When Jonathan Sacks was installed as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations at the beginning of the decade, he was determined not to provoke the publicity and public criticism of his predecessor. Lord Jakobovits was always prepared to speak his mind on Likud’s Israel and to puncture the wall of silence erected by the massed ranks of Jewish leaders. Although Rabbi Sacks essentially agreed with Jakobovits’s approach, he felt that behind-the-scenes-diplomacy was far more effective. As consensus man, he would promote unity but not uniformity. The media would be used vigorously to project ideas not controversy. The reality of Anglo-Jewry in the 1990s proved otherwise. It is therefore ironic that Rabbi Sacks should have been brought low by the very policies he once vowed so passionately to avoid.
In 1990, one writer described him as ‘a religious Gorbachev’ — a figure trying to remain upright amidst the shifting sands of a disintegrating union. Like his Soviet counterpart, he may have attained authority too late to prevent the component parts of Anglo-Jewry going its own separate ways. The polarisation had gone too far. In addition, many of the United Synagogue rabbis, once categorised as middle of the road — had enthusiastically embraced a resurgent right wing where independence of thought, intellectual endeavour and acceptance of the integrity of one’s opponents were low down on the ladder of priorities. When Louis Jacobs, Chaim Pearl, Isaac Levy and others left the United Synagogue, moderation exited and few intelligent voices remained. Like the Soviet Union, the United Synagogue became a disparate amalgam of conflicting interests rather than a coalition of traditional tendencies. An urgent goal was to find an identity which would serve the needs of an increasingly insecure community. Jonathan Sacks was seen by many communal grandees — and saw himself — as the saviour whose talent and intellectual brilliance would retrieve a deteriorating situation.
Jonathan Sacks was ushered in on a wave of expectation that he would repair the damage and effectively recreate Anglo-Judaism. Whilst the lay leadership remained amorphously centrist, many of his rabbinical colleagues preached Judaism as an unthinking behaviourism and belittled those Jews who did not swim in the same stream. Under the cover of charisma, they projected a vaudeville Judaism where showmanship ruled supreme. Those whom they regarded as outside the boundaries of traditional Judaism were demonised — as Jonathan Sacks commented to Rabbi Padwa — ‘those who destroy the faith’. Significantly, the United Synagogue Rabbinate was collectively unable to endorse Jonathan Sacks’s participation in the Board of Deputies’ meeting to eulogise Hugo Gryn whilst its lay leadership strongly supported him.
The office of Chief Rabbi had thus become decidedly political. Initiating reforms could not be carried through without annoying someone. Instead of taking radical and unilateral action at the beginning of his term, he backed away in the hope that consensual politics would ultimately solve all problems — and such a consensus would be arrived at through diplomatic channels. Given the great divide between the readers of the Jewish Tribune and the heirs of Leo Baeck, it was a short step towards an espousal that a merited end was justified by unprincipled means. A spiritual leader had to be adept at wheeler-dealing. He had to speak in the languages that different groups understood. Like addressing communists who worshipped Soviet Russia, Jonathan Sacks adopted a culture that would be understood. Thus his caustic piece in the ultra-orthodox press which condemned Masorti was coated in a medieval veneer. Again with the Hugo Gryn memorial meeting, he believed that if he tuned into the right wavelength then he could avoid censure and avert a crisis. His trust in the haredim was misplaced. He believed that his letter to Padwa would be dealt with according to the rules of the game — that it was private and not for publication as stated. Despite the almost programmed support
from some United Synagogue stalwarts, the release of such a letter into the public domain will only further weaken that organisation, further polarise Anglo-Jewry — and ultimately the ultra-orthodox will gain from this state of affairs.
The dismay provoked by the publication in the Jewish Chronicle was in part due to the contradiction in the public mind between the saintliness of rabbinical calling and the underhand nature of political in-fighting. British Jews prefer to view their religious leaders as the lofty guardians of the Torah and not as sleazy politicians with tarnished ideals. Yet this unfortunately is the reality of the position to which Jonathan Sacks has committed himself in 1997. The goal of shalom bayit is a worthy one, but its attainment, given this scenario, involves the verbal acrobatics of a seasoned politician.
British Jews also have problems relating to a spiritual head who is a man of ideas. Despite the hype in the Times, his book ‘The Politics of Hope’ has set forth an incisive historical analysis of why society has plunged into the chaotic mess it now finds itself. Not everyone will agree with everything he writes, but the fact that a Jew basing himself on Jewish sources has the ability to present such a blueprint to British society is remarkable in itself. The Jewish Chronicle significantly confined its coverage to the books page. One repeated criticism is that ‘he has been Chief Rabbi to the goyim and not to the Jews’. Indeed, in his book he comes over as the quintessential Englishman, a fact welcomed by a multi-cultural British establishment and the Times. Yet the obverse is that a parochial Jewish community has never welcomed intellectuals and those who have the insight to utilise the Torah as their base for universal redemption even more so.
Rabbi Sacks attained office when a generational change took place in Anglo-Jewry — and this included the Jewish Chronicle. A new team pursued an independent investigative approach which distinguished it from its more subservient predecessors. In parallel with this, they were driven downmarket by the appearance of rivals in Britain and Israel which competed for a dwindling audience. The new capitalism of the 1990s ensured a greater emphasis on entertaining the readership. Thus sensationalist stories — and often non-stories — appeared on the front page to attract new readers. ‘The A – Z of Jewish Rock and Roll Stars’ was far more alluring to younger readers than stodgy features on Jewish history. One line of argument can place the decision to publish a private letter in this arena. Its publication amidst all the frenzied handwringing certainly sold more newspapers — and created more interest for the Jewish Chronicle in the media generally. Yet the decision in the final analysis should be seen as a correct one. It followed the paper’s line of challenging issues which would have been swept under the carpet in the past. Unlike Jonathan Sacks, the Jewish Chronicle kept to its radical agenda. The issue was not one of private morality, but one of public concern to the entire Jewish community.
Masorti, the Liberals and in part the Reform have ideologically never accepted the nature of the office. This incident has brought to the surface the impossibility of being Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations and being a spiritual leader for Anglo-Jewry at one and the same time. It has also dispelled much of the mythology associated with the office in the public mind. Jonathan Sacks’s motives may have been honourable, but the path he chose to realise them became tainted and unworthy with the result that trust has now become a disposable commodity in the political game. When the public fury has abated, a restructuring of how Anglo-Jewry operates will become inevitable. It will be driven by the reality of a shrinking community and the fact that the sum of the whole is more than its antagonistic pats. And the necessity for a single spiritual Leader will be quietly debated by those who have hitherto loyally supported the idea of an all-embracing Chief Rabbinate.
Judaism Today Spring 1997