Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits zt”l

by Rabbi Shlomo Jakobovits

The headlines and captions of the world’s press summed it up in a few phrases.  The Jerusalem Post headline read: “A Piercing Voice is Silenced”; the London Times referred to him as “A Sage in the Tradition of the Prophets”; the London Jewish Chronicle was headed, “A Great Spokesman for Judaism” and The New York Times called him “A Rabbi’s Rabbi.”

All of these descriptions, and numerous others, refer to the same striking individual, the late Rav Immanuel Lord Jakobovits zt”l,  former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. His passing, at age 78, occurred Motzei Shabbat, October 31, 1999. He died ten hours after returning home from shul and six hours before he was due to meet with President Chirac of France to ask for his intercession on behalf of the 13 Jews imprisoned in Iran.

Rabbi Jakobovits was born in 1921 in Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad) where his father, Dr. Julius Jakobovits, served as the rabbi. The family was noted for its generations of rabbis and physicians, and in 1928 Dr. Jakobovits was appointed Av Bet-Din of Berlin. Soon thereafter, dark clouds enveloped German Jewry, and in 1936, at the age of 15, young Yisroel (Immanuel) was sent to England to study at Yeshiva Eitz Chaim.  He later continued his education at University of London and Jews’ College.

The Youngest Chief Rabbi on Record

At the early age of 20, Rabbi Jakobovits was appointed Minister (the English expression for a pulpit rabbi at that time) of Brondesbury Synagogue in London. He subsequently served in the South-East London Synagogue, and then in the London Great Synagogue, popularly known as Duke’s Place. Shortly after his 27th birthday he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Ireland, the youngest chief rabbi on record.

Until just before World War II, this position had been occupied by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Herzog, who proceeded from there to become Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael. The chief rabbis of Ireland resided in an official residence, and the government has since affixed historical plaques on this home indicating that Chief Rabbi Herzog, his son Chaim, who later became President of the State of Israel, and Chief Rabbi Jakobovits all had resided there.

The Republic of Ireland has always been closely tied with Catholic policies, and until very recently the Vatican was opposed to the recognition of Israel. Despite this Vatican position, the Prime Minister of Ireland announced, at the installation ceremony for Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, that Ireland extended recognition to the new State of Israel, in honor of the new Chief Rabbi.

It was the Church-inspired policies of the medical profession in Ireland which drew Rabbi Jakobovits’ attention to the contrast between their medical codes, and those of halachah. Embarking upon an exhaustive study of Jewish medical practice and authoring the first comprehensive text on the subject, Jewish Medical Ethics, he launched what became a new field of study throughout the world.  The term itself, Jewish Medical Ethics, was coined by him and is still used worldwide wherever this field of knowledge is taught.

While living in  Ireland, he married Amelie Munk, daughter of Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk of Paris, scion of a famed rabbinical family. There are six Jakobovits children, who today are all married; of the sons and sons-in-law, two became rabbis and two became physicians.

Answering the Call of the British Commonwealth

After ten years in Ireland, the family moved to New York City, where Rabbi Jakobovits became the first rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. A very practical and significant contribution to the observance of halachah, which he initiated during this time, was the introduction of the Shabbat elevator. When he moved to Manhattan in 1958, Rabbi Jakobovits noted that Jewish families who found it difficult to climb the stairs to reach upper stories of tall buildings or upper floors of synagogues on Shabbat or Yom Tov, employed a non-Jew to press the elevator keys. Deeming that practice halachically unacceptable, he consulted with engineers who were experts in this technology. They implemented certain mechanical adjustments — and the world’s first Shabbat elevator was installed at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue. The innovation immediately spread world-wide, and is today a staple of Shabbat observance.

In 1967, he was recalled to England as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. At the outset of the Six Day War in Israel, he gave an  address at the Royal Albert Hall before an audience of 12,000 people. This speech, a classic of oratory, helped to inspire Anglo-Jewry to unprecedented levels of support for embattled Israel.

