British chief rabbi asked to quit

Britain´s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, attends a Nov. 2 event in London. (Richard Allen Greene)

Britain´s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, attends a Nov. 2 event in London. (Richard Allen Greene)

LONDON, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi got a most-unwelcome Chanukah present from one of British Jewry’s most formidable figures: a call for his resignation. Writing in London’s Jewish Chronicle, Sir Stanley Kalms accused Jonathan Sacks of having a “diffident personality,” showing “low-key leadership” and of panicking when confronted by crisis. Mishandled controversies have reduced Sacks’s stature to that of a “shuttlecock” between the “fundamentalist right and the radical left,” Kalms wrote. He accused Sacks of failing to speak out on key issues — anti-Semitism, Israel and kosher slaughter, which is under attack in the United Kingdom. “The chief rabbi, caught between the activists who said ‘come out fighting’ and the low-profilers, chose the latter — with apparent relief,” Kalms wrote. “And so the chief rabbi has concentrated on his pastoral role and has hardly said a memorable word in public since. The pygmies won the day and Gulliver was tied up.” Sacks has refused to comment on the matter. But the Chief Rabbi’s Office pointed out that the recent call is not the first time Kalms has called for Sacks to give up the post; he did so five years ago as well. “Sir Stanley’s favorite hobby seems to be calling for the chief rabbi to resign,” said Peter Sheldon, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Trust. “This is chutzpah in the extreme,” he added, saying it was not for “self-appointed individuals to issue public performance appraisals that are flawed in their assumptions and flawed in their conclusions.” Kalms is not just any disgruntled critic: The 71-year-old businessman was one of the strongest proponents of Sacks’ appointment as chief rabbi 12 years ago. Kalms also is a former officer in the centrist Orthodox United Synagogue, of which Sacks is chief rabbi. He is one of the Chief Rabbi’s Office’s “funding fathers,” a group of wealthy benefactors who provide much of the money to run the office. Geoffrey Alderman, a leading historian of British Jewry, said Sacks would not be able to keep his position if Kalms is speaking for the funding fathers. “Stanley Kalms by himself can’t get Sacks to resign, but he has a big stick to wave,” he told JTA. “I don’t think Sacks will go quietly, but one thing that would push him out is the withdrawal of support from the funding fathers.” But he said it’s possible Kalms that went public with his criticism precisely because other influential figures did not support him. “Did Kalms write the article because he was exasperated that the other funding fathers won’t back him?” Alderman asked. Observers say Sacks’ position is weaker than it was when Kalms last went on the attack five years ago. Two controversies in slightly more than a year have reduced his stature, critics say. In the first, Sacks gave an interview to the Guardian newspaper — which many Jews consider hostile to Israel — that the paper portrayed as an attack on the Jewish state. After the interview, leading Israeli rabbis demanded that Sacks step down. When that controversy ebbed, a new one arose over his book “The Dignity of Difference.” Fervently Orthodox rabbis from Britain and Israel threatened to declare Sacks an apostate over his assertion that other monotheistic religions could be as valid for their adherents as Judaism is for Jews. Sacks issued a revised edition of the book that quelled criticism from the right but upset more liberal community members who wanted him to stick to his guns. The apparent unwillingness to maintain an unpopular position has lost Sacks respect, Alderman said. “He has tried to be all things to all men, and he has been caught out,” the historian said. Sacks won a $200,000 prize for the “Dignity of Difference” from an American foundation just weeks before Kalms’ criticism. Kalms mentioned both the Guardian and “Dignity of Difference” controversies in his article. But if Sacks has been diminished by controversy, Kalms himself is not the figure he was five years ago, one insider said. “Kalms has not held a communal position for a long time, as a result of which he makes mistakes,” said the figure, who asked not to be named. Sacks “should dismiss this as the work of a grumpy old man.” Kalms’ attack came as the Chief Rabbi’s Office announced it would relocate from its current posh location near Lord’s Cricket Grounds in central London to the northwest of the city, closer to large Jewish neighborhoods. It also announced that Sacks would take a position as part-time rabbi at Western Marble Arch Synagogue. Sacks was rabbi of the synagogue before becoming chief rabbi 12 years ago.

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