A Tale of Three Leaders

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Is Announced As New Chief Rabbi

2013 saw three new religious leaders installed. The most famous and significant was Pope Francis, appointed in March after the shock resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict in late February.  The resignation of Rowan William’s was less of a surprise – the Arch-Bishopric never seen as a job for life – but it led to the arrival of Justin Welby in February. Last to arrive on the scene, and by far the least powerful was Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, given the role in December 2012 after a long and drawn out process, but not taking up his post until September 2013.

The media and popular response to all 3 has been different – but all have been defined in opposition to their predecessors. Pope Francis had the easiest job of all, coming after the unpopular and austere Benedict who prioritised the policing of strict doctrine above reaching out to people and trying to inspire his flock. Francis has received plaudits simply by showing some warmth and being a good communicator – while he clearly wishes to talk less about subjects like sexuality and abortion where the church is out of step with large swathes of public opinion – there has been no sign of any change in actual doctrine.

Mirvis and Welby find themselves in the opposite situation. Their predecessors , Williams and Sacks were both excellent communicators, sought after in the media and generally gaining respect amongst the population beyond their immediate followers. Neither though were particularly effective managers and internal politicians. Williams presided over a large number of battles, and his desire to keep the church together at all costs meant holding back progress on women bishops and gay rights – dismaying liberals who had initially viewed him as their champion. Sacks’ popularity amongst the media and general public came at the price of a lack of internal power- he largely ceded control to his Beth Din who made sure his philosophical ruminations did not lead to changes in policy.

Neither Welby nor Mirvis are such accomplished communicators. Welby has a managerial demeanour and Mirvis comes across as decent rather than dynamic. Perhaps less focus on presentation will lead to greater action? This seems to be the case for Welby – after a catastrophic rejection of women bishops by the House of Laity at the tail end of William’s tenure there seems to have a been a rapid turnaround that looks set to approve the change by the end of this year. If this goes through it will be testament to Welby’s powers of persuasion.  Mirvis seems not to desire any radical changes – he has already intervened to rule out ‘partnership minyans‘ from taking place in the United Synagogue (though optimistic close readers of his statement thought this implied tacit support for them outside synagogue premises).  His big gesture was to attend the Limmud conference in December – widely rumoured to have been a condition when given the job, after Sacks refused to go for the 21 years of his Chief Rabbinate. To outsiders, attendance at a wholly Jewish conference which is fully Shabbat observant, keeps kashrut to the highest standards and is largely dedicated to Torah study would seem a no-brainer for someone who aspires to lead anglo Jewry but in the bizarre world of anglo-orthodoxy this has been sees as a very significant move, and condemned by a range of Haredi leaders.

It is hard to know if Mirvis’ attendance is genuinely a radical departure (a la Welby) or an obvious move notable only because of the failure of his predecessor to take it (a la Francis). Either way, it is clear that whatever the pressure from conservative factions to maintain the status quo, it is the leaders that oversee the greatest changes that are set to be the most successful, and the most likely to remembered. For all religious movements today; standing still is not a viable option.

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