Michael Shashar completed the last of his interviews with the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain shortly before Immanuel Jakobovits died a year ago. In one sense this book of conversations paints an autobiographical landscape, but it is also an “Intelligent Person’s Guide to Traditional Jewish Thinking.”
Anyone looking for a stereotypical viewpoint – religious against secular, left against right, “black” against “knitted” will be disappointed and indeed confused.
The haredi Jakobovits, from his birth to his death (1921-1999) never fitted in, and emerged almost by default as an honored member of the British establishment. One of his last acts was to speak at a public meeting of the British Friends of Peace Now. Jakobovits’s appearance was that of a man weighed down by age and illness, unable to see, barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other. Yet on speaking, he seemed to outgrow the wizened outer shell that fate had encased him in.
Jakobovits’s brilliant exposition, based on his understanding of Jewish belief, captivated the hearts and minds of the most hardened secularists and antagonistic radicals.
While many other Jewish denominations in Britain – Reform, Liberal, Conservative – did not regard him as “their” Chief Rabbi, he was respected for being a different type of Jewish leader who had the courage of his convictions, which he articulated with grandiloquence but without the pomp and theatricality of the Bible-thumping cleric.
Yet Jakobovits was no wishy-washy liberal. During the 1980s he became a favorite of Mrs Thatcher. First he was knighted, then elevated to the House of Lords and firmly clasped to the bosom of Middle England. Indeed, with so many Jews in the Iron Lady’s cabinet, the United Synagogue displaced the Church of England as “the Conservative Party at prayer.”
This unusual man was born into a haredi family in Konigsberg, East Prussia, shortly after the end of World War I. He was descended from a long line of scholars including Rabbi Joshua Falk.
Jakobovits’s father had good relations with the city’s Reform rabbi and was a friend of Leo Baeck. He studied not only in the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, but also at the University of Berlin. When his son was born, the elder Jakobovits named him Immanuel after a non-Jew – the philosopher Immanuel Kant whom he admired. Jakobovits was thus “a pure yekke,” a cross-breed between German middle- class and Jewish Orthodoxy. Indeed, it was only when he attended yeshiva in London shortly before the war that he first heard Yiddish.
Although Jakobovits repressed his memories of pre-war Germany to bury the pain, he remembered Hitler as part of an admiring crowd which observed the dictator during the Nazi Olympics in 1936.
“When he passed on his way to the stadium, an atmosphere of hysteria was created. It was impossible not to be caught up in this. Even I, as a Jew, could not remain indifferent, even though I already knew who he was. There was no television then, but it was enough to hear Hitler’s voice on the radio to fall under his influence. Many years after this, when I already sat in the House of Lords, I recalled this fact in one of my speeches and warned of the possible danger of the masses blindly following a leader capable of manipulating them and inciting them to mass murder.”
Jakobovits’ attributes contributed to his make-up which differentiated him from the conformity of the haredi world.
He strongly opposed the idea that rationalism is the enemy of Judaism, but “rather paganism and secularism in the form of materialism.”
Belief, Jakobovits suggested, was not expressed solely in the observance of the commandments or in its public expression, but “in man’s inner feeling.”
Jakobovits was critical of both the secularists and the haredim.
“Secular Zionism is bankrupt and is undergoing a crisis. Its vision is not being fulfilled, with the consequent creation of another vacuum. The ultra-Orthodox, in contrast, have another vision: that of a Torah state and religious values. Nevertheless, they do not regard the state as a means to realize the vision of the Torah and the prophets, and for this I weep even more than for the bankruptcy of the secular.
“The ultra-Orthodox do not devote any thought to the establishment of an exemplary state that will radiate moral influence upon the entire world and manifest a special attitude towards all its inhabitants, an attitude built on the ideals of righteousness and justice.”
Yet Jakobovits was supportive of the yeshiva world and highly enthusiastic about its regeneration after the decimation of the Holocaust. But he argued passionately that today’s yeshivot only reflect one approach within Judaism – that of Rashi, the Tosafists of medieval Europe, and pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe – in that they did not engage in general education whatsoever.
“The younger generation among the yeshiva population which has no general education is liable to face many dangers which I lament. Furthermore today, when it is the fashion to study in a yeshiva without the goal of ‘to observe and to do’ for the general welfare, without caring for the material future, we are in fact creating many loafers who are supported by a father or father-in-law, or merely rely upon the public to support them. According to the Gemara, only one of a thousand who enter the study hall comes forth to engage in instruction, while today, of all the masses who study, hardly any go forth, neither as rabbi teachers nor as rabbinical judges and not even as accredited teachers.'”
Harsh words indeed, but when Jakobovits mentioned this to Rav Shach in Bnei Brak, he received a lukewarm explanation that the situation would be different in the future. Jakobovits sharply adds: ‘He [Shach] has faith and trust in God, but in my view he does not see the situation as it actually is. He is already over 90 and the concern for this situation will fall on the shoulders of the next generation.'”
Perhaps the most controversial issues that Jakobovits confronted were those of land and peace, Israel and the Palestinian-Arabs, the future of the Territories.
In pre-Oslo England there were many who could not cope with different views – and especially when they emanated from the mouth of their duly appointed spiritual leader.
In private, he was harangued by know-all philanthropists; Jewish leaders who mistook uniformity for unity; brave souls who feared for their reputations; and ordinary confused members of the community.
Indeed, an article appeared on the front page of the London Times in which the former IDF Chief Rabbi Goren called upon Anglo-Jewry to “vomit him out.”
And although Jakobovits admired the Lubavitcher rebbe, an invitation was issued to the Habad rabbinical court for a din Torah because he had uttered “things against the people of Israel.”
Indeed, the very first question which Shashar asks is “if you were prime minister of Israel, how would you resolve the difficult question of Jerusalem?” Discussed long before the abortive Barak-Arafat Camp David summit, Jakobovits suggests that Jerusalem should not be left until the end of negotiations, should remain undivided, but that the Palestinian-Arabs should be permitted to raise their flag in their areas and declare it their capital.
One wonders what he would have made of the breakdown of negotiations and the subsequent al-Aksa Intifada.
While Jakobovits accepts that all Jews have the obligation to fulfil the commandment of settling Eretz Israel, he points out that it is not conditional on Israeli sovereignty. Moreover, he argues that as many settlements as possible must be retained within contiguous borders and that the security of isolated places as Kiryat Arba and Elon More would have to be assured in negotiations – “and there are many precedents for this in the world.”
About the significance of the Temple Mount, Jakobovits commented: “I regard as dangerous for Judaism and the Jews the attempts to hasten the building of the Temple by sewing the priestly garments, the building of an altar and even the finding of a red heifer. Our being forbidden to ascend the Temple Mount due to its holiness may not be for nothing. Because of this prohibition, we do not enter into daily conflicts with the Arabs there. It seems that the present situation is to be maintained, without change.”
In exasperation at Thomas Becket, Henry II once exclaimed “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Many on both sides of the political and religious divide would have empathized when they contemplated the figure of Immanuel Jakobovits.
Yet when he died last year, British Jews remembered him with great affection as a loyal servant and not so much as the spiritual leader whom Mrs Thatcher referred to as “my Chief Rabbi” – a person of strong but measured individual views who was his own man.
Someone with whom they would disagree on a range of subjects, while appreciating the integrity and humility with which he projected them. As the Midrash states, office seeks out the man who runs away from office.