Lord Jakobovits's legacy of dignity

A decade after his death, the former Chief Rabbi is justly remembered for his moral consistency


Ten years after his death, his community is harvesting some of the fruits Immanuel Jakobovits planted in often rocky and indifferent earth during the 24 years of his Chief Rabbinate. His vision of a community committed in all its parts to living a full Jewish life, not just in practice but in spirit, may never be realised. But there is today an unparalleled search at every level for Jewish education.

Even a visionary could not have believed, back in 1967, when he succeeded Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi, that a day would come when there were insufficient Jewish day schools to meet the demands for places, a point at which some of the brightest young men and women in the mainstream community would want to spend time at an Israeli yeshiva or seminary and when 16 institutions of higher learning offered degree courses in Jewish studies. One of them, King’s College, London, has even forged an unlikely partnership with both the London School for Jewish Studies (once Jews’ College) and the Reform movement’s Leo Baeck College.

Jakobovits’s tireless advocacy of Jewish education, built on by his successor, impacted not just on his own congregation but also those to the left and right of the United Synagogue. Two other major achievements of his term were his groundbreaking work in establishing Jewish medical ethics as an accepted field of academic study and his elevation of the status of the chief rabbinate to that almost of a national institution.

This, unquestionably, owed a lot to his conservative views on social policies which so endeared him to Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. She made perfectly clear that she preferred his unflinchingly moralistic view — that something you get for nothing is not worth anything — to the liberal pontifications of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. At his retirement dinner, she professed herself unable to say whether he was a Thatcherite or she a Jakobovite.

Many of his critics, Jewish and otherwise, had no doubt which he was when he published his response to a Church of England paper on inner-city poverty. In this, he advised new immigrants (then mainly black) and the underprivileged to learn from the Jews who came out of the ghettoes and got for themselves a decent education — and jobs. Idleness, he proclaimed, was an even greater evil than unemployment and cheap labour was more dignified than a free dole.

Jews could make no better contribution than helping to shift the emphasis among the underprivileged from “rights” to “duties” and “from having a good time to making the times good.”

There was no surprise when Immanuel Jakobovits, already a knight, was created a peer by Mrs Thatcher, the first rabbi ever to take a seat in the House of Lords. He sat, to the surprise of some, on the cross-benches.

It was the dignity of man, created as he had no doubt in God’s image, thereby imposing on man a duty to safeguard it, that fired his opposition to abortion (except in some extreme and limited circumstances) and homosexuality.

It was this sense of mankind’s dignity, which led him on several occasions to speak out against some Israeli actions in the territories and for the human rights of the Palestinians. These intrusions usually angered the religious and political right in Israel and upset sections of his community at home. There were times when he would have been even bolder where it not that he feared damaging his domestic educational programmes.

Nevertheless, his Zionism was fervent but of a variety difficult for those who did not understand his absolute submission to what he considered biblical injunctions of morality. To quote from the inimitable Chaim Bermant’s “authorised biography” of Jakobovits , his belief was that “The Children of Israel were granted possession of the Holy Land on condition that they lived as a holy people. Their failure to do so in the past led to their expulsion and exile, and he is by no means convinced that they will succeed in doing so in the future.”

In the end, a recalcitrant and fractious Anglo-Jewry denied his two most fervent wishes: to see a united Orthodoxy without competing institutions and a wider, unified community — from the religious right to the religious left — joined in common action for the greater good, agreed on an halachic norm for marriage, divorce and conversion and looking upon each other, even the “errant” ones, as brothers and sisters.

Geoffrey Paul is a former JC editor

    Last updated: 5:04pm, December 10 2009

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