Forward Thinking

End of Jonathan Sacks Era

By Nathan Jeffay

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Jonathan Sacks

Two countries; two chief rabbinates. But the institutions could hardly be more different.

I have spent part of this summer observing the Chief Rabbi elections in Israel, and part in the U.K., hearing the opinions of British Jews about the end of the Jonathan Sacks era, with their Chief Rabbi (or strictly speaking the Chief Rabbi they share with the Commonwealth) due to retire on Sunday after two decades. The London-based congregational rabbi Ephraim Mirvis will replace him.

Sacks’ great success has been showing a dignified face of Judaism to non-observant Jewry and to non-Jewish Britain. He is famous for his short “Thought for the Day” monologues on BBC Radio and for his writing in the mainstream media. Sacks is a popular public intellectual far beyond the Jewish community, as he seems to know how to say the right things to inspire without pushing his beliefs.

In fact, the common tongue-in-cheek comment about him among Orthodox Jews is that he has been “Chief Rabbi for the Gentiles” — revered outside of his obvious following, Orthodox Jewry, but failing to resonate in this observant community.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has precisely the opposite orientation — it represents Orthodoxy and fails to communicate its message beyond.

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