In 1893, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Vidrowitz was looking for an advantage in his struggle for leadership of the immigrant Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two other outstanding rabbinical sages also aspired to have the final say among downtown’s religious Jews.
A far more famous luminary, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, had been brought from Vilna in 1888 by the Association of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and was trumpeted as “Chief Rabbi of New York City.” He was charged to lead a “religious revival” in Gotham. But Rabbi Joshua Segal, of Galician stock, had preceded Rabbi Joseph to the U.S. and was unwilling to play second fiddle in town and gathered around him a score of congregations that designated him “Chief Rabbi of the Congregations of Israel of New York.”
To put his calling card in higher relief against such stiff competition, Rabbi Vidrowitz declared himself “Chief Rabbi of America.” When asked by contemporaries, or so the story goes, “Who gave you the right to be so designated?” the unapologetic candidate replied, “I hired a sign painter; the shingle that we hung out was all that I needed.”
And why, he was asked, did he go the extra yards and arrogate to himself supreme religious authority for an entire nation? The rabbi, who hailed from Moscow but clearly had come to understand much about American Jewish conditions, replied, “It would be well-nigh impossible for all the Jews of America to gather together to depose me.”
This newcomer’s whimsical aside spoke to the endemic problem of disunity, voluntary allegiance and lack of control that undermined Judaism in America. For the record, none of the three opponents was able to gain a permanent foothold among lay leaders who controlled the shuls and the men and women in the pews.
In truth, even in other modern countries, where the office of the chief rabbi is a respected institution, the eminences reign far more than they rule. Just ask Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, who is soon leaving his post after a notable and sometimes controversial career, how many Jews feel the right and use the opportunity to either ignore or dissent from his decisions and proclamations.
Nonetheless, the hallowed post – if not the occupant – is largely revered by the Jewish rank and file as a statement that they, as a minority religious group, are present and respected within a host gentile society.
American Jews clearly have not felt the desire for that sort of formalized religious recognition. After, all, since there is no established church or chief Christian prelate in a country that hallows church-state separation, why need there be an established synagogue leader in our midst?
Recently, a young Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., hoping to revive a congregation in decline, decided to call his shul “The National Synagogue,” arguing that there was already in town a “National Cathedral” where presidents often pray. Other, longer-tenured rabbis in town were not exactly pleased with this promotional move. Somewhere, Rabbi Vidrowitz must be smiling.
The point is that most Jews have not shown much interest in surrendering even a wit of their religious autonomy to their clergy. The only place in the world where chief rabbis have real political power and wield enormous internal communal clout is, of course, in the one place where Jews are in the majority – the state of Israel.
In the decades that followed the combative downtown rabbinical troika, supporters of esteemed rabbis lavished the largely honorific title of “chief rabbi” of specific hometowns upon their leaders. In the interwar period, Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta was revered both in that city and all over the South. In more recent times, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who unquestionably held sway among his minions in Elizabeth, N.J., comes to mind. But if they – and other compatriots – had any power, it was solely in the realm of persuasion.
Only among postwar chassidim have rabbinical chiefs, largely known by their European countries of origin rather than their locales in America, both ruled and reigned. Their followers have voluntarily ceded to them in a religiously free United States the right and power to direct their lives. Nonetheless, except for Lubavitch, whose outreach efforts are legendary, these sectarian leaders have shown no interest in extending their suzerainty beyond their loyalists.
The absence of a chief rabbinate in America speaks to the uniqueness of the American Jewish religious experience.