In a surprise twist, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta appears to have become the front-runner for the position of next chief rabbi of Great Britain.

The search committee has already had an initial salary discussion with Rabbi Michael Broyde, and “the committee is focusing much of its consideration on Rabbi Broyde and no one else,” a source close to the search process told The Times of Israel.

There has also been strong lobbying for Broyde by the chancellor of Yeshiva University, Norman Lamm, who in a letter called Broyde “the finest mind of his generation,” says the source.

Broyde, in his late 40s, is senior fellow and projects director at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He is a dayan (religious judge) on the Beth Din of America, the largest Jewish law court in the States, and founding rabbi of the Young Israel synagogue in Atlanta.

Considered modern Orthodox, he is a respected halachic (religious law) authority in America, and widely published.

‘He is someone with a global vision, who is very thoughtful about issues that confront different segments of the Jewish community today’

Broyde “has a first-rate intellect, is a gifted writer – very erudite – and a passionate speaker,” says Rabbi Yona Reiss, dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, and one of Broyde’s colleagues on the Beth Din of America. “He is someone with a global vision, who is very thoughtful about issues that confront different segments of the Jewish community today.

“I believe he would very much like to build bridges both within the broad spectrum of Orthodoxy and within the broader Jewish community.”

According to another senior American rabbi familiar with Broyde’s work, “what is unique about him as a halachist is his command of secular law – he has a unique ability to view Jewish law comparatively.”

His analysis of halachic issues “commands respect from people on the right, even if they do not feel bound by his halachic authority,” the rabbi adds.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (photo credit: courtesy)

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (photo credit: courtesy)

Broyde’s road to the British chief rabbinate is not completely clear. Another candidate still in strong contention is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. He interviewed for the chief rabbinical post last month in London and was, at that time at least, being actively wooed by members of the search committee.

The source close to the process – who requested anonymity — claims that several people found Soloveichik “majestic” during the interview.

He “spoke spectacularly” and was “very impressive.”

Members of the search committee agreed that Soloveichik, who is known for his intellect and for his interest in representing Judaism to general society, is the logical heir to the current chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, says the source.

The committee is apparently reconsidering whether it wants another chief rabbi who, like Sacks, will focus more on relations with the outside world than on internal matters such as conversion, women’s issues or leading the United Synagogue rabbis

However, in addition to concerns about his relative youth and inexperience – Soloveichik is still in his mid-30s – the committee is apparently reconsidering whether it wants another chief rabbi who, like Sacks, will focus more on relations with the outside world than on internal matters such as conversion, women’s issues or leading the United Synagogue rabbis.

Ironically, Broyde himself pushed the committee to appoint Soloveichik.

“This only makes them want [Broyde] more,” claims the source.

In many ways, Broyde and Soloveichik are opposite rabbinical models, with Broyde very focused on the Jewish community’s internal affairs. The fact that the committee has seriously considered the two of them seems to indicate that, even at this late stage, it is still not precisely clear on the job description for the next chief rabbi and that the decision may come down to personalities rather than skills.

Sacks is due to retire in September 2013. The announcement of a successor is scheduled to take place in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The crux of the difference between rabbis Broyde and Soloveichik seems to be in their attitude to the London Beth Din. Although it is part of the United Synagogue (the centrist Orthodox organization which the chief rabbi officially heads), the majority of the Beth Din’s religious judges have for decades been ultra-Orthodox, and no chief rabbi has managed to assert his authority over them.

Left alone, the dayanim have imposed exceptionally high standards of halacha over a largely non-observant community. (Most of the members of the United Synagogue’s 60-odd shuls are not Sabbath-observant, although they affiliate Orthodox.) As a result, the Beth Din is widely perceived as being not only out of touch, but totally out of sympathy with the community it serves, especially on matters of conversion, and regarding Limmud, Anglo-Jewry’s flagship, cross-denominational learning program. Most British Orthodox rabbis boycott Limmud, following the guidance of the dayanim.

