be relaxed through a greater decentralisation of its structures, a new era of youthful dynamism would be unleashed.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ is the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He is the author of 25 books, the most recent being, “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” He will be participating in a debate on the future of the Chief Rabbinate at Mill Hill Synagogue on Monday, 11 July, 8pm.

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  • Gabriel Martindale

    “to high courts usurping the Jewish community’s right to define its own members”

    They usurped it after a non-Jew who practised Reform Judaism brought the case to a gentile court with the support of Reform clergy. This rather seems to validate the non-co-operation approach of the English rabbinate, which in any case is the mainstream orthodox opinion, clearly mandated by most modern- and centrist-orthodox authorities, like Rabbis Soloveitchik or Hirsch.

  • Oxford Jew

    R. Boteach must stop pretending that he had some kind of official link with Oxford University. He had nothing of the sort. He rode into town in the 1980s with his snake oil salesmanship and proceeded to misappropriate the famous OU name for his own crassly commercial purposes. Likewise, he did nothing to forge ties with the existing Jewish community in Oxford, which does have strong links with the university through its members. R. Boteach has always been and remains an almost laughably self-obsessed self-promoter. Everything else, including religion, comes second. He should also invest in a decent proofreader before publishing his sloppily written books.

  • Lenny1970

    In many ways, Jews in the U.K. are doing much better than in the U.S.A… Jews have school choice & can attend gov’t supported day schools; and the numbers of Jews has started growing again after declining for about 60 years straight.

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