Who will pick the new Chief Rabbi?


The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY SI­MON ROCKER

IF HACK­ING were legal, then the Black­Berry of Stephen Pack, the United Synagogue’s new pres­i­dent, would be a prime tar­get for those want­ing in­side knowl­edge of An­glo-Jewish af­fairs.

It is he who now must lead the search to find the next chief rabbi af­ter Lord Sacks re­tires in Septem­ber 2013 — and even though the post has not yet been ad­ver­tised, the in­quiries are com­ing in.

“I’ve al­ready re­ceived emails from all over the world from po­ten­tial can­di­dates,” he said. “Some of them are very cred­i­ble. The list is get­ting longer.”

But be­fore any re­cruit­ment process starts, there are two is­sues to re­solve. What kind of chief rabbi should the next one be? And how should he be cho­sen?

Broadly speak­ing, the job com­bines two dif­fer­ent roles. One is am­bas­sador of Ju­daism to the out­side world; the other is “rabbi of rab­bis”, the se­nior rabbi of the United Synagogue and other cen­tral Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties. While the roles are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, the ques­tion is which will be given greater em­pha­sis.

So far, the ap­peal of the rab­bis’ rabbi seems to be gain­ing ground, ac­cord­ing to early in­di­ca­tions from a con­sul­ta­tion of synagogue lead­ers and var­i­ous in­ter­est groups com­mis­sioned by the Chief Rab­binate Trust, the char­ity re­spon­si­ble for the Chief Rabbi’s Of­fice.

While Lord Sacks has dom­i­nated the re­li­gious stage na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, there is sup­port for a more parochially-fo­cused suc­ces­sor, a rabbi who will be seen as more of a spokesman for cen­tral Or­tho­doxy than Jewry as a whole, who will act as a men­tor to rab­bis and be more closely in­volved in the work­ings of the US, par­tic­u­larly the Lon­don Beth Din.

In the­ory, con­sti­tu­tion­ally, the chief rabbi is the supreme au­thor­ity of the United Synagogue, and the Beth Din is there to ad­vise him. In prac­tice, it is the Beth Din that has been seen in­creas­ingly to call the re­li­gious shots, and the cur­rent Chief Rabbi has been ac­cused of yield­ing too much ground to it.

While the Beth Din may have the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise on ri­tual mat­ters such as kashrut or eruvs, some be­lieve that the chief rabbi should ex­ert much greater in­flu­ence when it comes to mak­ing pol­icy, for ex­am­ple on rab­bis go­ing to Lim­mud, or women hold­ing of­fice in the US.

One of the ar­gu­ments for an elected chief rabbi is that it would give the holder of the of­fice a pop­u­lar man­date for set­ting the re­li­gious direc­tion of the US – al­though the Beth Din, of course, would con- tinue to as­sert that it is rab­binic prece­dent, not democ­racy, that de­ter­mines Jewish law.

Mr Pack, while he could see the at­trac­tion of an elec­tion — and was elected him­self — was not “wed­ded to the idea”, how­ever. Choos­ing a chief rabbi is “quite a long and com­plex ex­er­cise,” he said.

“I can’t see how peo­ple can make an ed­u­cated de­ci­sion. They would go on the ba­sis of gut feel­ing and pub­lic­ity.” But he added: “I do not want to rule an elec­tion out.”

His pref­er­ence was to ap­point a small work­ing group of around seven peo­ple who would draw up a short­list and in­ter­view the can­di­dates. Their rec­om­men­da­tion would be then sub­mit­ted for ap­proval to a larger rep­re­sen­ta­tive group of around 30, made up of del­e­gates from var­i­ous con­stituen­cies un­der the aegis of the chief rabbi, but also pos­si­bly from out­side. Mr Pack pro­poses to chair both groups him­self.

When Lord Sacks was ap­pointed, the de­ci­sion was taken by a body known as the Chief Rab­binate Coun­cil, com­posed of around 200 mem­bers al­though a smaller se­lec­tion com­mit­tee of 35 was set up to rec­om­mend a name.

The coun­cil was su­per­seded in 2002 by the much smaller Chief Rab­binate Trust, com­pris­ing three United Synagogue of­fi­cers, three other trustees nom­i­nated by the US and three trustees rep­re­sent­ing re­gional and other com­mu­ni­ties.

It is the trust that took over re­spon­si­bil­ity from the US for fund­ing the of­fice, which now costs around £800,000. The US cur­rently pays around £ 3 0 0 , 0 0 0 ; other rev­enue comes from mar­riage au­tho­risa-tion plus a small amount from other com­mu­ni­ties, while pri­vate donors con­trib­ute £300,000 a year.

The cre­ation of the trust gave the Chief Rabbi greater lee­way to raise money for his own projects rather than be so de­pen­dent on the United Synagogue, as in the past.

At any one time, there is a co­hort of about 40 donors, ex­plained the trust’s chair­man Peter Shel­don, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the US. But he re­jected any sug­ges­tion that this fund­ing ar­range­ment ties the Chief Rabbi too closely to his fi­nan­cial back­ers.

“There are peo­ple who do­nated money in the past who with­drew fund­ing be­cause of some­thing they didn’t like,” he said. “But the Chief Rabbi doesn’t change his pol­icy or his prin­ci­ples be­cause some­body says he doesn’t like it.”

But the fund­ing of the of­fice may well be a fac­tor in who next oc­cu­pies it. A chief rabbi who op­er­ates more nar­rowly within the am­bit of the United Synagogue will prob­a­bly be less costly to main­tain.

Re­tir­ing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks:

Stephen Pack: US man with a tough job

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