When a kindness becomes a betrayal

February 14, 1997

Orthodox Jews have pleaded with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks not to attend a memorial service for the liberal rabbi Hugo Gryn. Most non-Jews are mystified if not appalled at such an apparent lack of compassion. But, argues Geoffrey Alderman, the issue is not about comforting the bereaved but about compromising one's faith.

The death of Rabbi Hugo Gryn last August has caused a furore of unprecedented ferocity within Anglo-Jewry. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Czechoslovakia in 1930, Gryn survived deportation to Auschwitz, arriving in Britain in August 1945. Having studied for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati (post-1945, the world centre of Reform Judaism), he marched with Martin Luther King, became a confidant of Jawaharlal Nehru and was eventually appointed senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue of British Jews in London, the "home" of Reform Judaism in Britain.

Rabbi Gryn was loved and revered in the non-Jewish world. His media appearances made him a household word; his commonsense approach to problems in The Moral Maze earned him widespread praise. Here was a Jew to whom non-Jews could easily relate. Here was a Jew - a rabbi - whose very essence seemed to belie the Pharisaic stereotype so often portrayed. Gryn appeared to present the acceptable face of Judaism - outward-looking, universalist, above all non-fundamentalist. In fact, he was one of the most fundamentalist of postwar Anglo-Jewish religious leaders, and it is this under-publicised side of his character that has, in part, caused the post-mortem row about him.

Anglo-Jewry is now a pluralised set of communities, split in ways it is difficult for the non-Jewish world to grasp. There is also much misconception among Jews as well as non-Jews about the role and status of the so-called "chief rabbinate".

The office of chief rabbi evolved in the 18th and early 19th centuries among the Ashkenazi (German-speaking) Jews of London, as a way of presenting themselves to their non-Jewish hosts, a Jewish equivalent of the archbishop of Canterbury. But among the Jewish communities of Poland and Russia the idea of a chief rabbi was a nonsense: each community had its own rabbi and, more importantly, its own ecclesiastical court (Bet Din), whose rulings on matters of halakhah (orthodox Jewish law) were final. But in Britain one man, the chief rabbi, claimed to exercise complete jurisdiction, unfettered by any Bet Din. The orthodox immigrants who flooded into Britain in the wake of Tsarist persecution a century ago attempted to overturn this system, but their efforts were frustrated, in large measure because the chief rabbinate became, in the hands of the wealthy Anglo-Jewish gentry, a powerful weapon of social control.

This past is dead. What we now find is a spectrum of religious inclinations, ranging from the sectarian ultra-orthodox, whose adherents are highly visible in northwest London, to the liberal and progressive Jews, who have largely discarded the ritualistic elements of orthodoxy, and who, in any case, deny the divine origins of the Torah - the Five Books of Moses.

Each group has its own ecclesiastical authority. Today the chief rabbi is little more than chief rabbi of the United Synagogue, established by private Act of Parliament in 1870 as an amalgamation of the major Ashkenazi synagogues of the capital.

The media may refer to Jonathan Sacks as chief rabbi of Britain. In fact, he is nothing of the sort. His anomalous position has, however, been a major factor contributing to the escalation of the Gryn affair. A brilliant philosopher and writer, Sacks took up the office of chief rabbi in 1991, when that office had been weakened by decades of attrition at the hands of the religious extremes. But his status in the eyes of non-Jews has remained consistently high, and his supporters have used this in attempting to reassert the authority of his office within Anglo-Jewry. That strategy has now backfired.

In 1993 Sacks published One People? in which he proclaimed himself a champion of "inclusivism". Acknowledging there was no prospect of a return to halakhah by the overwhelming majority of those who have abandoned it, Sacks argued that it was therefore necessary for the orthodox to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist; to seek "a nuanced understanding of secular and liberal Jews"; and to attach "positive significance to the fact that liberal Judaisms have played their part in keeping alive for many Jews the values of Jewish identity, faith, and practice."

One People? was meant to be a blueprint for Sacks's incumbency of his office. He at once put inclusivism into practice, most notably by establishing Jewish Continuity, a funding agency designed to support orthodox and nonorthodox causes. Within the world of sectarian orthodoxy, the bona fides of Sacks were always questioned. He had not been born into this world. He entered from the outside, a world that is notoriously suspicious of outsiders and, to make matters worse, his loudly proclaimed policy of "inclusivism" served merely to deepen these suspicions.

The appearance of One People? dismayed the sectarians, and they viewed Jewish Continuity with ever-greater suspicion as it went about its inclusivist activities. In 1996, following a report prepared by Leslie Wagner, vice chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, Jewish Continuity was merged with the premier Zionist fund-raising body, the Joint Israel Appeal: in effect, it has been shut down.

The nonorthodox wings of Anglo-Jewry have never forgiven Sacks for what they regard as breaches of faith with his doctrine as set out in One People? They have used the funeral of Hugo Gryn to force him to retrace his steps. The strengths of Gryn's character are not in dispute. Like all Holocaust victims whose faith and capacity for hope have survived, Gryn may rightly be termed "great". On the other hand, there can be no denying that as a Reform rabbi Gryn devoted his life to the deliberate undermining of orthodox values. He authorised and conducted marriages that he knew were contrary to halakhah, thereby creating untold misery for the children of such unions. He spent the last year of his life using his influence to bring about the destruction by sale of the very beautiful 1843 cemetery of the West London Reform Synagogue, and spoke scathingly of the influence of orthodox opponents of this sale when the planning authorities in Islington turned down the application. This unique piece of our Victorian heritage has now been saved for the nation, but not thanks to Gryn.

Sacks did not appear at Gryn's funeral, but was represented there. He and his wife, Elaine, quite rightly visited Mrs Gryn and her family in the house of mourning, in accordance with orthodox practice, which places the highest value on the obligation to comfort mourners. No-one has criticised him for so doing. But the Reform movement is not satisfied. As the practical canonisation of Gryn has proceeded apace, the movement has insisted that the price of its future deference to the office of chief rabbi is nothing less than a public act of homage by the man still viewed in the non-Jewish world as the religious leader of Anglo-Jewry: the chief rabbi.

They and their inclusivist supporters within the United Synagogue have now contrived to bring about a bizarre "memorial meeting", to be held next week jointly by the Council of Christians and Jews and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, at which Gryn's life is to be celebrated. Sacks has indicated he will attend - a decision condemned by the orthodox Ecclesiastical Courts of Manchester, the Federation of Synagogues and the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Such public condemnations are without precedent.

Indeed, it appears that even the rabbinate of his own United Synagogue is reluctant to support him. Sacks is being portrayed as the victim of sectarian-orthodox fundamentalism. The truth is that he has strayed well outside the remarkably wide parameters orthodoxy gives to its adherents. The halakhah cannot be changed. Orthodox Judaism is not a religion of convenience, a theological supermarket from which one can choose. Sacks knows this. So did Hugo Gryn. So do the Reformers.

In life Rabbi Gryn and Rabbi Sacks were said to be good friends. Now, from the grave, Gryn beckons Sacks to move closer to him. If he does, he runs the risk that his own orthodoxy, already called into question, will be further compromised? Does he know this too?

Geoffrey Alderman is pro vice chancellor, Middlesex University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns