Jeffrey Cohen (ed. ), Dear Chief Rabbi: From the Correspondence of Chief Rabbi
Immanuel Jakobovits on Matters of Jewish Law, Ethics and Contemporary
Issues, 1980–1990. Hoboken: Ktav, 1995. 298 pp.
Shortly after Immanuel Jakobovits became Britain's Chief Rabbi, he launched a twice-yearly journal on Jewish Orthodoxy called L'eyla. It was an instant success and its most popular feature was a column, written by Jakobovits himself, called (rather awkwardly) “From the Chief Rabbi Correspondence File. ”
This book is an edited version of the column. The editor, Jeffrey Cohen, has been careful not to tamper with the material, but has done a first-class job in reorganizing it under different headings such as Israel, interfaith relations, medical ethics, pastoral concerns and theology.
Jakobovits did not, of course, open his entire files to public scrutiny. He was necessarily selective, and where the subject matter was personal he was careful to obscure identities. One marvels, nonetheless, at the sheer variety of the questions he faced and the sagacity he displayed in his answers, even though not everyone agreed with his arguments and he could at times be disingenuous.
Thus, for example, when he was questioned about the attitude of a London Orthodox rabbi who had walked out of a shivah because he had found a Reform rabbi in the room, Jakobovits replied that the incident was hardly typical and that the only lesson that could be drawn from it was that “there are some rabbis who occasionally lack diplomatic skills… . ” (p. 236). In fact, the incident was not atypical. It arose out of policies that were laid down by Dr. Jakobovits and his dayanim, who have always been hypersensitive to the feelings of the ultra-Orthodox on such issues.
“I object to Right-wing Orthodoxy, ” Jakobovits writes, “for political and communal reasons because I cannot accept their separatism, or even for cultural reasons because their rejection of the secular world and its values is alien to me. But I have no quarrel with them on essentially religious matters; their Shulchan Aruch is mine… . ” To which one can only say that his Shulḥan Arukh was not theirs. They may have regarded him personally with respect, but they treated his office with disdain and they would only call on him when they needed his intervention with authority. In fact they treated him as a glorified “shabbos goy. ”
On the whole, Jakobovits was happier with larger issues than smaller ones. He was a pioneer in the study of Jewish medical ethics—his correspondence on the subject, which covers nearly a fifth of the book, is fascinating. He is more liberal than the Pope on contraception and abortion, but when asked a question on cohabitation without