Hats in the Ring: Choosing Britain's Chief Rabbis from Adler to Sacks

Hats in the Ring: Choosing Britain's Chief Rabbis from Adler to Sacks

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Meir Persoff

Series: Judaism and Jewish Life
ISBN: 9781618111777 (hardcover) / 9781618112699 (paper)
Pages: 362 pp.
Publication Date: February 2013

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Prior to the latest Chief Rabbinical selection process, seven eminent rabbis were appointed to British Jewry’s highest ecclesiastical post, although only six were installed and saw out their terms of office. The manner of their appointment was invariably colored by intrigue, in-fighting and a host of other influences, not least an increasingly potent input by the dayanim of the London Beth Din, themselves not immune to strategic self-interest. Meir Persoff’s scholarly yet accessible account of these seven appointments draws on a wealth of hitherto unaccessed and unpublished material, and on the stories of many of the protagonists involved, including in fascinating detail those who, by fair means and foul, failed to gain (or chose to reject) the coveted prize.

Meir Persoff, now a freelance writer and editor, edited The Jewish Chronicle’s news, features, arts, Judaism, letters, and obituaries sections during a distinguished 40-year career on the paper. He has written extensively on Jewish topics—notably Jewish art and Judaica—and served on the Jewish Book Council and as president of the Israel-Judaica Philatelic Society. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he holds a London University MA (with distinction) in Hebrew and Jewish studies, having specialised in modern Jewish history and the history of antisemitism, and earned his PhD from Middlesex University, London, for his research into the British Chief Rabbinate’s relationship with the non-Orthodox movements. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Middlesex Commission Area in 2001.

