Immanuel Jakobovits on Inter-Faith Relations


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

It has often been noted that, since the time of the Jewish Resettlement in Britain in 1656, British Jews have been spared much of the antisemitic persecution, particularly of the physical kind, that Jews elsewhere in Continental Europe often suffered. This is not to suggest that the Jews in Britain suffered no impediments to their participation in British society. Jews had been formally expelled from Britain in 1290 by Edward I. By the mid-seventeenth century an open debate on the question of allowing Jews to return to British shores was taking place. This was largely driven by financial concerns, though it was also influenced by millenarian hopes and an interest in increasing religious tolerance. Between 1655-6, Menasseh ben Israel submitted formal petitions to Oliver Cromwell, requesting permission for a Jewish return. However, no formal assent to these petitions was given. Explicit permission for Jews to resettle in Britain was never made. Instead, those Jews already present in the country, who, as conversos, had been hiding their Jewish identity and posing as Spanish Catholics, realized that, given the deteriorating nature of Anglo-Spanish relations as war broke out in 1655, they were better off acknowledging their Jewish identity. Cromwell informally let it be known that they would be permitted to practice their Judaism in Britain, and this led to the purchase of land for a cemetery in 1657 and the subsequent establishment of a house of worship.

The absence of official sanction for a Jewish return to Britain offered both benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps most notably, it precluded the creation of legislation specifically intended to define the limits of Jewish settlement. Yet it can also be seen to have helped foster insecurity about the place of Jews in British society. This contributed to British Jews’ experience of what has been termed an ‘antisemitism of tolerance’. Until recent times Jewishness in Britain has often been tolerated rather than celebrated. While being Jewish might have come to be deemed acceptable in Britain, it was not part of the strong and clear sense of how to be an ideal English citizen that prevailed until well into the twentieth century.

More contemporary understandings of British identity have been subjected to some revision as multiculturalism came to achieve a level of influence in Britain, though this too has come under attack more recently. Growing scope for the development of a more proud and distinctive Jewish identity has emerged. Nonetheless, the spectre of antisemitism functions as a significant element in communal Jewish discourse. In recent years this has often been incited by anti-Israel sentiments. Indeed, in 2010 a Tel Aviv University report found that Britain had the highest number of antisemitic incidents across the Jewish Diaspora.

It was in response to antisemitism, alongside a desire to address discrimination more broadly, that the British Council of Christians and Jews was established in 1942 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, and the Chief Rabbi of the time, Joseph Hertz. The Chief Rabbi was very clear in his intention that the discussion of religious doctrines would not be a feature of this Council. He felt very strongly that religions had to retain that which was distinct to them and should not seek to play down their beliefs in an effort to achieve better integration. However, this by no means precluded the possibility of bringing together religious representatives to impart the moral teachings of their respective religious traditions, in an effort to foster a society informed by such values. Immanuel Jakobovits, appointed Chief Rabbi in 1967, broadly agreed with these sentiments.

Born in Koenigsberg in Germany in 1921, Jakobovits received much of his schooling in Germany but was sent to Britain in 1936 to escape the rise of Nazism. It was Jakobovits’ experiences of German Jewish Orthodoxy, and its persecution, that would inform his theology. Jakobovits placed considerable emphasis on the idea that the Jewish people had a mission to fulfil in the societies they inhabited. This mission was to transmit the moral values taught by Judaism. Their mandate for this task derived from the biblical call, expressed most forcefully in the book of Isaiah, for Jews to function as a ‘light unto the nations’. While conscious that Jews in Britain and elsewhere often failed in this task, Jakobovits took every opportunity to explain how this was a particular duty set out for the Jewish people. He also argued that rabbis, as heirs to the prophetic tradition, had acquired a special responsibility to issue a clarion call to both Jews and gentiles to help restore them to moral correctness. This led Jakobovits to be highly active in the political discourse of his day, reflecting his commitment to try to influence the moral values of the society in which he lived. Rather than merely focusing his energies on the Jewish communities, that his post required him to represent and lead, Jakobovits made use of other forums to spread his message more widely, extolling the virtues of monotheism, and the duties to humanity and society that such belief required.

The theology espoused by Jakobovits was based on the teachings of the nineteenth century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, often viewed as one of the key founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Hirsch’s theology was characterized by the principle of ‘Torah im derekh eretz’ – literally meaning Torah combined with the ways of the land. In practice, this theology was intended to facilitate active engagement in the surrounding society by observant Jews; it was a blending of Orthodoxy with a type of modernism. One of the primary rationales behind this defence of engagement  was to provide Jews with the opportunity to fulfil their mission as a light unto the nations. However, in Hirsch’s seminal work, entitled The Nineteen Letters of ben Uziel, he explained that to achieve this role Jews also had to maintain their separateness. While participation in the surrounding society was to be encouraged on a number of levels, the necessity of retaining Jewish distinctiveness in order to spread the teachings of Judaism effectively was also made clear. Many of Jakobovits’ activities as Chief Rabbi were intended to impart the value of Jewish teachings to British society, while at the same time seeking to strengthen Jewish identity among British Jews.

