Next week marks an auspicious moment for the Perth Hebrew Congregation as they celebrate their 120th year by hosting Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Mazaltov to the PHC, and may the next 120 years of the Shule be filled with continued prosperity and growth of yiddishkeit.
Rabbi Sacks serves as the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, a role which has formally existed since 1845 and has a strong institutional tradition. Each occupant of the Chief Rabbi’s office has brought a unique strength to the role. I have had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Sacks several times, and also his predecessor Rabbi Jakobovits Z”L on two occasions. They were both very different in character and in how they shaped the role of their office. Rabbi Jakobovits delivered strong ethical teachings in contemporary areas such as law and medicine. Rabbi Sacks has utilised his strength as an author and philosopher to bring prominence to the title.
Over the past 20 years of Rabbi Sack’s tenure as Chief Rabbi, the Jewish world, and the modern orthodox world in particular, has encountered much change. One of Rabbi Sack’s seminal works “Orthodoxy confronts Modernity” highlights the contemporary approach of his work and optimisation of his use of the Chief Rabbi’s office.
This will be Rabbi Sack’s last visit to Perth as Chief Rabbi. There is a lot of conjecture relating to the search for his successor, and with it, much questioning of whether the role itself has outlived its usefulness.
My own view is that whilst the UK Jewish community needs to retain this establishment, the Jewish communities of the Commonwealth do not. Much as Australian’s are happy to respect the monarchy and the current reign of Her Majesty, there are many who feel that a move towards a Republic should succeed Queen Elizabeth. So too, the future Chief Rabbi should be a national role for the United Kingdom, carrying no ceremonial or mandated role for other nations.
In forming this view, I have thought about what the purpose of the role of the Chief Rabbi is, and what it should be. I have seen communities in Australia and beyond consult the Chief Rabbi on matters of communal structure and halacha. However most people have reduced the status of the Chief Rabbi role to a figurehead position, essentially serving as a spokesperson for the Jewish religion to the non-Jewish world. There are discussions regarding whether the role is akin to a diplomatic role, a media role, a political role, or a combination of all of this with a healthy dose of Judaism mixed in. Whatever the case, the role has to reach far and wide, impart the positive virtues of a Jewish identity while at the same time defending the Jewish community from anti-Semitism, advocating for Israel, and standing up to the eroding forces of assimilation. It’s not an easy job description. The “in-tray” of the Chief Rabbi makes the recruitment process one that is very complex and daunting.
The UK Jewish community of several hundred thousand people (a diminishing number) requires a domestic focus from its Chief Rabbi. British Jewry needs the traditional status of the role itself to hold the United Synagogue communities together. Australian Jewish communities have a more diverse constituent, and they are too geographically distant for the role of Chief Rabbi to have a meaningful physical presence.
In Australia, the issues and requirements of a Jewish community are also different. From a general cultural perspective alone, if Australian Jewry needs a spokesperson, it is in the form of lay leadership and not Rabbinic decree.
More importantly, Australian Jewry should look towards Jerusalem as the centre of the Jewish world, and not London. It should be through a Rabbinic structure of leadership that we should take direction. In a formal sense no such structure exists at this point in time. Many movements of Judaism, including Mizrachi for religious Zionists, have their own leaders and consultative authorities. The office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is too ceremonial, politicised, and dysfunctional to have any meaningful role for Australia. However other structures are slowly evolving. For instance there is a non-public and unidentified Sanhedran structure that is developing for the time that it will be needed (may that be soon!) which could well be a future body by which the evolvement of Jewish tradition continues its rite of passage.
The Chief Rabbi visit to Perth is a wonderful opportunity for us to hear from a Torah Scholar and orator. There is no doubt that Rabbi Sacks has accomplished much and advanced Jewish identity across the Jewish world. He has embraced technology, represented Jewish communities with distinction, and revitalised modern orthodoxy as a centralist movement.
Rather than seek any one successor for the incumbent role, I believe that the role itself should change. There should be many successors, each with strengths in various parts of the role. Above all, as Australia continues to mature towards the sovereign independence of a Republic, so too should the Jewish community of Australia mature towards independent and unaffiliated structure of spiritual leadership.