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  • Immanuel JakobovitsA Coherent Theology of Apparent Contradiction
  • Miri Freud-Kandel (bio)

In the valedictory sermon delivered by Immanuel Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, on the occasion of the installation of his successor, Jakobovits fixed on the theme of Moses' advice to Joshua when he was preparing to take over the leadership of the Jewish people. Summarizing the traits required for a successful Chief Rabbinate Jakobovits stated: "the two words chazak ve'ematz, addressed to Joshua, say it all: 'Be strong and of good courage.' "1 Many of the studies of Immanuel Jakobovits and the obituary notices that marked his death remark on the strength of this trait of courage in the rabbinic leadership he provided. This courageous instinct to battle to defend the positions in which he believed ensured that Jakobovits was never a leadership figure who shied into the background. Indeed his courageous instincts would lead him to repeatedly do battle over principles that he criticized others for failing to address. Across a range of issues, which incorporated positions that at times could appear contradictory, the nature of these battles would ensure the necessity of Jakobovits applying Moses' exhortation to be strong and courageous to his own efforts as a vocal rabbi in the public domain.

Jakobovits' inclination to turn to the model of leadership provided by Moses and Joshua can be seen to be reflective of his more general sense, repeatedly expressed in numerous sermons and articles, that the rabbinic role should broadly be seen as heir to the prophetic tradition in Judaism. In an address to the first Conference of European Rabbis in 1957, Jakobovits laid out what he entitled "A Blueprint for Rabbinic Leadership." This address in particular noted how:

People these days look to rabbis for sermons and the discharge of purely ecclesiastical functions. But for the ultimate realization of the Jewish purpose in history they no longer rely on us or our teachings; for national leadership they look to politicians and other secularist guides … It is our task, as spiritual leaders who have assumed the heritage of the Prophets, to become interpreters of our history … The time has perhaps also come when we should [End Page 127] again address ourselves to the nations of the world as the authentic spokesmen of God's will on universal issues.2

He noted how rabbis appeared to have become too caught up in practical matters:

we write numerous Responsa, we give halakhic answers to questions every day. But … [you] would find few references to the great moral problems of our times.

We must devote our intellectual energies and apply our learning to contemporary questions … Only in this way can we turn our Torah into a "Torah of life" and ourselves into the true guides of Jewish thought in the spirit of the Prophets and their successors.3

Using this blueprint for rabbinic leadership as his model, Jakobovits duly established himself as a Jewish spokesman and moral guardian on a broad range of issues. In the process, he would find himself at the heart of a variety of controversies incited by his incursions into moral debates. What is striking about Jakobovits and the differing controversies in which he was involved was that he drew criticism from a broad spectrum of society. This can be seen to reflect the apparent contradiction at the heart of his theology to which the title of this article points. At times his views appeared socially conservative. In particular, on issues of social welfare, women's rights, birth control, abortion, sexuality, and AIDS Jakobovits repeatedly championed views that were religiously conservative and politically right-wing. In these instances he was criticized by those who favored more liberal positions. However, it was not his views on these issues that would incite the greatest controversies of his rabbinic career. The worst skirmishes he faced erupted in response to the statements he made on issues related to Zionism, the state of Israel, and the role of religion in Israeli politics. His views on these topics drew criticism for their apparent alignment with the liberal wing of both Anglo-Jewry and world Jewry. The vitriol to which he was...


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pp. 127-152
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