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In memory of Lord Jakobovits - A Sage in the Tradition of the Prophets
The Times - 1 November 1999
Lord Immanuel Jakobovits died yesterday, he was a religious leader of immense stature, a prophetic voice in a secular age. Few figures in public life spoke with greater courage or moral passion. Unafraid of controversy, he took strong stands on many issues of religious principle, above all in his advocacy in peace in the Middle East. Baroness Thatcher once called him a "giant amongst men". To me, for more than 30 years he was a mentor, role model and friend.
Immanuel Jakobovits came to Britain as a teenager from Germany, fleeing from Nazi persecution. He never lost his sense of gratitude to the country, which had given him a home. Educated at Jews College and University College London he abandoned an early ambition to become a doctor and instead, following his father's example entered the rabbinate. His first major appointment was as Chief Rabbi of Ireland and it was there that he married Amelie, herself the daughter of a Chief Rabbi who became his lifelong partner and energetic companion in all his endeavours. He subsequently moved to New York, where he became the founding rabbi of the 5th Avenue Synagogue. On 11th April 1967 he was installed into office as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth.
In his inaugural address he set out his vision of spiritual leadership which he painted on the broadest possible canvas. A rabbi was, he said, heir to the three great crowns of biblical times - kingship, priesthood, and prophecy. The first called for a religious leader to fight, if necessary, in defence of faith. The second called for faithful obedience to Jewish law and tradition. The third involved him in a constant effort of education, and it was here that his real passion lay.
Realising that Jewish identity could no longer be sustained in an open society by force of habit alone he embarked on a major campaign to build Jewish day schools and promote the cause of Jewish education. The slogan he used was "let my people know". The organisation he established, the Jewish Educational Development Trust, was a major force in transforming the priorities of the Jewish community and laying the foundations on which I and others have been able to build.
Lord Jakobovits took seriously the prophetic calling of religious leadership, nowhere more so than
in his realisation, shortly after the Six Day War, that Israel would have to begin a path to peace with its neighbours. At times his advocacy of peace brought him into sharp conflict with his fellow Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But he held firm, and time has vindicated his stance.
His early interest in medicine led him to develop a scholarly interest in the field of Jewish Medical Ethics, in which he wrote one of the classic texts. He was a tireless defender of the sanctity of life, and the relevance of the biblical tradition to contemporary medical dilemmas. More broadly he was indefatigable in his articulation of biblical values to modern society.
It was these statements that brought him into public prominence as one of the most robust voices of traditional morality in an otherwise relativistic age. It was in recognition of this contribution that led Margaret Thatcher in 1987 to elevate him to the Lords, the first Chief Rabbi to be so honoured.
Where did his greatness lie? The tradition in which he had been raised, which characterised pre-war German Jewry, was known as "Torah im derech eretz" - Torah combined with wider culture. Throughout his life he was loyal to this vision, at a time when many religious Jews had, in the wake of the Holocaust, lost faith in Western civilisation. He never doubted that to be a Jew is to be engaged in the wider society and culture of which one is a part while remaining faithful to one's own heritage. He not only believed in this philosophy. He exemplified it in all he did and wrote. This made him, sometimes a lonely figure but always an influential one.
Above all, he believed that Jewish life is defined by its ethical and spiritual imperatives. He could not understand, nor did he have sympathy for, the idea that Jewishness can be reduced to a secular ethnic identity. He believed in the unbroken continuity of the Jewish heritage and always felt that ethical demands took priority over aggressive particularism. He was truly a figure in the tradition of the prophets, and speaking to him you felt yourself to be in the presence of an ancient karma of undiminished wisdom.
He received many honours, not least of which was the award, in 1991, of the Templeton Prize for his contribution to religion. He served for many years as president of Conference of European Rabbis, which early established a cross-European dimension to Jewish religious life. But for me he was above all a rare and courageous figure, a man who understood that a religious voice is heard when it has the strength to challenge the idols of the age. A man for moral truth in an age of confusion, an advocate of peace in an age of extremes, Lord Jakobovits has left an immense and living legacy within the Jewish world and beyond.
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