A modern prophet

A modern prophet

November 5, 2009 10:49
Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits 248 88

Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits 248 88. (photo credit: )

As a leading ecclesiastical figure in the unfolding of modern Jewish history, Immanuel Jakobovits - who died 10 years ago this weekend (21 Heshvan) - was a generation ahead of his time. Whether on the international stage or on the home front, he evinced a shrewdness of mind and sureness of touch that went to the heart of any matter he chose to explore. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin reflected on the chief rabbi's "unswerving integrity, moving faith and exemplary courage" - qualities which evoke images of the biblical prophets who, throughout eras of upheaval and uncertainty, courted neither popularity nor preferment in their bid to convey God's message to man. Few other Jewish leaders of the 20th century displayed Lord Jakobovits's ability not only to predict unfolding events and currents across a range of canvases - from Soviet Jewry and the Middle East to Jewish education and interfaith relations - but to apply the tints and textures that would mold the finished picture and create its character. It is this range of issues, and his impact upon them, that marked out Jakobovits from his contemporaries and peers. As a pulpit and pastoral rabbi in the early years of his ministry, he laid the foundations for educational excellence, marriage guidance, youth leadership, literary endeavor and Torah scholarship in a number of congregations. As chief rabbi of Ireland, he fashioned an entire community in the round and introduced to the rabbinate and academia the hitherto untouched study of Jewish medical ethics, later perpetuated through groundbreaking centers in his name at Ben-Gurion and Bar-Ilan universities. And as founding rabbi of New York's Fifth Avenue Synagogue, he advanced the concept of Modern Orthodoxy in a challenging and innovative manner. But it was as British chief rabbi (1967-1991), following a period of unprecedented turbulence within Anglo-Jewry, that his gifts of leadership, diplomacy, grace and wisdom bore greatest fruit, smoothing the ruffled feathers of a torn and troubled flock and accelerating the emergence of a vibrant and revitalized Orthodoxy in the centrist community. In a valedictory address on installing his successor - now Lord Sacks of Aldgate - Jakobovits looked back both on his own chief rabbinate and on those that preceded it. "I have," he remarked, "particular cause to render thanks. My four illustrious predecessors faced greater internal strife and tribulations than I ever had to endure. Both Nathan Marcus Adler and his son, Hermann, witnessed major challenges to communal unity, with the breakaway to the right of the Federation of Synagogues and the Machzike Hadath, and of the Reform to the left. "Under Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz, lasting communal splits occurred, with the founding of the Adath and, at the opposite pole, of the Liberal congregations. Moreover, he was locked in bitter conflicts with his lay leaders when, in a letter to The Times, he denounced their opposition to the Balfour Declaration, and later, when the president of the United Synagogue countermanded the chief rabbi's instructions to his ministers to protest against the British White Paper on Palestine. "His successor, Rabbi Israel Brodie, faced a major rebellion [the so-called Jacobs Affair] which threatened to break up his office as well as the cohesion of the community altogether. I can say of myself that I went in and I went out without hurt, and I have reason to turn this day into a feast, a yomtov of very special thanksgiving, one that is increased by a particular joy. "During this final year in office, two new Jewish day schools were approved, while another opened and is already operating with singular success - Immanuel College, so magnanimously named in my honor. These three schools will almost exactly complete the educational development program for new schools announced some 20 years ago. Much remains to be done, but for much we have reason to rejoice and be profoundly thankful." DECADES BEFORE Madrid, Oslo and Camp David became the cradles of putative peace, years before perestroika presaged the downfall of communism and freedom for Soviet Jewry, Jakobovits was at the hustings, calling for talks with the Palestinians and for a campaign of enlightenment - "Let My People Live" - for his coreligionists behind the Iron Curtain. Standing his ground against widespread skepticism, he traveled widely, and corresponded more widely still, to garner support for policies then unpopular but later shown to be of enduring worth. In much of this work, he suffered the slings and barbs of vested interests, the taunts and contempt of so-called constituents, as he echoed the words of the prophet Micah: "Hear, I pray you, ye heads of Jacob, and rulers of the house of Israel: Is it not for you to know justice?" The chief rabbi's frustrations found expression in constant references to the prophetical mission. Discussing - in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War - Jewish destiny, the pursuit of peace and "sensitivity to the plight of Arab refugees, whatever the cause of the problem," he told a 1974 gathering in London: "Only through an intensely religious