A moral leader who spoke across the generations

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The Independent Online
LORD JAKOBOVITS' passage from refugee to peer of the realm sent a strong message to the Jewish community that it was recognised in the life of the nation.

The oratory skills and unswerving inner conviction of the former Chief Rabbi, who died yesterday, earned him a role as one of the nation's foremost moral leaders. He made traditional Jewish teachings on timeless issues relevant to contemporary problems, and spoke clearly across the generations.

"The legacy of Lord Jakobovits will be that one can be a proud and passionate Jew, and a proud and passionate Englishman, and that there is no conflict between the two," as Elkan Levy, immediate past president of the United Synagogue, said after yesterday's service.

It was as a world renowned expert on medical ethics that he first made his mark on wider society. But he became a regular fixture on Thought for the Day, pronouncing on everything from dietary laws to Israeli foreign policy, from contraception to human rights in the former Soviet Union. A number of other rabbis have followed his lead and become prominent contributors to the BBC programme.

In a Lords debate on Sunday trading, Lord Jakobovits made a plea for the importance of the Sabbath for family life and spiritual renewal. "The loss of the Sabbath will deprive Britain of the last visible vestige of national spirituality and sanctification," he said. The attentive atmosphere was broken by shouts from a man in the public gallery saying: "But it takes a Jew to tell you."

He also worked hard to heal internal rifts within the Jewish community. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, spokesman for the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, said yesterday: "In the 1980s he held secret peace talks with Reform rabbis which eventually resulted in the much closer relations between Orthodox and Reform Jews which exist today," he said. "Having survived the Nazis, he was determined to set communal harmony above differences in theology."

Lord Jakobovits never wavered in his views, and the ideas he preached as a young rabbi in the 1940s were much the same as those he preached 40 years later. But, by the 1980s, his views coincided with those of the Government of the day. He became the religious leader to whom Margaret Thatcher was closest and their mutual respect was well known. Some even referred to him as her "unofficial chaplain".

Lord Jakobovits was as robust in his praise of hard work and wealth creation as he was critical of laziness and immorality. "There are no words strong enough to condemn the evil of idleness. It is a curse. It demeans, demoralises and undermines dignity," he once wrote.

When appointed Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits was a comparative unknown. Some feared that he was not familiar with British Jewry, and that, being of German origin, he would apply Jewish law with Germanic rigour. But he triumphed over his doubters, giving Jewish teaching a new relevance not only to the life of the community but also to the life of the nation, and giving the office an eminence it had not previously enjoyed.