The current Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks is set to retire in 2013 and the hunt for a new one is heating up. I have always agreed with the age of dictum that states, “A rabbi is not a job for a good Jewish boy.”
As a former congregational rabbi, I understand this sentiment better than most. From Moses onwards rabbis have consistently been challenged by their communities and communal politics and strife goes with the territory. If this was true for me as a rabbi in my early twenties it is most certainly the case if you are the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain.
It therefore came as a surprise that Stephen Pack, the United Synagogue's new president, was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle saying that he has “already received emails from all over the world from potential candidates (for chief rabbi). Some of them are very credible.”
Then he added that “the list (of potential candidates) is getting longer." I was certain that no serious rabbinic scholar or religious leader would even consider applying for this position.
Clearly, however, for many rabbis the rabbinate is more of a career than a calling. Rabbis get paid large salaries with fantastic benefits and pensions. Together with that comes outsized influence and respectability. For many the pay package and other benefits makes the aggravation and the communal strife well worth it.
Looking at it from this perspective, it makes perfect sense for a rabbi to want to become a Chief Rabbi. But that is not the perspective a chief rabbi should have.
The current Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was and is a career rabbi. He is a brilliant man who has done a fantastic job as a writer, and as a broadcaster on both radio and television. He is a fabulous communicator of Judaism to both gentiles and Jews alike. He is also a very talented interpreter of the Torah and of general culture both political and societal.
But as a young communal rabbi in the UK from 2001-2005, I noticed a private consensus among many of my more established colleagues that Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cared more about his own image and personal ambitions than about the community or about the rabbis who served under his aegis.
Few rabbis, however, would admit this publicly out of fear that, if they showed public dissent, the chief rabbi may retaliate and find cause to withdraw their rabbinic license or end their rabbinic career in some other more subtle manner. In fact, it is personally that Jonathan Sacks has become most successful – he will leave office as a famous and influential writer and thinker with a seat in the House of Lords. Yet his actual communal accomplishments remain debatable.
The number one qualification for the future chief rabbi must be the ability to demonstrate true self-effacement and humility and therefore to place the needs of the community above his own ambitions and personal agendas. Unfortunately many who are drawn to the rabbinate as a career lack these qualities.
But for the sake of Anglo Jewry, the new chief rabbi cannot spend the next 20 to 30 years building up himself and his image. Rather, he must spend that time rebuilding the Jewish community.
Note, however, that a candidate who is capable of that task is not likely to be sending emails to the United Synagogue's new president, Stephen Pack, suggesting himself as a candidate for the job.
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