Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Stirs Controversy with Recent Remarks

January 19, 1995
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has denounced the Masorti, or Conservative, movement as intellectual “thieves” who pose a danger to the future of British Jewry.

In his most strongly worded statement since assuming office three years ago, Sacks also vowed that all programs initiated by his continuity initiative – which involves millions of dollars – would be based on Orthodox principles.

His remarks came in an article for the right-wing Orthodox Jewish Tribune, which was circulated in advance to members of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The main thrust of the article was directed against the Masorti movement, headed by Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Sacks accused the movement of making “misleading” claims.

Quoting talmudic sages, the rabbi wrote there were “seven kinds of ganovim [thieves], but the worst of all is gonev daas habriyos [intellectual dishonesty]”.

He called certain Masorti claims of Orthodox backing for the movement’s marriages “disreputable and unforgivable.

In a broader reference to all non-Orthodox Jews, Sacks said that anyone who did not believe in Torah min Hashamayim the doctrine that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses – had “severed lines with the faith of his ancestors.”

The executive director of the rabbi’s office, Jonathan Kestenbaum, said that while the chief rabbi had a policy of avoiding “criticism of other organizations,” he was prompted to speak out by what he called an “exceptionally mischievous campaign” by members of the Masorti movement.

The chief rabbi’s comments followed moves by a group in Manchester, England, to establish a Masorti base in the city.

It also came in the wake of suggestions made in a Masorti publication that its marriages had been certified by him as valid under Jewish law.

Attempting to defuse the row over marriages, Harry Freedman, development director of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, said this week, ‘We’ve never said that our marriages are automatically recognized by the office of the chief rabbi.”

A Masorti newsletter had claimed in a headline that its marriages had won a hechsher, or rabbinical certificate from the chief rabbi,

But Freedman said the claim was only intended to refer to a recently reiterated agreement by the chief rabbi’s office not to question the Jewish status of children whose parents were married in a Masorti synagogue – as long as the couple would have been eligible to marry in a U.S. synagogue.

The chief rabbi’s attack on the Masorti movement prompted a torrent of critical letters that poured into the Jewish Chronicle, with members of many communal organizations voicing deep concern or anger at the rabbi’s remarks.

A member of organizations-including the Joint Israel Appeal – also sought to emphasize their commitment to reflect all religious groups within the Jewish community.

Progressive leaders meanwhile issued statements denouncing Sacks’ Jewish Tribune article.

But they also held open the possibility of reconciliation.

The Reform movement described as ”unacceptable” Sacks’ declaration that those Jews who do not believe that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses had severed their links with Judaism.

“Taken at face value, [these comments] must call into question the leadership of the chief rabbi ” said the Reform movement’s chief executive, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, and its chairman, David Walsh.

But, nothing that Sacks’ remarks conflicted with the thrust of previous statements, they added: “We hope his words are not to be taken literally.”

Responding to the criticism his original remarks generated, Sacks reaffirmed his commitment to “tolerant Orthodoxy” and vowed his Jewish continuity initiative would reach out to all Jews.

In an article appearing in the London Jewish Chronicle, he said: “Let us act together where we can, and where we cannot, let us respect one another.”

Recommended from JTA