2. Source

‘Inter-Faith Relations – Advances and Limits’, Sermon delivered at St John’s Wood Synagogue, 12 June, 1971, in Immanuel Jakobovits (1977) The Timely and the Timeless: Jews, Judaism and Society in a Storm-Tossed Decade.London: Vallentine, Mitchell,  pp.119-121.

(p.119) Few of the revolutionary changes which have reshaped the post-War world can be greeted by us with greater satisfaction than the dramatic improvements of interreligious relations generally, and particularly the attitude of Christianity to Judaism. Great faiths, for millennia implacable and often mortal rivals, now reason together.  We witness formerly undreamed-of manifestations of tolerance, exemplified here by the Council of Christians and Jews under patronage of the Queen and the joint presidency of the heads of denominations, and culminating in the Vatican decision to modify age-old teachings offensive to Jews, including the murderous ‘deicide’ charge.

It is no credit to civilisation that these revisions were not effected until well into the twentieth century. Had they come a thousand years earlier, untold millions of human lives might have been saved from degradation and slaughter. Nevertheless, late as they are, these radical developments are obviously welcome.

These new trends challenge as well as relieve the Jewish people. The olive branch of peace and understanding signifies more than an end to the past flood of blood and tears, and the present overtures envisage more than the unilateral rectification of historic wrongs. A new era is being ushered in, with ecumenism as its watchword, aiming at some as yet undefined inter-denominational reconciliation, in which demands will also be made of Judaism. What are these demands, what prompts them, and how far can they by met?

The ecumenical movement, aimed at ‘Christian Unity’, is of course a purely internal affair within Christendom. The forces generating this movement are not born, and cannot be expected to be born, solely out of altruistic motives, any more than the internationalism of the United Nations is sustained without a measure of self-interest by the great powers. With the end of European colonialism diminishing the hopes of converting to Christianity one-third of mankind, and with militant atheism ruling another third, not to mention the rebellion against religion in the remaining Christian world. Christianity is on the defensive for the first time in its history. This momentous turn of the tide is bound to produce pressures for consolidation from within, to compensate for the inroads from outside. Clearly the same (p.120) pressures also call from some accommodation with Judaism, to strengthen the ramparts of the ‘Judaeo-Christian patrimony’ against the ‘common foe’ of materialism, secularism, atheism and sheer paganism sweeping the world.

From the Jewish point of view, some Jewish and Christian interests converge, while others will always remain irreconcilable. Jews certainly have an interest in Christians being good and faithful Christians, not only because – in the phrase first coined in medieval times – ‘wie es christelt sich, so juedelt’s sich’. Judaism obviously cares deeply for the advancement of the moral and religious values promoted by all monotheistic faiths.

There are also many specific areas in which inter-faith co-operation should prove of common interest. Consultations and joint efforts are surely desirable to ensure better religious educational facilities, including aid for denominational schools; to defeat morally unacceptable legislation, from abortion on demand at the start of life to euthanasia at its end; to fight racial or religious discrimination; and generally to cultivate the moral and religious conscience of society.

But traditional Judaism shrinks from inter-denominational activities and debates in areas on which our religious differences impinge. Our aversion to theological dialogues and inter-faith services, for instance, is founded both on practical considerations and on the dictates of Jewish law.

We regard our relationship with God, and the manner in which we define and collectively express it, as being so intimate and personal that we could no more convey it to outsiders than we would share with others our husband-wife relationship. We feel it is improper to expose one’s innermost beliefs and mode of worship to the judgement or comparative scrutiny of those who do not share the same religious commitment.

Moreover, any parleys between Judaism and Christianity would be between two essentially unequal partners on several counts, quite apart from the gross disparity in dominance and numbers in Christian lands. Christianity may well have seen a need officially to define its doctrinal attitude towards the faith from which it emerged and eventually broke away. But neither the recognition of this need nor the resultant relationship can be entirely reciprocal. Judaism, antedating Christianity by many centuries, had no occasion or cause to include in its official doctrines any formal views on a faith which sprang up long after these doctrines were formulated in all essentials. It lies in the nature of their history that the New Testament can refer to the Old, whilst the Old cannot refer to the New.

