The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page -

IN 2013, a new chief rabbi will be ap­pointed. He has a tough act to fol­low. Lord Sacks is not uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar — who is? — but what­ever dis­agree­ments he may have prompted within An­glo-Jewry by his var­i­ous ac­tions and in­ac­tions, he has be­come a tow­er­ing fig­ure within our nation. Al­most alone among re­li­gious lead­ers, he com­mands re­spect across all be­liefs and none.

But in that very first sen­tence lies the cause of Lord Sacks’s prob­lems and the seeds of those of the next chief rabbi. And the cause is the word ap­pointed.

Lord Sacks has never had a man­date of any sort to do any­thing, for good or bad. His suc­cesses have been a prod­uct not of his of­fice but of his in­tel­lect and per­son­al­ity. But in his ca­pac­ity as chief rabbi he was sim­ply the ap­pointee of a self-se­lect­ing, self­ap­pointed and en­tirely se­cret un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive clique within the United Synagogue.

As such, when­ever he has faced con­flict with the Beth Din — over, for in­stance, his book The Dig­nity of Dif­fer­ence — the Chief Rabbi has, to be blunt, been forced to do as he has been told. The method of his ar­rival in the post was the equiv­a­lent of sur­gi­cally re­mov­ing any lead­er­ship back­bone he might once have had.

Do we re­ally want to re­peat this story once again, with a dif­fer­ent cast of char­ac­ters but ex­actly the same re­sult — a chief rabbi pre­vented from the very start from show­ing lead­er­ship be­cause he is be­holden to a clique?

There is an al­ter­na­tive. In­stead of the emer­gence of a new chief rabbi through ap­point­ment, let him be elected. At a stroke, all the prob­lems which be­set Lord Sacks would be re­moved. His ac­tions would be his ac­tions, not those of a leader for­ever ob­li­gated to oth­ers. He will make mis­takes; but they will be his mis­takes, for which he will want to take full re­spon­si­bil­ity. And he will have a man­date, hav­ing been elected to the job. A leader with a man­date is in­deed a leader. An ap­pointee is just that.

But there is more to it than just the chief rabbi. The JC has been can­vass­ing opin­ion on this is­sue ever since Lord Sacks an­nounced his de­par­ture. The de­mand for an elec­tion is over­whelm­ing from synagogue mem­bers. They want a say, and they can­not see a good rea­son not to have a say.

There will need to be is­sues ironed out — first past the post or al­ter­na­tive vote, for in­stance; one round or two — but these are in­ci­den­tal to the prin­ci­ple.

So too the spu­ri­ous ob­jec­tion that there is no clar­ity on just who should be able to vote. Cer­tainly there is a use­ful de­bate to be had over the role of the chief rabbi, and whether it is right that he is sim­ply the chief rabbi of the United Synagogue. But whether he should be elected solely by United mem­bers, or by Fed­er­a­tion mem­bers too, or by the widest pos­si­ble fran­chise of Ortho­dox Jews, is again an in­ci­den­tal mat­ter which can be agreed.

It is sim­ply wrong that in the 21st cen­tury Bri­tish Jews can se­ri­ously be ex­pected to ac­qui­esce in the next chief rabbi’s ap­point­ment by a co­terie of se­cret in­sid­ers. The Is­raelis do not. The Turks do not. The French do not. They all have dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of the role, and dif­fer­ent fran­chises. But they all elect their chief rabbi.

If the up­per ech­e­lons of the United Synagogue ac­cept that times have changed and move to an elec­tion, they will strike an im­por­tant blow and show that they have a se­ri­ous role to play as lead­ers of An­glo-Jewry. If they do not, they will demon­strate the ex­act op­po­site.

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