The Progressive wing within British Jewry alternates between being nonplussed and concerned about the appointment of a new Chief Rabbi. In some ways, he is totally irrelevant. He is merely the senior rabbi of the United Synagogue and affiliated Orthodox communities. He holds no power over us, and we take guidance from our own religious authorities, be it leading rabbis or our Rabbinic Courts.
In other respects, he matters. He is seen by the wider world as the Chief Rabbi of all British Jews – as daft and erroneous a view as thinking that the Archbishop of Canterbury stands for all Christians, including Catholics and Quakers – and so his pronouncements reflect on the entire Jewish community whether we approve or not.
Still, Ephraim Mirvis has a wonderful advantage over Jonathan Sacks, in that he will not be burdened with the enormous weight of expectation that the latter had on coming to office. The fact that Sacks was well known for being immersed in secular scholarship, and was willing to reach out to the wider Jewish community – such as by originally attending Limmud – led to him being seen as someone who would be a promoter of communal harmony.
But despite his intellectual brilliance and superb eloquence, a number of incidents undermined that hope. Some were unexpected potholes – the walk for unity that became highly fractious – other were own-goals, such as his attacks on both Louis Jacobs and Hugo Gryn. Mirvis will probably not shine in the non-Jewish world as much as Sacks has, but seems well qualified in his main task of ministering to centrist Orthodoxy. We wish him well, for British Jewry is healthiest when all sections are thriving.
We also hope that he will interact positively with the Jewish community at large in all its diversity and not feel threatened by doing so. He also needs to jettison one of the paranoias of the past: the idea that visiting a Liberal synagogue or meeting Reform rabbis implies endorsing their views.
If Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz could attend the West London Synagogue without anyone suspecting him of being any less Orthodox, Mirvis can do so too. It would not be religious compromise but menschliskeit, and that is a vital characteristic for any Chief Rabbi.