An even more important element of inequality lies in the fundamental divergence of views on evangelism, a subject of special sensitivity to a people already decimated by persecution and assimilation. While Christianity aspires to convert all human beings, uniting them within one universal religion, Judaism has no such aspirations. It is content to remain for all time a minority faith, ‘the remnant of Israel,’ restricted to those born into it and the few who may spontaneously seek to embrace it, without any encouragement or inducement. Even if Christian were to foreswear any missionary intent in theological dialogues with Jews, their traditional division into two groups – the one seeking to absorb the other – is historically, if not theologically, so deeply rooted as inevitably to compromise their equality.

(p.121) Judaism accepts religious diversity and cultural pluralism not just as an inescapable fact of life, or a temporary condition to be tolerated, but as a desirable state to enrich the human experience. Diversity, we believe – in creed, race, nationality, political views and other spheres – is as essential to create the dynamics of human progress as are the distinctions and tensions between male and female or between positive and negative poles, which are required to generate all life and energy. A human race made up of identical beings would be as dull and as uncreative as a symphony played by a single-instrument orchestra.

Judaism teaches that even in Messianic times, when the Kingdom of God will be accepted universally, religious differences will still exist. At ‘the end of days,’ in Micah’s famous prophecy, ‘all the peoples will walk each in the name of his God’ (4:5). This is the real significance of the verse from Zechariah with which we conclude every Jewish service: ‘In that day shall the Lord be One and His Name One.’

Sermon delivered at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue on 12 June 1971. A large extract was published in The Times two days later.

3. Discussion of the source

Immanuel Jakobovits served as Chief Rabbi in Britain between 1967-1991. His call in this sermon for proponents of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to unite ‘against the “common foe” of materialism, secularism, atheism and sheer paganism’ represents a dominant theme, to which he repeatedly turned throughout his period of leadership. Jakobovits frequently expressed deep concerns about the moral health of contemporary society. He decried the manner in which human rights had appeared, according to his reasoning, to have usurped the human duties that moral individuals owe in a world that recognizes the authority of divine teachings. He argued that rather than demand rights, for example, to abortion or euthanasia, in which individuals assert their control over their own bodies and destinies, it was important to acknowledge that our bodies were creations of God. As such, Jakobovits sought to limit individual freedoms somewhat, in order for them to be circumscribed by the religious values he associated with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which he believed should be at the heart of modern Western societies.

Particularly in Britain, given its official recognition of Christianity as the State religion, he believed certain moral teachings both could and should be imposed. Consequently, when fears about AIDS began to emerge in the early 1980s, Jakobovits spoke out against government campaigns that encouraged the practice of “safe sex”. He forcefully opposed this legitimization of sexual relations outside marriage, arguing that it was the duty of governments and religious leaders to teach appropriate moral practice rather than the means of getting away with wrongdoing.

While he was a rabbi in New York, between 1957-1967, he decried Jewish support for initiatives that sought to further the influence of the separation of Church and State in the United States. He argued that it was both in Jewish interests but also in the interests of society as a whole to place certain key religious values at the heart of government. Involved in an American debate over the place of prayer in state schools, Jakobovits suggested that it was wrong for Jews to rally alongside secularists and atheists in seeking to remove all forms of worship from school. He argued that all opportunities to acknowledge God should be celebrated by Jews as part of the Jewish mission to impart the teachings of monotheism to the world.

Jakobovits suggested that the efforts to remove religion from all areas of public life in the United States could in fact be seen to reflect the approach of their most bitter enemy at the time, the Soviet Union. The battle for religious freedom for citizens of the USSR was another issue in which Jakobovits felt religious leaders as a whole should engage. He undertook a somewhat controversial trip to the Soviet Union in 1975, in an effort to exert some influence over the government to allow greater freedom for religious expression, particularly for Jews. Once again here his goal to facilitate a sense of Godliness in the world functioned as a motivator in Jakobovits’ actions, and led him to build religious alliances, both across boundaries within the Jewish community and outside with other religious leaders.

The forcefulness with which Jakobovits was often inclined to express his views served, at times, to undermine the relationships he formed with other religious leaders. His dealings with certain contemporary Anglican Church leaders came to be somewhat compromised during his Chief Rabbinate in a discussion about the British welfare system. With debate raging in Thatcherite Britain regarding the limits of a welfare state, Jakobovits again engaged in political debate in an effort to influence it with religious values. The theme to which he returned in this instance was the distinction between rights and duties. Jakobovits argued that reliance on state benefits fostered a situation in which individual’s believed they were owed rights by the state, which diverted their focus from their personal duties. The incentive to work, seek self-improvement, and look after one’s family through individual effort was undermined, according to the Chief Rabbi, by a willingness to rely on the state to provide welfare benefits. Jakobovits laid down his views in a work entitled from Doom to Hope: A Jewish View on ‘Faith in the City’, The Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas. The markedly different positions adopted on this issue by the Chief Rabbi and Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, highlighted the variant interpretations that have often emerged as a shared Judaeo-Christian tradition is understood through the prism of two different religions.

