Monday, December 12, 2005

TWAJ: The Chief Rabbi

This weekend was a momentous one for the Pinner community. Rabbi G was celebrating his 60th birthday and 30th anniversary of being our rov. His whole family were there, and gave a hilarious speech in the form of a poem, the highlights including his love of SatNav and chocolate. Also in attendance was the Chief Rabbi. Now before I get into my rant, I want to put a disclaimer here. I've met him several times, he's a nice guy (despite being an Arsenal supporter), and I don't want to annoy my friends E & G, whose flapjacks I am very fond of. So please interpret any criticism that follows as being of the position rather than the man.

So what is the post, what does the community think it is, what do I want it to be, and is the incumbent the right man for the job - or rather, perhaps, is the job is right for the man?

The history of the role is long, stretching back over three centuries, but the short version is that it evolved as the community did. As it grew from one central shul, the Great Synagogue in London, into a conglomerate of shuls formalised in 1870 by Act of Parliament as the United Synagogue (US). The London Beth Din, which is effectively the Chief Rabbi's court, sits as the religious authority within this framework, thus providing its guidance to the 1/3 of Anglo-Jewry who belong to US shuls and probably about another 1/3 who tend towards the Orthodox line.

Certainly in the eyes of the government and the public, the Chief Rabbi - both the post and this particular incumbent - seem to be seen as representing the community at large, such is the respect commanded. But what is he actually for? The Beth Din have ruthlessly exercised editorial rights over his otherwise excellent and thought-provoking publications. The OCR appears to be run by a battleaxe who keeps a tight rein on his diary, recently almost denying an opportunity for the hoi polloi in the communities to hear him speak in person because of his busy schedule - luckily he was happy to oblige and spoke anyway.

We - and the regular rabbonim - look up to the Chief Rabbi for our spiritual and perhaps moral guidance. He has a CV as long as Peter Crouch's legs, supreme intellect, great oratory skills and a moral compass that points true but for the magnetic pull to the right caused by the dayanim.

But is he delivering?

Nearly 15 years on from taking up the post, he has written many books, delivered powerful speeches, and published some insightful position papers, but what has really changed? Much indeed has, but how much of it is because of the influence of the Big Three institutions of Anglo-Jewry (Board of Deputies, United Synagogue and UJIA)? I would argue that we have moved from spending far too much time whingeing about how terrible it all is, to facing up to our problems (and the Chief was a vital driver of the whole Renewal thing), to a new sense of complacency and self-congratulation for what we have achieved.

A prime example is the opening of Jewish primary schools. The Chief recently credited the community for this wonderful achievement and said it showed our emphasis on education as the foundation of the fabric of our faith. No denying that, but it seems to me to be critical that he is honest about the drivers of this. The reality is that we should be rightly credited for taking advantage of a situation by harnessing resources and expertise, but we should not be seeking to take credit for creating the situation. Ask the parents of those primary school children whether they send their kids to a Jewish school because of the shared values espoused or because the local multi-faith state alternative is crap and the private schools too expensive.

This may sound like a semantic, nit-picking argument, but for me, this kind of behaviour lies at the heart of why I believe the man is trapped by his post. Understanding and acknowledging that we cleverly met demand by giving supply, rather than portraying the situation as a dynamic and innovative community providing supply and creating demand, is crucial to beating the complacent leadership of the Big Three and building on the fortuitous foundation we have ended up with for the next generation of Anglo-Jewry. This is a microcosm of the issues faced across the board.

In his sermon at shul this week, the Chief told a story about value and worth. He spoke of an incredibly rich man who was asked how much he was worth. He answered with a figure that was a small fraction of what he was known to own and earn. When asked why, he replied that the figure he had given was his donation to charity, because he can only judge himself to be worth what he shared with others.

Funnily enough, that is exactly how I feel about the Chief Rabbi. His main interests are arguably intellectual, moral and philosophical rather than religious. Those who are privy to his off-record views tell me that he is much more inclined to my kind of honesty and objectivity, and that it spurs him into coming up with radical and innovative ideas - that are immediately squashed by his minders back in the office.

So I think that if we want to see the best of our Chief Rabbi, he needs to recognise that to most of us, he too is only worth what he shares. To really extract this value, he may need to leave the post, or we as his constituents need to militate to separate the OCR from the Beth Din and perhaps even the US, to give him the autonomy he needs to provide a meaningful leadership.

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