Reform Jews Challenge Authority of Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi

The Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, the organization of Liberal congregations, issued a statement last week asserting that the chief rabbi had no authority to speak for it.

The statement came as a great surprise, because the chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth is the recognized religious representative of British Jewry in all affairs of state, and the statement represents a potential schism in a traditionally unified community.

The chief rabbi has by tradition been an Orthodox rabbi, and while the majority of affiliated Jews in Britain are said to be Orthodox, a substantial minority are not.

The statement, reported in The Times of London, incurred the wrath of the normally staid Board of Deputies of British Jews, British Jewry’s representative body in the secular realm.

"III-conceived and ill-timed," said board President Dr. Lionel Kopelowitz.

The incumbent chief rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, will retire shortly, and the process of choosing a successor is under way. The Liberal and Reform congregations do not participate in electing the chief rabbi.

Kopelowitz pointed out that the chief rabbi has "a representational role" which, though not defined, "is recognized both within and without the Jewish community as the public religious representative of the whole of the British Jewish community."

Kopelowitz added that he was firmly convinced "that it is not in the communal interest for any group to take up a hard position at this stage before any new chief rabbi has been appointed, to say whether they would or would not accept him in a representative capacity."

Rosita Rosenberg, the Liberal Union director, said Kopelowitz’s comments were "offensive."

"We are very happy for non-Jews to perceive that Anglo-Jewry is represented by one person at a state occasion," Rosenberg said.

"But how can he speak for us, when he doesn’t recognize any of our rabbis or our conversions? Many of his rabbis are not willing to sit on the same platform as our rabbis.

"How can he speak for us on issues like ‘Who is a Jew?’ or the ordination of women, when his views are diametrically opposed to ours?" Rosenberg asked.

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