While this was one example of an issue on which the opportunities for Jewish and Christian religious leaders to share a platform and battle for the same causes was limited, it was by no means unique. This did not, however, diminish the capacity for organizations such as the Council of Christians and Jews to improve relations between the two communities, fight on common ground where possible, and lay the groundwork for subsequent developments in Jewish-Christian relations in Britain.

Jakobovits’ expression of concern about participation in inter-denominational activities and debates reflects an historical awareness of the manner in which such occasions in the past have, at times, been used to undermine the theological underpinnings of Judaism. While the theory of religious diversity is applauded, theological dialogues, that can proceed to attempt to identify theology that is good or bad, is, unsurprisingly, rejected. Yet concerns about inter-denominationalism also reflect internal problems, within Judaism, about denominational divides that Orthodox Judaism often tries to refuse to acknowledge. The Orthodox view themselves as the legitimate bearers of rabbinic Judaism, and question the validity of the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism that have developed in the modern period, including, Reform, Conservative, Secular, and other types of Jewish identities. The position on this issue of the Chief Rabbi in Britain is complicated somewhat by the fact that he is elected only by a proportion of the Jewish community, albeit the dominant proportion. Despite this, he is all-too-often viewed as representative of all Jews in Britain. How to speak for all Jews, while not recognizing the validity of the views of some, and espousing views that are not accepted by all, highlights one of the greatest deficiencies of the office of chief rabbi. Sharing platforms on religious issues with Jews from other denominations is often perceived as granting legitimacy to the positions they espouse and was therefore generally avoided by Jakobovits and many other Orthodox Jewish leaders. This can create something of a paradox in Jewish-Christian relations; the legitimacy of non-Jewish paths to God are validated, if not discussed in detail, while non-Orthodox interpretations are rejected. Consequently, contemporary Orthodox Judaism can often find Jewish-Christian relations easier to negotiate than internal ones.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Consider whether you think it is appropriate for religious leaders to try to interfere in state legislation on matters like abortion and euthanasia.
  2. How useful is it in a contemporary setting to speak about a shared ‘Judaeo-Christian patrimony’?
  3. Assess the work of the Council of Christians and Jews considering the limits in its scope.
  4. Consider the debate on the place of religious schools funded with taxpayer’s money.
  5. What do you think the future holds for multicultural values in Britain? Is ‘religious diversity and cultural pluralism … a desirable state to enrich the human experience.’?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Hirsch, Samson R.(1899) The Nineteen Letters of ben Uziel, translated from the German by B. Drachman.New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls.
  • Jakobovits, Immanuel (1977) The Timely and the Timeless: Jews, Judaism and Society in a Storm-Tossed Decade. London: Vallentine, Mitchell.
  • Endelman, Todd M.(2002) The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000. London: University of California Press.
  • Sacks, Jonathan (2002) The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. New York & London: Continuum.
  • Sacks, Jonathan (1993) One People? Tradition, Modernity and Jewish Unity. London: Littman.

6. Further Reading

Hirsch & Neo-Orthodoxy

  • Hirsch, Samson Raphael. (1956) Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the Writings of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, edited and translated from the German by I. Grunfeld in3 vols.London: Soncino Press.
  • Lamm, Norman. (1990) Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition.Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
  • Liberles, Robert. (1985) Religious Conflict in Social Context: The Resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in Frankfurt Am Main, 1838-1877.Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
  • Heilman, Samuel. C. & Steven M. Cohen.(1989) Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America. London: University of Chicago Press.
  • Breuer, Mordechai. (1992) Modernity within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany, translated from the German by Elizabeth Petuchowski. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jakobovits and Anglo-Jewry

  • Bermant, Chaim. (1990) Lord Jakobovits: The Authorized Biography of the Chief Rabbi.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Jakobovits, Immanuel. (1984) ‘If Only My People …’ Zionism in my Life.London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Freud-Kandel, Miri. (2010) ‘Immanuel Jakobovits: A Coherent Theology of Apparent Contradictions’, Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience,  30.2 pp. 127-152.
  • Endelman, Todd M. and  A. Kushner, eds. (2002) Disraeli’s Englishness.London: Vallentine Mitchell.
  • Alderman, Geoffrey. (1992) Modern British Jewry. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Kershen, Anne J. and Romain, Jonathan A. (1995) Tradition and Change: A History of Reform Judaism in Britain 1840-1995. London: Vallentine Mitchell.

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