Steve Jobs and the Next British Chief Rabbi
The criticism by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Apple founder Steve Jobs as having created a selfish consumer culture that ultimately magnified human unhappiness provides insight into an institutional mindset that needs to change as the UK prepares for a post-Sacks era. As it stands now the United Synagogue and the office of the Chief Rabbinate are what Microsoft once was – imperial, cumbersome, anti-democratic, and domineering – while the youth of UK Jewry are Apple, rejecting the tired ‘way things have always been done’ argument in favor of a less formal Judaism that is more personal, magical, and stylish. And like Apple consumers, they are abandoning the hegemony of what used to be the dominant brand and embracing non-mainstream alternatives. But where Microsoft learned from its mistakes and is now copying Apple’s model of outstanding products rather than relying on its once-mighty monopoly, the United Synagogue, with its disappointing announcement that about eight people will choose the next Chief Rabbi – albeit with a populist dressing of hundreds of ‘consultants’ – continues to hemorrhage market share at a terminal rate.
Rather than dismiss the man who built the most valuable technology company in the world and created the products many use to read Rabbi Sacks’ books and columns, it would behoove the United Synagogue to create a true “Jobs” description for the next Chief Rabbi.
In explaining Apple’s demise in the decade that he was out of the company, Steve Jobs said: “The products suck! There’s no sex in them anymore!” Britain has brilliant rabbis. But there is nothing sexy about spiritual leaders who cannot express an opinion lest they clash with officialdom and are therefore rendered boring, neutered, monoliths. Strange as it may sound, the success of the next Chief Rabbi will be measured by how much he makes himself obsolete rather than how much he personally shines, empowering his fellow rabbis to add their own color and vitality to the Anglo-Jewish enterprise.
But the contempt shown to the Rabbis in favor of the money men is evident in how, amazingly, the US has announced that not a single Rabbi will sit on the committee that will ultimately choose the next Chief. Jobs was emphatic that it isn’t cash that determines the fate of companies but the degree to which the employees feel personally invested. “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
But most famous of all was how Jobs refused to use focus groups to develop Apple products, believing instead that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Here we get to the greatest error of all, that notion that, as the Jewish Chronicle reported, “Following a consultation exercise within the US and the regions, it emerged that the quality people most want in a Chief Rabbi is to be “a fantastic communicator” – someone, Mr. Pack said, who could not only address the Orthodox sector but “be able to communicate on behalf of Anglo-Jewry”.
A Chief Rabbi is not an Ambassador but a leader, not a spokesman but an activist. The single most important quality of leadership is not eloquence -Moses was a stutterer as was George V in modern times – but moral courage. The next Chief Rabbi must be someone who things grandly, acts boldly, and is unafraid of controversy. He must bring women down from the balcony and build mechitzas in the middle of a Shule, focus less on cantors and choirs and more on educational services that leave congregants spiritually enriched, allow women to give Dvar Torahs from the pulpit and encourage them to be as knowledgeable as men, invite gay Jewish men and women to come to Synagogue and tell them that amid their lifestyle there are 611 of G0d’s mitzvos left to keep. He must inspire Jewish students to courageously fight for Israel on campus and walk through Universities with Yarmulkes proudly displayed. Eschewing any desire to be a knight or a Lord, he must be prepared to criticize and condemn British officialdom when it turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism and call out British policy and press when it lopsidedly favors tyrants and terrorists. He is not part of the establishment but a thorn in its side. He lives not on the fence but on the side of those who take sides.
Steve Jobs argued that Apple’s success came from “from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.” Above all the next Chief Rabbi must get Angl0-Jewry to stop its tendency to self-immolation with petty squabbles and civil conflict. He must dismiss forever the offensive ban on orthodox Rabbis sharing platforms with reform colleagues and unify the community by showing respect to our non-orthodox brothers even as he argues that unity is best founded on a single denominator of Jewish identity and status.
Shmuley Boteach served as Rabbi to the students of Oxford University for 11 years and was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium. The international best-selling author of 26 books, Newsweek calls him ‘the most famous Rabbi in America.’ His website is www.shmuley.com