Rabbi Jakobovits served as British Chief Rabbi for 24 years, and through his writings, his speeches and his personal impact, his influence reached far outside of his Jewish constituency and well beyond the borders of the Commonwealth. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her successor John Major, were deeply impressed by his personality and by his teachings. He was staunchly Orthodox in his personal observance of Judaism and also in the uncompromising positions of his public pronouncements. He manifested a rare talent for rendering Torah teachings relevant and palatable not only to his fellow Jews but also to the non-Jews of the civilized world. In this respect he emulated our prophets of old, who addressed themselves not only to our own people, but also to the nations of the world.

The British government took note of his strong stand on morality and public ethics, and in 1981 he was invested at Buckingham Palace with the honor of knighthood. Henceforth he was known as Chief Rabbi Sir Immanuel Jakobovits. In 1988, he was further honored by elevation to the British Peerage which confers life-long membership in the House of Lords. He became a baron, known as Lord Jakobovits, and his wife became a baroness.

When Jews were oppressed anywhere in the world, specifically in Soviet Russia and in Moslem countries, he took an active leadership role in the struggle on their behalf. In this connection, his first visit to Russia was among the very earliest by any Jewish rabbi.

As a member of the British Parliament, he brought his influence to bear whenever the deliberations took up items which touched upon ethics or upon matters of Jewish interest. The press accorded him more attention than any other member of the Lords, for as a leader of the press corps put it, “He always had something worthwhile to say.”

An Author and Speaker of Note

Rabbi Jakobovitz  was equally at home whether giving a shiur at a yeshivah, delivering a lecture in a university, making a parliamentary speech to British nobility, or imparting a television message to an audience of millions. Within the Jewish world, he demonstrated a remarkable facility to communicate well with all groups, whether right-wing Orthodox or left-wing Reform, or those who were unaffiliated. They all respected him, whether they accepted his views or not, and upon his death all joined in the outpouring of sorrow and esteem.

He authored several scholarly books. One work, published by the Jewish Agency Torah Department, was a Hebrew treatise in which he shows how there is a reference to Eretz Yisrael, direct or inferred, in every sedrah of the Torah. Another work, If Only My People, constitutes a clarion call for Torah observance, especially as applicable in the national policy of the State of Israel. In his Journal of a Rabbi, and in a later volume titled The Timely and the Timeless, Rabbi Jakobovits chronicles many of the most interesting experiences of his career, and recounts his fascinating contacts and correspondence with leaders of Jewry and with statesmen of Israel and other countries. A further compilation, Dear Chief Rabbi, shares the more notable of the numerous exchanges he had with others through letters. He also authored a new edition of the standard siddur used in Britian, with explanatory notes on the Hebrew text and on the structure of Jewish prayer services. He was halfway through a similar work on Machzor Shel Yomim Nora’im when death intervened.

Over 1,000 of his articles, monographs and sermons have been published and he solemnized approximately 2,500 marriages.When the speeches delivered at these ceremonies and other occasions, are added to his lectures, synagogue sermons, public shiurim, and media appearances it is estimated that he delivered 7,000 addresses during his career. Each of his speeches was replete with original thought and applicable to everyday life. He wrote the section on contemporary halachah  for Tradition, the American rabbinical journal, for 14 years. He also edited Le’ela, the scholarly journal published by the British Chief Rabbinate, and he regularly contributed to it.

After his retirement in 1991,  Rav Jakobovits continued his community activities full-time. He gave shiurim in London regularly, except during those seasons of each year when he taught Jewish Medical Ethics at the University of the Negev, or when he traveled on lecture tours to various countries. To the day of his death, he headed several active committees and served as head of the Council of European Rabbis.

