A racist chief rabbi will threaten Israel’s ties with U.S. and U.K. Jews

Ha’aretz 7/9/13

The past few weeks have been a time of great transition for the Modern Orthodox world. In the United Kingdom, the retiring chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, published his goodbye message. In the United States, Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, stepped down after acknowledging his failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse against YU rabbis in the 1980s. He published his goodbye letter last week. In Israel, the national-religious community revived its fight to elect Israel’s next chief rabbis, with Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu apparently garnering the support of most Habayit Hayehudi Knesset members.

These three communities have so much in common that they are often mistaken as the same. If you were to draw a Venn diagram, the Modern Orthodox communities of the United Kingdom and United States, and the national-religious community in Israel would greatly overlap. The common thread that combines them, however, is at risk of snapping if Eliyahu is indeed elected to become Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi. His election, supported by the national-religious community, would demonstrate a fundamental rejection of both of the ideologies that the U.K. and U.S. Modern Orthodox communities hold dear. To understand how, we must look at what drives each of these communities.

Modern Orthodox mensches

Though a diverse crowd, if one had to find the defining concept at the heart of Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox (but not ultra-Orthodox) community, it would be “Derech eretz kadma la’Torah.” This was the lesson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the late 19th Century rabbi in Germany, and roughly translates to manners (or behaving well) proceeds the Torah. Being polite, or, using the Yiddish term, being a mensch, is a necessary prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. The literal translation of the term is “the ways of the land come before the Torah.” Understanding what it is to be an upstanding member of society comes part in parcel of being a G-d-fearing Jew.

This ideology can be seen in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writings and particularly in his last publication, “A Judaism Engaged in the World.” Critiquing both assimilation and segregation of the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks makes a passionate case for an Orthodox community that can fulfill its mission as a light unto the nations.

Sanctify the secular

In the United States, the ideology behind Modern Orthodoxy is Torah Umaddah, Torah and secular knowledge. Embodied by Yeshiva University, its great figure was Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, commonly known as The Rav. The belief that one could enhance their understanding of the Torah through the study of secular knowledge alongside that of the Torah is at the heart of Yeshiva University and all of its rabbinical graduates.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, perhaps the leader of this ideology today, spoke about the need to sanctify the secular and understand the liminal space between the secular and the holy. Life is complex for Modern-Orthodox Jews, but worth living.

Serve G-d and the state

The national-religious community in Israel focuses on serving G-d and the state. When I was in Hesder Yeshiva in Israel, I was told that for Jews from abroad there was the Rav (Rabbi Solovetichik). In Israel there was the Rov (Rabbi Abraham Ha’Cohen Kook). Rav Kook’s ideology of the holiness of the land, the concept of redemption through the state, and G-d’s will happening through those who are not religious are some of the main concepts behind the national religious. The religious Zionism he championed can best be summed up in the B’nei Akiva slogan, “Torah Ve’avoda,” roughly translated as “Torah and work.” In the 1920’s this work was on kibbutzim, but today can be seen as contributing to the state.

The knitted kippa-wearing public of all three communities all share parts of each other’s foundations. At 18 years old, Modern Orthodox Jews from the United Kingdom and United States go to Israel for their gap years and often study in yeshiva or seminary. Religious olim bring to Israel the values and ideologies of their home communities. British rabbinical students attend Yeshiva University and the chief rabbi is a revered figure in the United States. The endorsed figures for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, however, could present significant challenges to the interconnections of these communities.

Rabbi David Stav shares many of the values and understandings as members of both the British and American Modern Orthodox communities. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, shares few – if any.

His legacy of racism and incitement to violence stands as an anathema to the values of what are the two sister communities in the Diaspora. If elected, he should not be welcomed nor hosted in any Modern Orthodox community abroad. It truly would be a stain on the values of the Modern Orthodox and the national religious for him to be selected.

The progressive streams of Judaism have made their voices heard when it has come to the Women of the Wall protests and successes. The ultra-Orthodox have marched in New York against reforming the Tal law. Now, Modern Orthodox Jews of the Diaspora need to make it clear that a racist chief rabbi of Israel will not be accepted or welcomed anywhere.

The British Chief Rabbi – Right choice began at home

The Jewish Chronicle 3/1/13 

After months of leaks, rumours, deadlock and a search that spanned the globe, the committee to find the next chief rabbi picked Ephraim Mirvis of Kinloss. He is a wonderful rabbi with one of Britain’s most prominent pulpits and he is someone that most in the Orthodox community knew all along was the correct candidate for the job. With the support of the community, the right credentials and the relevant experience, why the song and dance before the decision was made?

The office of the chief rabbi has grown in stature over the years to the point that its incumbent serves as one of the leading representatives of the Jewish people globally. The longevity of the terms, accompanied by the official title of “Chief” give the holder the ability to impact the national debate in the UK and help shape long-term communal planning. And the strategic location of London as a global media hub means that the chief rabbi has the ability to cross borders in a way that few other rabbinical figures can.

Yet while Lord Sacks has global appeal, this is not his primary function, and it was misplaced of the committee to seek a Jewish ambassador to the world rather than a designated head of the UK’s Orthodox establishment. While the personalities of previous occupants have allowed it to go beyond our borders, the office is and must stay fundamentally a local one. Anglo-Jewry has its own problems, ones which can only be solved by someone who understands the community. Parachuting in an American or Israeli candidate, as was apparently mooted, would not merely have appeared odd – imagine the accent on Thought for the Day – but would have meant someone with no local credibility trying to solve local challenges.

The UK is suffering from a major Jewish brain drain. Our returning yeshiva students go to Yeshiva University or to Israel for training, while our greatest export, Limmud, continues to befuddle the United Synagogue. Someone with establishment credentials is needed to tune the rabbinical leadership to the future of mass Jewish popular education.

So why did the selection committee spend so much time looking abroad? As a Brit based in the US, I am often struck by the rock star status that Lord Sacks enjoys on this side of the pond. In communities far more traditional and strict than the ones he is directly responsible for, there is no talk of the controversies of The Dignity of Difference, only effusive praise for how his weekly sermons mix secular learning with rabbinical tradition.

The selection committee sought like for like. They attempted to pull in a leader from American modern Orthodoxy, giving the international Jewish press a titillating rumour to play with and leaving most British Jews bemused. The community, by and large, knew who it wanted and needed to answer the challenges. Republican American rabbis with royal rabbinical names carry less weight with a community that does not like its pulpits used for political purposes.

In the end common sense triumphed and the right man won. The proof of this can be seen in the muted global response to Rabbi Mirvis’s selection. It was a British appointment for a British position.

Rabbi Mirvis may well build himself into a global figure in the same manner as his predecessor. Meanwhile, he inherits a community he knows intimately, one facing major questions he is more than familiar with. His shul has been a leader in Jewish learning, and recently hired the US’s first female halachic advisor. Innovative on the local level, his task will be to nurture the same ideas nationally.