conscience can such high moral standards be attained as will eventually reassure our adversaries that they can dwell securely and without fear. Real peace is a state of mind, rather than an expedient accommodation." And, anticipating the kind of critical response that was soon to dog him at every turn, he added: "We may be bitterly opposed, if not abused, by those who do not share our commitment and who will not easily submit to an exacting way of life or abandon the little gods and supermen they have fashioned to replace the God of Israel, however disastrous the course they have chosen may be. But, as heirs to the Hebrew prophets - and like them - we must be prepared to expose ourselves to the risk of loneliness, unpopularity and sometimes even derision. They, too, were often ignored and harassed by their contemporaries. Yet their work has remained immortal, and thanks to their reproof and consolation, we are alive while others have disappeared. "Today, some 25 centuries later, our task is, thank God, far easier than theirs. We can build on the foundations of immense goodwill, on a vast fund of high idealism, self-sacrifice and passionate dedication, as displayed so heroically by the builders and defenders of our homeland, and by the supporters of Zion's cause throughout the world. The will is there, if only we provide the direction and inspiration for its expression." Seven years earlier, within sight of the Six Day War, he had spelled out that task in similar terms. "I am summoned," he declared on taking up office, "to provide the vision and inspiration of the prophet, whose mantle, according to the Talmud, was bequeathed to the rabbis from the day the Temple was destroyed. Unlike the priests, who expected the people to come to them in the sanctuary, the prophets went out to the people to proclaim their message. I shall likewise seek out my brethren wherever they are. "As successor to the prophets, the rabbi today must demonstrate the relevance of Judaism to the contemporary experience. He must also spiritualize the mechanics of Jewish observance, showing the moral grandeur of religious discipline, the stirring uplift of true prayer and the holiness of lives daily consecrated to God's service. "He must interpret the interplay between faith and reality, between ritual and ethics, between Israel and the nations. He must make manifest the gap between the laws of nature and the moral law, between impersonal science complacently dealing with things as they are and personal religion impatiently dealing with things as they ought to be. He must demand commitment, denounce indifference and ennoble the aim of life as a quest for living in the image of God, instead of the selfish pursuit of happiness and personal success." There are resonances here of Amos's admonition to the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel for having spurned the ethical laws of God in everyday life. Inveighing against the vacuous nature of their religious observance, the prophet declared (5:23-24): "Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." In the totality of his life's mission, Jakobovits belied the assertion of New York theologian Peter Zaas that "modern Judaism cannot look to contemporary prophets for consolation or moral guidance." As the citation to his Templeton Prize reminds us, the chief rabbi was "a man whose steadfast principles and unwavering integrity have extended his moral authority far beyond the Jewish community. In 50 years of rabbinical leadership, Lord Jakobovits has developed a reputation as a rock of unyielding ethics. His efforts to advance Judaism have set him on an often-lonely path, sometimes putting himself at odds with many of his own faith." Lamenting the fact that "prophetical courage and vision are in preciously short supply today," Jakobovits articulated that voice in the wilderness to which he frequently referred throughout his rabbinate. In this, he gave substance to Ahad Ha'am's depiction of the Hebrew prophet as "the man of truth," the "moral extremist who places righteousness ('truth in action') at the center of human life." Justice, peace and bridge-building, along with righteousness, remain the key elements of his prophetical, moral and ethical vision. In sum, they constitute a testament to his sagacity and perspicacity, his constancy and courage, his forthrightness and frankness and, above all, his love of - and dedication to - his God, his people and his land. Jakobovits's tenure as chief rabbi opened on the first day of Nisan, the month which, in biblical times, marked the beginnings of the three classic forms of Jewish leadership - prophecy, priesthood and kingship. It was apt, therefore, that on his departure from office, Britain's leading Jewish newspaper should have said of him: "The community has benefited from the fact that its image today is a reflection of the esteem in which Lord Jakobovits is held at home and abroad. That is a unique achievement for one man - unless, of course, he has in him something of prophet, priest and king." The writer is a former senior editor of the Jewish Chronicle of London, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of Immanuel Jakobovits: A Prophet in Israel. His latest work, Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate, is forthcoming from Academic Studies Press.

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