New Chief Rabbi faces ‘impossible task’

New Chief Rabbi faces ‘impossible task’

Ephraim Mirivis and wife Valerie.
Ephraim Mirivis and wife Valerie.

The new Chief Rabbi takes up a role described by academics as “incredibly difficult.”

Lord Jonathan Sacks  (right) congratulates his successor.
Lord Jonathan Sacks (right) congratulates his successor.

As head of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis will be in demand as an apparent figurehead of the Jewish community in the UK – despite the fact that an estimated 45 percent of British Jews do not recognise him as their spiritual leader.

But in strict terms, the post is of Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, a group known as “mainstream orthodox” which represents around 55 percent of the British Jewish community.

His position means he will have to take into account other groups within Judaism, such as the fast-growing ultra orthodox community and the reform and liberal wings of Judaism.

The 2011 Census for England and Wales showed that 363,000 people identified themselves as of the Jewish faith, a rise of 3,000 over the last decade.

Around two thirds of the British Jewish community live in London. Outside the capital other major centres include Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool and Gateshead.

Dr Yaakov Wise, an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Jewish Studies at Manchester University, said the incoming Chief Rabbi would have to deal with “internal” issues such as high rates of assimilation and marriage out of the Jewish faith.

He will be faced with external factors such as the rise of militant secularism and anti-semitism in the UK and Europe, he added.

“All Chief Rabbis have an impossible task, difficult is not a strong enough word to describe it because they are seen by the non-Jewish world as the spiritual leader of Anglo Jewry,” he said.

“They are public figures, a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.

“But the Chief Rabbi is only head of 55% of the population so he has to negotiate and influence people. Rather than automatic respect and admiration, he has got to earn it. People are less deferential now.”

Dr Wise said Rabbi Mirvis’ previous post as Chief Rabbi of Ireland would stand him in good stead in his new post. He has also been senior rabbi at Finchley United Synagogue, one of the biggest united synagogues in Great Britain.

“He was Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Ireland has a tiny Jewish population, it is only a couple of thousand, but he had to do all the things that a Chief Rabbi of Britain would do,” he said.

“He has also been Chief Rabbi in Finchley United synagogue which is one of the biggest united synagogues in Great Britain, apparently he has done remarkably well there.”

Dr Miri Freud-Kandel, a lecturer in modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew andJewish Studies, said the outgoing Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, achieved a status of the “most palatable” religious voice in Britain after 22 years in post through his writing and public speaking.

“He has acquired a moral and religious voice for himself which has come in many respects to be the most palatable religious voice in Britain, in ways that a lot of Anglican clerics have failed to do,” she said.

“This raises one of the issues that Rabbi Mirvis is going to have to deal with which is how on earth he advances in the shadow of Lord Sacks.”

But she said she believed the post of Chief Rabbi was an “impossible” one.

“My personal opinion is that the Chief Rabbinate is an impossible post whose coherence and usefulness is very much up for question,” she said.

“There is a benefit to having religious representatives of the Jewish community without a shadow of doubt but the role of Chief Rabbi by its nature diminishes the authority of other rabbis because it is very hierarchical.”

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