Searching for Britain's New Chief Rabbi: Locals Need Not Apply

British Jewry is getting animated over its choice of chief rabbi, with an American likely to land the role. Even Springfield's rabbi is drawing attention.

LONDON - In a bizarre case of life imitating satire, the only candidate for chief rabbi of the United Kingdom currently trending online is Hyman Krustofski, the much-beloved rabbi of Springfield and the estranged father of Krusty the Clown. Krustofski guest starred on "The Simpsons" and is voiced by the veteran Jewish comedian Jackie Mason. Now he has launched his campaign on Facebook and Twitter, letting it be known that becoming the spiritual leader of British Jews is a challenge worthy of leaving his present congregation and traveling across the Atlantic.

Krustofski is yet to be interviewed by the United Synagogue's search committee and remains an outside candidate, but it seems extremely likely that whomever eventually assumes the British rabbinical mantle will, like Krustofski, not be a British subject. For the first time in a century, British Jewry is planning to appoint a chief rabbi who is a stranger to its shores. (The United Synagogue is the British confederation of Orthodox communities, of which the chief rabbi is the religious leader.)

The two leading candidates for the post - to be vacated next year by the current chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks - are both American, after earlier attempts to attract an Israeli rabbi to take the post failed. Not that there has been a shortage of homegrown candidates - or at least candidates in their own eyes - but they have all been subtly disencouraged from seeking the job. This has disappointed not only local rabbis, yearning for the national platform and hefty salary that comes with the job, but also the betting fraternity within the community. Shortly after it was announced in December 2010 that Rabbi Sacks would be stepping down, bookmakers Paddy Power opened a book on the next chief rabbi, offering odds on various British rabbis who seemed the most likely bets. The book has since been suspended as none of the original candidates are considered to be in the running. However, you can still have a flutter on which cardinal will become the next pope (Francis Arinze of Nigeria is favorite at 15/8 ).

Earlier this year, there was much talk of an Israeli rabbi being offered the job. A preferred candidate was former minister, peace activist and part-time chief rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Michael Melchior. Others mentioned were Rabbi Benny Lau, who leads a successful community in central Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petah Tikva. While very different from each other in temperament and record, the three had one thing in common: All are leading lights of a more moderate brand of Israeli religious-Zionism and are outspoken critics of ultra-Orthodox tendencies within the Jewish religious world.

One key characteristic

For various reasons, they all declined the tentative approaches. Now, as the nominating process gathers steam, two Americans are regarded as front-runners: rabbi and law professor Michael Broyde; and Meir Soloveichik, cerebral scion of the most famous rabbinical dynasty in America and a young rising star in Manhattan. Once again, two candidates who share one key characteristic - as prominent voices of modern (dare we say it, liberal ) Orthodoxy.

The selection process of the new chief rabbi is more opaque than a papal conclave. Only eight persons sit on the "working group" of senior United Synagogue members selecting the preferred candidate, who will then be endorsed by a larger "consulting group," probably in early 2013 - a few months before Sacks is scheduled to leave in September. But sources close to the working group have confirmed that they are indeed looking for a foreign chief rabbi.

While recruiting a chief rabbi from Israel or the United States is standard procedure for most small Jewish communities around the world, for the last century British Jews have appointed rabbis who were either born in Britain (Jonathan Sacks, Israel Brodie ), or at least were educated and served there as congregation rabbis (Immanuel Jakobovits ).

The last complete foreigner to be appointed was Hungarian-born Joseph Hertz in 1913, who was educated and ordained in New York before serving as rabbi in Johannesburg. The number of British Jews has dwindled in recent decades to under 300,000, according to the official census, but the disinclination of the selection committee to consider a local rabbi is not necessarily a reflection on the paucity of numbers or candidates.

The media star Sacks will certainly be a hard act to follow in many respects, but there are a number of successful rabbis currently serving congregations in North London who could have done the job. But none of those British rabbis are sufficiently "modern" or are seen to have the stature and inclination to face down the reactionary London Beth Din (rabbinical court ).

This has long been seen as Sacks' main failing in his two decades in office. A scholarly, eloquent and open-minded man, Sacks exhibited many liberal traits before becoming chief rabbi. But in every showdown with the Beth Din, of which he is the nominal head, he has bowed down to the dayanim, all rabbis of much more rigid Orthodox beliefs. That has been the case in matters of conversion, education, relations between Orthodox and progressive Jews.

Many within the community, who would otherwise have lauded Sacks for becoming a popular spokesman for Jewish causes in the British national media, feel his term in office has been tainted by his inability to take on the more religious elements. These critics are well represented on the selection committee, and they are determined that his replacement will not shy away from confrontation.

This is one of the main reasons that Rabbi Broyde has emerged as the preferred candidate. He sits on the "Beth Din of America," a rabbinical court that, while operating on strictly Orthodox lines, is seen as more modern-minded than other Battei Din and could hopefully modernize the London court.

Historian Geoffrey Alderman, who is a veteran observer of religious and sociological trends within British Jewry, says he knows of one candidate who applied for the post of chief rabbi "and was told he was too orthodox." Prof. Alderman believes it is high time that the United Synagogue acted to curb their own religious court. "If they had any balls," he says, "they would simply restructure the Beth Din, but they haven't got the balls and the history of Jonathan Sacks' rabbinate has been the history of a man continually looking over his right shoulder for fear of the dayanim."

The election of the chief rabbi is not only a British affair. It emphasizes a wider fault line between communities and their rabbinical courts. Becoming a Dayan requires decades of Torah study. As a result, the great majority of candidates for the rabbinical bench have come from the Haredi community. Battei Din which rule on critical issues of marriage, divorce, paternity and conversion are often at loggerheads, not only with their less Orthodox constituents but very frequently with community rabbis on all levels, who are more attuned to the challenges of modern family life.

Only in recent years has there been a concerted effort by the more "modern" and Zionist circles within Orthodoxy to train dayanim better acquainted with life outside the Haredi bubble. This has naturally been met with stiff opposition from an ultra-Orthodox leadership anxious to safeguard both its hard-line halakhic domination and the well-paid positions which were once the exclusive preserve of well-connected Haredi rabbis (usually family relatives of ultra-Orthodox leaders ).

In Israel, where Shas and United Torah Judaism have more political clout than the modern-Orthodox and national-religious camps, this has usually meant they have prevailed and only a small number of more flexible dayanim have been appointed. The continuing ultra-Orthodox control of the Battei Din has also allowed the hard-liners to maintain their hold over the conversion process in Israel.

Since converts to Judaism who wish to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return must have their conversion ratified by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, this means Israeli Dayanim also exercise a degree of control over rabbinical courts overseas. If they do not confirm to Israeli-imposed guidelines, conversions they issue will not be recognized for Israeli citizenship.

The British dayanim have always toed the line set by the sages of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, rather than taking the lead of their nominal boss in London. Britain may not be a major center of Orthodox Jewry, but if an American modernizer is indeed given the opportunity of locking horns with the London Beth Din, it would be a significant moral boost to moderates in Israel and the United States.

British Jews may lose their celebrated orator and regular star of BBC Radio Four's Thought For The Day slot on the "Today" current events program, but they could gain a real leader.