Why America has no chief rabbi

Why America has no chief rabbi

The fight for Israel is the great Jewish battle of our time. The Jewish state has become the locus for all the irrational hatred felt for Jewry worldwide.

In defending Israel, we defend the future of our people and Jewish life itself. To fail to stand up for Israel is to suffer a spineless privation of Jewish pride.

Does a rabbi have any more important duty than rebutting the slander that Jews are murderers who live with corrupt values?

Those who believe that it is only lay leaders, not rabbis, who are responsible for responding to the likes of Roger Waters, who compares Israel to the Nazis, and only Middle East experts should respond to Stephen Hawking, the biggest name yet to join the BDS movement, make the mistake of believing that Judaism is only of the heavens and not of the earth. Rabbis should not dirty their hands by getting into a ring with those who malign us, they believe. Rabbis should avoid controversy and promote peace.

But saying that rabbis should not be at the vanguard of fighting anti-Semitism and the defamation of the Jewish state is an invitation for rabbis to become spiritually irrelevant communal mediocrities.

Last Shabbos my Englewood community hosted former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who also merited a cover story in this newspaper. He was scholar in residence at Congregation Ahavath Torah, which Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has built into a modern Orthodox superpower and easily one of the most successful synagogues in the world. Ahavath Torah is a community that bucks the trend of synagogue decline. It is bursting at the seams.

When I lived in the UK, Rabbi Sacks was my hero. I was and remain awed by his writings. A gifted communicator, Rabbi Sacks combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern understanding of social currents. I sought his counsel many times in my work in Oxford and was his foremost defender against calls for his resignation when he was viciously attacked for refusing to attend the funeral of Holocaust survivor Hugo Gryn because he had been a Reform rabbi.

But after I departed the UK and witnessed the growing tide of Israel-hatred in Britain I could no longer understand Rabbi Sacks’ unwillingness to combat the assault on the Jewish state. Worse still was “Prophet of Hope,” his 2002 interview in the Guardian, where he said that certain actions on the part of Israeli soldiers “on a daily basis” left him “profoundly shocked” and “uncomfortable as a Jew.” The Jerusalem Post called on Rabbi Sacks to resign.

Here lies the paradox of Rabbi Sacks’ career as chief rabbi, and why we in America have never been even remotely interested in appointing one.

While Rabbi Sacks’ stature rose, the UK community stagnated, shriveled, and diminished under his leadership. Indeed, the paradox of his leadership is how, although Britain was privileged with arguably the most effective Jewish apologist of our generation, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment exploded to frightening proportions under his watch.

Some examples include the astonishing 2009 British High Court ruling that the Orthodox community had no right to determine membership in its community, the arrest warrant a British court issued against Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the mandate that produce from the west bank had to be labeled as coming from the occupied territories, and the British academic establishment’s ban on Israeli academics at their conferences. Worse of all is the loss of British campuses, a place where Jewish students often are afraid to even wear yarmulkes. Rabbi Sacks reluctantly acknowledged that in 2008, when he said: “We hope that university vice chancellors will recognize the feeling of vulnerability that Jewish students have expressed at many university campuses. Part of the essence of a university is that everyone enters in an atmosphere in which they are accepted.”

And this ignores the shocking number of physical attacks against Jews in the British Isles.

How could such an outpouring of anti-Jewish emotion erupt while Rabbi Sacks had unfettered access to the airwaves and campuses? He refused to engage these haters. A chief rabbi is a member of the establishment, and establishment figures – seeking respectability above all else – try to avoid controversy and confrontation. That is why we in America have never bothered with the stifling office of chief rabbi, preferring to follow the American example of the rabbinate as a meritocracy, with capable leaders rising to the top rather than being appointed.

That Rabbi Sacks did not take to the BBC to say definitively that the portrayal of Israel in the British media is for the most part foul and biased will forever remain one of the great failures of his tenure. That he did not speak out at his alma mater, Cambridge, even when Stephen Hawking, in his ignorance, joined BDS, forever will taint his legacy.

The central quality of leadership is not eloquence but moral courage. Moses was a stutterer who became a leader when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster savagely beating a Jew. Though Moses was a member of the Egyptian establishment he spoke truth to power and allied himself with his people, even though it meant being rejected by the Egyptian House of Lords. The British dismissed Winston Churchill as a drunk and a crank for sounding the alarm against Hitler, but his steadfastness in combating evil is what saved Western civilization.

Jonathan Sacks will be remembered as one of Judaism’s most eloquent spokesmen, who prospered as chief rabbi while his community weakened and regressed.