The Beth Din is widely perceived as being not only out of touch, but totally out of sympathy with the community it serves

Several committee members are convinced that reining in the London Beth Din is one of the most urgent challenges facing the United Synagogue and are apparently concerned that Soloveichik would be willingly subservient to it on matters of halacha. By contrast Broyde – who is an experienced rabbinical judge, and who served as director of the Beth Din of America in 1997-98 — has proposed taking control of the court, leading it in areas such as conversion, women’s issues and involvement in Limmud.

Sacks, during his tenure, faced much criticism over his unwillingness to do precisely what Broyde is proposing, and was seen to have allowed the dayanim to control and subvert his more progressive agenda to some extent.

Within some United Synagogue circles, however, Broyde’s plans are generating considerable angst now that he appears to be gaining favor with the search committee. Some consider taking on the powerful dayanim to be a potentially destructive “mission impossible,” which would find chief rabbi Broyde engaged in protracted battles with the Beth Din instead of implementing his manifesto.

‘He is seeking the kind of role for the chief rabbi that is so new and novel that it will dramatically destabilize the United Synagogue’

“He is seeking the kind of role for the chief rabbi that is so new and novel that it will dramatically destabilize the United Synagogue,” warns the source. “He seems to actually wish to try to internally govern.”

One senior United Synagogue rabbi, who also declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, contends that Broyde could only be appointed if he were “imposed.”

“I don’t see the dayanim taking kindly to Michael Broyde,” he says. “He’s far to the left of them… There would be absolute resistance.”

There would also, he says, be objections from some of the community rabbis.

“Broyde will only consider taking the job if he can be a leader to the rabbanim, if he calls the shots,” he said. “A lot of the younger rabbis might want someone to guide them. For the mavericks, it won’t wash.”

An additional major question mark is whether Broyde would actually take the position if offered. Sources familiar with his thinking say that he will only agree to become chief rabbi if he is certain he has the full backing of the United Synagogue leadership for his plans, and that while he is convinced that his vision for the organization is correct, he himself is unsure he is the right man to carry it out.

Members of the committee find his ambivalence about taking the job “astounding,” says the source close to the search.

They are currently trying to ascertain his seriousness, in order to avoid the embarrassment of offering the position to someone who turns them down.

If neither Broyde nor Soloveichik works out, there are at least three more candidates currently in the running

If neither Broyde nor Soloveichik works out, there are at least three more candidates currently in the running. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Rabbi Harvey Belovski are the two local London rabbis who were initially considered the only serious contenders for the job. Now, one of them may yet emerge as a compromise candidate if a foreign rabbi with more “star power” cannot be agreed upon.

Meanwhile Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York will have his first face-to-face interview in London in the last week of August and could emerge as a late spoiler.

“The fact that they are considering him so late proves that the other two [Americans] have serious shortcomings,” says the senior US rabbi.

Baltimore-born Rosenblatt, who is the great-grandson of world-famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, has a PhD from Columbia University in modern British literature. He has been at the Riverdale synagogue for 27 years and was named “Rabbi of the Year” in 2007 by the New York Board of Rabbis.

One of Rosenblatt’s American supporters, Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, California, says that he is regarded as a “rabbi’s rabbi,” mentoring and advising many of his colleagues from across the Orthodox spectrum on pastoral, halachic and leadership issues.

“When you are looking for guidance and insight, Rabbi Rosenblatt has the ability to see any given problem on a completely different level, opening up new options,” Dardik says.

While Rosenblatt has not published widely, Dardik considers him a powerful speaker. But Rosenblatt’s main strength, he says, is in his “nuanced” and sensitive approach to community-building.

“He doesn’t come with preconceived ideas of what a community needs to be like and what needs to happen,” Dardik says. “He takes into account the nature of a community.”

For all the complications of the search for Sacks’ successor, there are likely to be no radical developments until the end of the summer. Many of the decision-makers are away for part or all of August.