Britain’s new Chief Rabbi 24 February 2013

Lord Jonathan Sacks’s successor has been announced, Ephraim Mirvis (pictured) will become the next Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. The Chief Rabbi is one of the most influential religious positions in the UK, representing the United Synagogue (the largest orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK). The announcement comes almost two years since Rabbi Sacks announced his retirement in 2010.

Rabbi Mirvis is already a leading figure in British Jewry having formerly been Chief Rabbi of Ireland and currently the rabbi of Finchley Synagoge in London. Much like his predesccesors, he is not British born but raised in South Africa, completing a BA in education and classical hebrew before obtaining his semicha in Israel and also qualifying as a shochet (ritual slaughterer), mohel (trained to conduct circumcision) and chazzan (cantor).

The announcement came in December, with an official statement pronouncing that “The Chief Rabbinate Trust can this evening confirm that the consultative group has endorsed a recommendation by the working group to appoint Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as the 11th chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, subject to appropriate contractual agreement.”

Rabbi Mirvis, the 11th Chief Rabbi, spoke confidently of his vision for the role, stating he “will seek to bring an ethical voice to the national debate in these changing and challenging times.”

Perhaps in recognition of secularists who speak of the outdated nature of religious leadership, Rabbi Mirvis argued that “a sense of religious identity has never been more relevant, nor more necessary in our fast-changing world and these difficult economic times.”

His agenda is also focused on strengthening Jewish identity and religiosity, stating that he ” will be seeking to deepen commitment within the Jewish community to Jewish learning, values and ideology.”

Much like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi’s role has increasingly been challenged and many of the same issues are points of contention, such as the role of women and sexuality – with liberal and progressive movements within British Judaism criticising the United Synagogue for failing to address contemporary issues.

Rabbi Mirvis will certainly have a challenge in following Rabbi Sacks who has held the position since 1991 and successfully engaged with media and public debate while also carefully navigating contentious issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Whether Rabbi Mirvis will reflect Rabbi Sack’s willingness to engage in debate, evidenced through his numerous radio appearances or more recently, his debate with atheist Richard Dawkins, remains to be seen.

Rabbi Mirvis is a centrist figure, one who can potentially bring together the liberal inclinded Orthodox members of his followers alongside the conservative Rabbis of the Beth Din. Some have noted that the prolonged delay between Sack’s announcement of retirement and Mirvis’ appointment was due to the lack of candidates that could rival Sack’s skill, intellect and eloquence. Some Jewish commentators also noted that those who could may not want a job so fraught with difficulties.

The United Synagogue certainly felt Mirvis had the potential to emulate Rabbi Sack however,  being chosen over not simply UK candidates but also several American Rabbis who had submitted their names for consideration.

Rabbi Mirvis will officially take up his role as Chief Rabbi in September 2013.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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