If Only My People: Zionism in My life

“If Only My People: Zionism in My life”‘ by Immanuel Jakobovits

published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

The title ‘Rabbi’ is conventionally understood to be the Hebrew translation for teacher. Yet originally rabbis were expounders and interpreters of Judaism. Their role became institutionalised in the Middle Ages through absorbing a necessary teaching function as spiritual heads of Jewish communities. In earlier times, they earned a living as carpenters and cobblers, but were held aloft by their peers through a moral and spiritual leadership. With the innovation of the rabbi as teacher, employment by Jewish communities changed that role. Indeed as Chief Rabbi, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits should essentially don the mantle of a veritable headmaster. Yet as this autobiographical work indicates, he is far from being a mummified figure and a pillar of the establishment. He is not a man imprisoned by his reputation and high office, but a social critic with roots firmly planted in orthodox Judaism.

He is clearly attracted to the original role of the rabbi and indeed accuses the rabbinical fraternity of abdicating their position as mentors and teachers in the governance of Jewish destiny and the definition of the Jewish purpose. He writes:

“Sadly they represent neither the Government nor even the Opposition in the leadership of the Jewish people. Meat inspectors and catering supervisors, officials who marry and bury people, or preach            the converted and denounce the rest, or even scholars who withdrew to secluded cloisters to instruct devoted disciples in the intricacies of the Talmud – all these are bound to be marginal in the direction of national or communal affairs.”

While he has a vested interest in promoting the orthodox religious viewpoint, he opposes the increasing fundamentalism of many orthodox figures, believing     that rational reasoned debate is the correct path. His interest in Jewish education has manifested itself in a plethora of institutions established over the two decades. It is perhaps not a question of assimilation that he perceives as a danger, but an alienation through lethargy and ignorance. Rejection of cultural identity often offers an easy way out to an ethnic minority and the Jews are no exception. In the Jewish case it is often a surrogate for the conventional rejection       of a parental lifestyle. Indeed, the Chief Rabbi comments that ‘without intensive Jewish education, there would in future be no Jews’.

In addition, he argues many issues which numerous Jews – and specifically in the non-Orthodox camp – would passionately disagree with. The controversies of abortion and ‘Who is a Jew’ are but two. On religious issues, he is a traditionalist whilst politically he is a liberal. Few rabbis have arrived at that independent position. His moderate stand on the Israel-Palestine problem earned him many opponents. As a supporter of the religious peace movement in Israel, he suffered both gross distortion of his views and personal abuse from Israel’s downmarket press. In documenting in detail, the fantasies of the news manufacturers, he shows that he can argue his corner cogently without resorting to bigotry end defamation. This is in sharp contrast to the then Ashkenasi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a well-known hawk who during one confrontation called upon the Jews of Britain ‘to spew out Dr Jakobovits. This comment rallied even his critics in this country to his defence.

His considered deliberations as indicated by excerpts from sermons and talks are tempered by the psychological temperature of his flock. Not a turbulent priest perhaps, but no conventional conservative either. Indeed, he pointedly reiterates his belief in the universalist dictum of the prophet Isaiah that the people of Israel should be a light unto the nations. Moreover, he asserts that this should not merely be brandished an a tool of propagenda, but as a yardstick for action. In this respect, he makes a fundamental distinction between a State of Jews and a Jewish State This book will be of interest to both Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, in that it is quietly iconoclastic in dismantling  the accepted wisdom end imagery on Jews ad Israel.


Times Education Supplement 1983

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