Anglo-Jewry bows to might of the right

Andrew Brown looks at the growing crisis for the United Synagogues Dr Sacks has never been fully trusted by the ultra-Orthodox
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The latest outburst of acrimony within Anglo-Jewry was yesterday being explained as part of a wider crisis for the United Synagogues, which has been for many years the largest party in British Judaism. The leader of the United Synagogues, the Chie f Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, has claimed anyone who does not share the Orthodox view that every syllable of the first five books of the Bible was dictated to Moses by God, has cut himself off from the faith of his ancestors. Dr Sacks' especial venom was re served for the Masorti movement, a small group of London synagogues which, though conservative in observance and belief, broke with Orthodoxy over this issue of literal inspiration of the Scriptures in the early 1960s.

He described them yesterday as "disreputable and unforgivable." Observers to the left of Dr Sacks were saying yesterday that his outburst was the result of pressure from his increasingly right-wing constituents.

Hasidic, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, of whom the most prominent sect are known as the Lubavitch, have become increasingly influential in the United Synagogues over the last decades. Dr Sacks has never been fully trusted by them because, however Orthodox he appears to the outside world, his conversion to fundamentalism took place when he was at Cambridge as a brilliant philosophy student. He did not undergo the full traditional Rabbinic education in a seminary or Yeshiva.

However, the Lubavitch movement is supplying an increasing proportion of rabbis in Orthodox synagogues, some of whom are resisting Dr Sacks' tentative efforts to accomodate the discontents of twentieth-century women who find a Bronze Age set of rules increasingly confining, even if these rules were dictated verbatim by God. Liberal and progressive synagogues have no difficulty with women rabbis; Orthodox Jewry, however, cannot even allow women to share the synagogue floor with men, or to hav e worship services of their own.

Last year Dr Sacks brought out a report attempting to enlarge the role of women in Orthodoxy, though he has forbidden them to have their own synagogue services. But his decision to allow women onto the governing bodies of synagogues and of the United Synagogues as a whole has been attacked from the right.

David J Goldberg, rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synogogue in St John's Wood, says that Dr Sacks' difficulties mark the end of the United Synagogues'

position as the central body of Anglo-Jewry. "The way things are going, this could be the last Chief Rabbi who is accepted as the nominal spokesman for all of Anglo-Jewry."

Rabbi Goldberg says that even though the United Synagogues still contain over half of Britain's 300,000 religious Jews, they are in great difficulties: "The United Synagogues, not Orthodoxy, is probably finished; among the young there has been a swing over the last 10 years to the right: the Lubavitch is stronger.

"Leo Baeck College [the reform training centre] trains many more people than Jews' College, where United Synagogue rabbis traditionally trained. Grove End Road synagogue, where the Chief Rabbi worships, has been without a rabbi since September."