In my eleven years living in England I often observed, as did
many others, that Anglo-Jewry lacked the vibrancy and innovation
characteristic of American Judaism. The absence of an electrifying sense
of Jewishness and communal dynamism was a subject much discussed among
the Anglo-Jewish leadership. In areas like per capita philanthropy and
social services, Anglo-Jewry led the world. But in communal programming
and affiliation it was hemorrhaging numbers at an alarming rate.

said that Anglo-Jewry’s relatively small number accounted for fewer
truly original ideas. Others spoke of the natural reticence and
lower-key disposition of the English in general and Anglo-Jewry in

In truth the principal reason for the stagnant state of Anglo-Jewry
relative to its American counterpart lay elsewhere. Anglo-Jewry is
profoundly hierarchical while American Jewry is profoundly meritocratic.
Britain, for example, has a Chief Rabbi who is the community’s titular
head and Ambassador to the wider community while in America a rabbi’s
standing is judged not by any communal appointment or particular title
but by effort and impact alone. The absence of a communal hierarchy
means that individual Rabbis and communal leaders can innovate and try
new and transformative programming without having to fit into an
existing infrastructure of control or thought.

In both countries it is interesting to note that its two most
successful ideas over the past two decades – Limmud in the UK and
Birthright in the United States – originated with activists who were
working outside the main organs of the established community. And that’s
because giant bureaucracies often stifle originality. But in the UK
where the bureaucracy affects the most important leaders of all – its
spiritual guides – it is extremely challenging for Rabbis to go up
against the spiritual status quo.

We see the same problem manifesting itself in Israel where Rabbinical
innovation is strongly limited by the hierarchical demands of an
established Chief Rabbinate. In effect a Rabbi is made to feel that
someone is watching over him at all times. Being an impactful leader
requires the freedom to maneuver and innovate. But wherever there is a
Chief Rabbinate there is strong pressure to fit in and conform. And I
only partially buy the argument that having an orthodox Chief Rabbinate
helps to solidify orthodoxy as the community’s main and established
current. In the final analysis, an ossified orthodoxy that retains
hegemony by communal fiat will always feel oppressive and invite
rebellion, whereas an orthodoxy that is alive and pulsating will rise to
the fore naturally and be embraced organically. In America there is no
orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Yet few would argue that orthodoxy is now the
community’s most potent, effective, and vibrant force. And it became
that way without being artificially propped up.

There is more.

Having a Chief Rabbi assumes community cohesion in name rather than
fact. Whoever, therefore, occupies the position is immediately
compromised by having to be all things to all people. In the United
Kingdom, the community is bitterly divided between orthodox and
non-orthodox. One of the things I found most distasteful about being an
orthodox Rabbi in the UK were the constraints put on me from working
publicly with my conservative and reform brethren on matters of great
communal concern. In the United States it would be unthinkable for an
orthodox Rabbi to be prevented from working, say, to defend Israel on
campus with his reform counterparts. But in the UK sharing a public
platform with the non-orthodox clergy is sacrilege. This prohibition
served in no small measure to sow unlimited enmity between reform and
orthodox Jews even in areas where there should be clear unity and
agreement. The most famous example was when we orthodox Rabbis were
prevented from attending the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a holocaust
survivor and Britain’s most celebrated reform Rabbi. Is it not better
for orthodox Rabbis to use halacha, Jewish law, as their guide rather
than rigid communal orthodoxies? And can you imagine any halacha that
would forbid a Rabbi, of all people, from burying another Jew?

The limitations of having a Chief Rabbinate explains a paradox of
British Jewry under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. On the one
hand, Sacks is universally admired as one of the original Jewish
thinkers of our time. A gifted communicator in both the written and
spoken word, Sacks combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern
understanding of contemporary events and social currents. Yet, the UK
community has stagnated and shriveled under his leadership. Indeed, the
paradox of Sacks’ Chief Rabbinate is how, amid Britain being privileged
with arguably the most effective Jewish apologist of our generation,
anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has exploded under his watch as
never before. Some of the highlights include the British High Court
ruling, unbelievably, that the orthodox community has no right to
determine whom the members of its own community are, the arrest warrant
issued against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni by a British
court, the decree that produce from the West Bank had to labeled as
having been grown by Jewish settlers, and the ban by the British
academic establishment of Israeli academics at their conferences. How
could such an outpouring of anti-Jewish emotion erupt under Sacks’? The
answer is that in many of these cases Sacks only tangentially engaged
himself. A Chief Rabbi is a member of the establishment and
establishment figures – seeking respectability above all else – usually
seek to avoid confrontation.

The closest thing America ever had to a Chief Rabbi was Stephen S.
Wise who chose to be very guarded and tightlipped during the holocaust,
shirking from nearly every political confrontation with his close friend
Franklin Roosevelt. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a
brilliant documentary about his tragic reticence entitled ‘Against the
Tide,’ which serves as a moving and cautionary tale of the Jewish
community ever concentrating too much power in a single, establishment

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values
Network and has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough.’ Follow him on
Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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