Meir Persoff has contributed significantly to our understanding of the British Chief Rabbinate through his previous publications. In this study, [he] has devoted his attention to how the last six chief rabbis were appointed, covering a 170-year period. It is a perceptive choice of subject. The process of choosing leaders of important organizations may tell us a great deal about both the organization and its environment. In Hats in the Ring, Persoff not only explores the intricate politics of each appointment in detail, but also provides the reader with the induction address of each appointee. The work has clearly involved him in ploughing through the dusty archives of many communal organizations, as well as numerous personal papers, along with the more obvious sources of the Jewish and general press. It is all meticulously documented, with copious notes and references. The role and different styles of the various lay leaders, and the often unseemly maneuverings taking place under what appeared to be a serene, calm surface, are described in detail. Persoff is meticulous in his use of sources and judgment about what is relevant or irrelevant. There is important material here for anyone interested in Anglo-Jewish history, and in particular the politics of communal decision-making.
— Professor Leslie Wagner, Jewish Political Studies Review, Volume 25, # 3–4, November 2014
Meir Persoff has mined an impressive range of communal records, memoirs, interviews and the available secondary sources to provide case studies of the communal politics behind each selection [of British Chief Rabbi]. . . . A major strength of the book is that by focusing on the election process, Persoff, a former editor at the Jewish Chronicle, provides insight into both the long-term tensions within Anglo-Jewry and a snapshot of intra-communal issues that dominated each Chief Rabbi’s selection. Persoff also provides the text of the inaugural sermon of each rabbi, thereby enabling the reader to see how the communal controversies often shaped the agenda of the office holder. . . . Persoff’s study reminds the reader of the tired (and probably not very funny anymore) joke about four Jews and five opinions. Persoff also implicitly addresses a topic related to the diversity, or chaos, of Jewish communal politics: the almost maniacal desire throughout the modern age, but especially in the post-Holocaust world, to achieve consensus or unity between warring/competing factions within the community. This desire for consensus is not unique to Anglo-Jewry, for in the aftermath of World War II, American Jewish leaders also pursued it with abandon.
— Frederic J. Krome, University of Cincinnati Clermont College, H-Judaic (March 2014)
Meir Persoff’s Hats in the Ring is totally absorbing, meticulously researched, and written in a style that is elegant, respectful, yet with a critical ‘bite’ when appropriate. His telling of the story gives a fascinating—often gripping—picture of a living, struggling society of Jews fighting age-long battles for retaining and revitalizing its religious traditions and institutions.
— Dr Avraham Feder, emeritus rabbi, Beit Knesset Moreshet Yisrael (Jerusalem) and Beth Tikvah Synagogue (Toronto), and former president, Rabbinical Assembly of Israel
Persoff gives a blow-by-blow account of the twists and turns [of each election]. He has undertaken a prodigious amount of research and has given his readers a tremendous wealth of information which will be of lasting value to students of Anglo-Jewish religious history. . . . No one who wishes to understand the development of the office of Chief Rabbi and the lay and rabbinic figures who guided its fortunes will be able to ignore it.
— Benjamin J. Elton (New York University), Jewish Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, No. 1 (2013)
[T]his meticulously researched and footnoted book [adds] a valuable dimension to our understanding of a peculiar establishment that has wielded a fair amount of power in our age. . . . Sure to resonate most strongly with British and Anglophile Jews, as well as serious students of modern Jewish history, Hats in the Ring provides a wealth of insights into the effort to procure for Great Britain ‘a spiritual guide, competent to maintain piety and peace,’ as the position was described in 1843.
— Abigail Klein Leichman, The Jerusalem Post Magazine, September 12, 2013
Historians sharply focused on Anglo-Jewry will have reason to be grateful to Dr Persoff for the choice fare that he has here set before them. Whatever their views, and however they understand the personalities and interpret the events, they will find themselves in his debt for having drawn attention to such a wealth of source material and for having made available to them many items that were hitherto unknown or inadequately exploited.
— Stefan C. Reif, emeritus, University of Cambridge
Persoff is a painstaking historian with access to amazing sources of information, not only because he worked for the London Jewish Chronicle for 40 years, but because he lived through and documented many of the happenings he chronicles and has a broad network of contacts from whom he was able to glean much of the inside story. Additionally, he is a lucid writer and there is hardly a word out of place in this, as in his previous books. . . .I heartily commend [his] book. . . . Hats in the Ring should be bought, read, digested and enjoyed.
— Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, Australian Jewish News, December 20, 2013
Hats in the Ring is not a compendium of deeds and accomplishments of Great Britain’s Chief Rabbis, but rather a history of the inter-communal fighting, discord, and dissensions leading up to the appointment of a chief rabbi. In addition to watching the ‘power plays,’ we come to understand many of the endemic problems and issues facing Britain’s Jews from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. . . . Drawing on a vast number of correspondence and other primary materials, Hats in the Ring shows us how the nature of the position and personal qualifications of Chief Rabbi changed with the times as a result of the continual feuding between Orthodox Jewry and Judaism’s more modern sects, including the Conservative movement’s Masorti, and unprecedented international situations, such as the Holocaust and the birth of the modern State of Israel. Persoff does an outstanding job redacting a vast amount of information and blending it into a clear and comprehensive study of the Anglo-Jewish community as it searches for and selects religious leadership at the highest level.
— Dr. Fred Reiss, San Diego Jewish World, December 9, 2013
Amidst intrigue and in-fighting, seven eminent rabbis, prior to the latest, have been selected for British Jewry’s highest post through a process rife with conflicting interests. Persoff . . . provides a front-row seat. This history intertwines religion, politics and leadership, personalities, and the strategies and motivations of diverse sectors of the Jewish community in Britain.
Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Table of contents

Foreword, by Stefan C. Reif

Chapter One: Out of the Ruins
From the Pulpit – I: Guardian of the Law
Chapter Two: Between Old and New
From the Pulpit – II: The Ideal Jewish Pastor
Chapter Three: Who Pays the Piper
From the Pulpit – III: Moderation in Judgment
Chapter Four: No Imaginary Man
Chapter Five: Fateful Days
From the Pulpit – IV: Out of the Darkness
Chapter Six: A Blank Cheque
Chapter Seven: ‘When I Return ...’ 
From the Pulpit – V: Prophet, Priest and King
Chapter Eight: Natural Selection
From the Pulpit – VI: A Decade of Jewish Renewal