LONDON — Increased transparency and the inclusion of women’s voices will be cornerstones of the process that Orthodox leaders in Britain have devised to find a replacement for the country’s longtime chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, who will step down in September 2013.
Stephen Pack, the president of the United Synagogue, the governing body for 130 Orthodox Jewish communities in Britain, said at a news conference earlier this month that he hopes a new chief rabbi will be found by next September, allowing for a “period of orderly handover.”
Amid speculation that Rabbi Sacks’ successor may come from overseas, Pack also said the search committee for the first time would advertise for the position.
Although the formal search has yet to begin, Pack said that more than a dozen names already comprise an informal shortlist of recommended rabbis. Only about half are Britons.
“If you haven’t advertised, you will find it difficult to say that you’ve done a proper trawl through the U.K.,” Pack said. “That’s the kind of banana-skin moment we’re trying to avoid.”
Rabbi Sacks has been Britain’s chief rabbi since 1991 and has used the position to wield tremendous influence over the Jewish world and beyond. A prolific author and frequent commentator on the BBC, he is among the country’s most recognizable and respected religious figures.
He has widened his influence beyond the British Jewish community, authoring a popular translation of the traditional Orthodox prayer book that has been enthusiastically adopted by many communities around the world. Within the United Kingdom, Rabbi Sacks’ tenure has been marked by a commitment to interfaith efforts and the renewal of community life.
But his two decades at the helm haven’t been without controversy. Rabbi Sacks took over pledging an era of inclusivity, writing in a 1991 book that Orthodox Jews need to attach “positive significance” to the role that liberal Jewish streams have had in keeping identity and practice alive for many Jews.
But several incidents called that commitment into question. In 1997, he withdrew from a memorial service for Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Reform leader and Holocaust survivor, after protests from the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Subsequently it was revealed that in a response to the head of the union, Rabbi Sacks said Rabbi Gryn was “among those who destroy the faith.” Rabbi Sacks also referred to himself as an “enemy” of non-Orthodox movements.
That incident and others have led some to argue the office of the chief rabbi is unnecessary and that Rabbi Sacks should be its last occupant. Liberal Jewish leaders have complained that as an Orthodox figure, the chief rabbi is not truly representative of British Jewry.
“The chief rabbinate has run its course, and an alternative form of leadership is called for which recognizes the plurality of the community,” wrote Meir Persoff, an expert on Britain’s chief rabbinate, in a book titled Another Way, Another Time?
The first formal event of the selection process will occur next month, when a representative group of about 300 leaders from United Synagogue member communities, as well as delegates from other centrist Orthodox, will convene in London. That group will be asked to sign off on the job description and personal characteristics sought by United Synagogue for the next chief rabbi.
No such group has ever been established to choose a chief rabbi. Other procedural changes Pack announced include the mandated inclusion of women – each synagogue will be represented by its chairman as well as a female member of the board.
Pack said the next chief rabbi may redefine the role somewhat but will not fundamentally change the position.