Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Celebrating the arrival of a new Chief Rabbi. For the sake of argument.

According to broadcaster Vanessa Feltz, ‘if you put a Jewish person on a desert island, that person will construct two synagogues, not one, and you’ll say “but you’re a lone inhabitant of this desert island, why do you need two synagogues?”, and the answer is “so that I have one not to go to.”’

She made the comment in an excellent programme this morning on BBC Radio 4, ‘What’s the point in the Chief Rabbi?’ The question is topical because Lord Jonathan Sacks, the current Chief Rabbi of the UK, is about to retire.

Jonathan Sacks – Lord Sacks – on the right,
with another religious leader.
Sacks, never very retiring, has chosen retirement
Not that the holder of the post is the Chief of the whole Jewish Community. His title is ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth’ and those ‘united Hebrew Congregations’ are the orthodox strands within British and Commonwealth Jewry representing, according to the source you listen to, a bare majority or a very large minority of the entire Community.

So the Feltz story, like most Jewish jokes, expresses an important truth. Around half the community are happy to be represented by the Chief Rabbi; the other half, whether ultra-Orthodox, reformed or frankly free-thinking, feel he has no right to speak for us. Each group worships at one synagogue, and avoids the other with disdain.

And yet the Chief Rabbi somehow presides over us all. In fact, not just over the Jewish Community. I was fascinated to discover from the programme, that Edward VII, one of our most philosemitic Kings, used to talk about ‘my Chief Rabbi.’ I never set foot in a synagogue unless asked for a wedding or funeral, and yet it’s true that I see the head of the orthodox congregations as in some sense the spokesperson of a community I belong to, at least as much as Edward VII did.

I suspect I might feel that way even if I had not a drop of Jewish blood in my veins (after all, Edward VII didn’t). In much the same way, a large number of British Jews see the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of ‘our’ Christian Church.

Having said that, my identification with the Chief Rabbi is of a special kind. Again, it was Feltz who got it right: ‘what one needs in a Chief Rabbi is someone to take a stand with which one can then disagree.’ Now, that’s a sentiment to which I’d happily raise a glass. A glass that would, no doubt, lubricate a lively and entertaining argument.

In any case, in a more important sense, it doesn
’t matter what one feels about the post of Chief Rabbi, or about either the present or the next holder of the post. There is in any case some pleasure in feeling that the Community as a whole, with its contradictions and its schisms, has been able to build itself institutions in this country that seem to work and that satisfy those who identify with their leader as much as those who oppose him. It’s even more encouraging that the country as a whole seems to have embraced those institutions and made them part of its fabric.

That’s a long way to have come. In 1190, the Jewish community of York was massacred in Clifford’s Tower. Jews were excluded from England until Cromwell let them back in the seventeenth century. In the mid-twentieth century, many powerful circles in Britain were shot through with anti-Semitism and, indeed, Nazi sympathies.

Anti-Semitism hasn’t gone but it’s certainly receded to nearly insignificant levels. The election of the new Chief Rabbi is consequently something to celebrate, even for those like me who have so little in common with him. 

So, Ephraim Mirvis, my warmest congratulations on your appointment as Chief Rabbi. To be followed, no doubt, by your elevation to our Upper House of Parliament as Lord Mirvis. A fine tribute to the assimilation of a formerly persecuted, immigrant minority.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Next in line


Awoogamuffin said...

I know I can never convince you to try "Beyond Belief", the radio 4 program about faith, but I thoroughly enjoyed their episode on Jewish identity

It's the episode for the 5th of September, 2011.

That episode gave me a decent understanding of the divisions you're talking about

David Beeson said...

Not a question of not being able to convince -merely a matter of time. But I'll listen to that one at least.