 Leader, Not Follower

Rav Jakobovits himself deemed his single most important contribution to Judaism to be his enhancement of Jewish education in both Ireland and Great Britain. He set community movements in motion which substantially increased enrollment in day-school education and adult education, and which raised standards of learning where previously the levels had been unsatisfactory. He made it his task to persuade community leaders and contributors that education took first priority, above building of synagogues, Holocaust memorials and other worthy causes. That view was not universally accepted at the time, but he often took positions which ran counter to popular choice. He persisted forcefully and fearlessly, and never compromised his principles under pressure.

A perceptive obituary in The Wall Street Journal enumerated his many pronouncements on major social issues, such as the question of hand-outs to the needy versus self-help programs; and the broad permissiveness of the modern world versus the traditionalism of biblical teachings. The study came to the conclusion that the views articulated by Chief Rabbi Jakobovits were more often than not contrary to those of most American Jewish voters, whose inclination tended overwhelmingly to favor liberal candidates.

At the other pole of the spectrum, his position likewise ran counter to what some call the siege mentality of today — the notion that Orthodoxy should separate itself entirely from other Jews and other Jewish movements. Indeed The Jerusalem Post ran a headline on him, “Builder of Bridges, Not Walls.”  His lofty exhortations and his friendly bridges were also directed to the outside world, and the leaders of that world in turn accorded him a degree of respect which is a rare phenomenon.

The most controversial of the issues Rabbi Jakobovits took up was the question of the peace process in the Middle East. He held firmly to the view that a leader must swim in the right direction, regardless of whether that direction is with the tide or against it. He was a devoted and active Zionist, and ardently believed that, in the long run, peace and normal relations with the Arabs are crucial for the survival and well-being of Medinat Yisrael, and that a permanent state of war is untenable and unthinkable. Israel, he felt, must negotiate accordingly, and must come to terms with the essential needs and aspirations of the Palestinians. He espoused this view as soon as the question arose, shortly after the Six-Day War — at a time when such pronouncements generated intense criticism and public outcry, both in Israel and in North America.

In due course he became the object of an avalanche of protests, which included personal vilification and threats. But he steadfastly stood his ground. When he responded to his detractors he refrained from personal invective and restricted himself to discussion of only the issues, not the personalities. Today Israel and the Jewish world are steadily coming around to his long-held views. Indeed, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in his personal letter of condolence to Lady Jakobovits, made specific reference to the impact of her husband’s political foresight and his initiative for peace.

Of Wit and Wisdom

Throughout all of this difficulty, Rav Jakobovits maintained his delightful sense of humor. For example, when he was pronounced a peer — as members of the House of Lords are known – Dr. Yosef Burg, z”l, sent him a telegram: “Usually we read that the Lord is my shepherd; in this case the shepherd is my lord.” In thanking Dr. Burg, Lord Jakobovits responded, “You are peer-less.”

Despite his station in life and the fame which came with it he was, and always remained, a decidedly modest individual, not self-assertive and not seeking publicity. He was most at home in his own family circle. His wife, who came to be known throughout Britain as Lady Amelie, or sometimes Lady J, was the constant consort, and the couple worked in tandem as a most compatible team.

Both derived immense satisfaction from seeing how every one of their children and grandchildren scrupulously followed the family tradition of Orthodox observance. Public life carries its unavoidable share of frustrations and failures, even for a great achiever such as Rav Jakobovits. But in looking upon his own offspring and their perpetuation of his teachings, he savored the constant delight of unmitigated success.

In the hearts of his family, the loss of  this caring, quiet individual — husband, father, brother, relative — created a deeply personal ache.  To a chaotic world, which sorely needs his firm, reassuring hand, the passing of this talmid chacham, articulate statesman and defender of ethics signals the end of a unique era of moral leadership.  The day Rabbi Jakobovits died, the burial notice posted on the walls of Yerushalayim bore the epitaph, “He raised the status of Torah among Jews, and the status of Jews among the nations of the world.”

Rabbi Shlomo Jakobovits, brother of the late Chief Rabbi, is a principal of the Eitz Chaim Schools in Toronto, Canada.  He frequently writes on historical subjects.


This article was featured in the Spring 2000 issue of Jewish Action.
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