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British Jews Fighting After Rabbi Doesn’t Get Called to Torah

September 8, 2003
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A squabble is threatening to create a schism between Britain’s main synagogue movements — and with it, some say, destroy the unity of the Jewish community here.

It all started earlier this summer when an Orthodox synagogue denied the British Conservative movement’s spiritual head and founder, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a call-up — or aliyah — to read from the Torah.

Jacobs, who broke away from mainstream Orthodoxy to establish the Masorti movement, as Conservative Judaism is known in Britain, was attending an Orthodox aufruf, a pre-wedding Sabbath celebration for the bridegroom, Jacobs’ future grandson-in-law.

Acting on advice from the synagogue’s governing body, the London Beit Din — or Jewish legal court — Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld declined to allow the 83-year-old Jacobs the aliyah.

At stake, argued the synagogue’s authorities and the Beit Din, was the ideology behind strict guidelines governing Orthodox relations with non-Orthodox clergy, which are based on the religious divide between the two movements.

But the communal sniping and backbiting that has resulted seems to have as much to do with rabbinical disharmony and decades of bad relations as any underlying theological differences.

Now that denied aliyah on an otherwise uneventful Saturday morning is threatening to destroy a landmark accord signed in 1998 that established new rules of civility governing relations between Britain’s various Jewish religious denominations.

The doctrinal essence — if not political hubbub — of the so-called Jacobs affair is the central Orthodox tenet that every word of the Torah and Oral Law was given directly to Moses from God at Mount Sinai.

The Masorti movement, together with other non-Orthodox movements, argue that while the Torah was divinely inspired, it was not decreed from God verbatim.

Jacobs, once considered a future candidate for Orthodox Chief Rabbi before his break with the movement, set out this position in his acclaimed but controversial 1957 book “We Have Reason to Believe.” The publication of that book led to his breaking with the mainstream Orthodox group, the United Synagogue.

Many point to this split as the real crux of the current squabble.

“There’s no doubt this is rabbinic politics at work,” said professor Geoffrey Alderman, a British Jewish historical scholar. “There’s very little to do with Jacobs holding a heretical position. After all, would the London Beit Din deny a call-up to a Lubavitch Jew who believes Rabbi Schneerson was or is the messiah?”

Some Chabad-Lubavitch Jews believe the movement’s late grand rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the Jewish messiah.

In denying Jacobs an aliyah, the London Beit Din has shown itself to be more concerned about Jacobs himself than the theology he espouses, Alderman told JTA.

Jacobs could not be reached for comment.

Some Orthodox voices said they oppose the synagogue’s decision to deny Jacobs the aliyah. They and others have pointed to inconsistencies in the Beit Din’s ruling on this decision, and cite cases where other non-Orthodox rabbis were called up to the Torah in Orthodox services.

But other members of the Orthodox community are supporting the decision — some because of Jacobs’ views on the Torah; others because they believe in the rule of the Beit Din.

The president of the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation, David Son, said, “In this particular situation, in following our ruling authority — which as an Orthodox Jewish congregation we are obliged to do — we were precluded from giving Rabbi Jacobs an aliyah.”

The quarrel led some say that an agreement that was meant to clarify rules of civility between the denominations is now worthless.

The Stanmore Accords were signed in 1998 by the Orthodox and liberal Jewish movements in an attempt to counter possible conflict and communal disharmony arising from their doctrinal divide.

The agreement, signed by the United Synagogue along with the Masorti, Reform and Liberal movements, came in response to the controversy surrounding the death of the former Reform leader Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

A protracted round of infighting, played out on the pages of Jewish newspapers here, broke out when the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, did not attend Gryn’s funeral.

It was further inflamed when a letter from Sacks to a fervently Orthodox leader criticizing Reform Judaism was leaked to the public.

The subsequent 1998 rules set guidelines governing United Synagogue’s relations with non-Orthodox groups.

While the accord does not prevent members of the liberal movements from being called up to the Torah during Orthodox services, the leaders agreed that non-Orthodox rabbis would not take part in Orthodox services with reciprocal arrangements for Orthodox clergy.

After the Jacobs incident this summer, Paul Shrank, former chairman of the Masorti movement, called for non- Orthodox groups to withdraw from the accords, describing them as “an experiment that failed.”

However, the current executive director of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, Michael Gluckman, said that while his members were deeply hurt about the refusal of Jacobs’ aliyah and other incidents, withdrawal from the Stanmore Accords was not currently on the Masorti agenda.

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