I awoke to this day remembering Rabbi Robert Jacobs, of blessed memory (1908-2001). The Rabbi was a fixture not only in the Jewish community of St. Louis, but known to all in the interfaith community. His sage wisdom, calm presence and passion for justice inspired all who met him. That included me.
I remember when Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis in 1999 the interfaith community was invited to an afternoon service. As a part of that, and for the first time in Papal visits, Rabbi Jacobs read the prophetic text from Isaiah in Hebrew. Imagine the Rabbi reading and the Pope listening intently!
And then there was the aftermath of 9/11. We held an interfaith prayer service the Sunday following and the large church where we met was packed. Rabbi Jacobs ascended the stairs to the reading rostrum and slowly and emphatically read the opening words of lament from Lamentations: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations …” The Rabbi passed into the great mystery later that year.
What I remember most was words of encouragement to unity he shared in some small gathering of interfaith leaders in some forgotten church basement. Rabbi Jacobs could easily get around the theological block. He was too deep to dismiss the differences between the great religious traditions as though they were all the same. But he was also too deep to miss the great pillars that united them all. He easily moved between the oneness of God, one cosmos and one humanity. All of the great traditions affirmed those central principles. So he spoke that day in what was at the moment a rising tide of fear of and discrimination against both Jews and Muslims.
And then he surprised me. That’s what Rabbis do, don’t they? For a person of deep faith stating that God is one and humanity is one is enough. That covers all bases, just as Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and love neighbor. Case closed. But Rabbi Jacobs went beyond that in, what, a sly move? He moved dexterously into patriotism, an uncommon and some would say unnecessary move.
He said that “We are all Americans, after all, and the hallmark of our democracy is the unity of all the people under the constitution, all our freedoms and responsibilities.” In the moment I thought that the venerable Rabbi was selling out; you don’t need to prop up the “why” for doing what we should in that way. Save that talk for a patriotic holiday.
Suddenly I realized what he was doing. There is in the pursuit of truth, both embedded in Judaism and Christianity, through all the great Rabbis and Doctors of the Church, the understanding of a “hierarchy of truths.” That is, there are the most luminous and universal truths under which almost everything else falls. And then there are successively lesser truths, still important, but always constitutive of the higher ones. Sometimes and for some people the higher truths are, well, too high for them. They may not be able to nimbly apply them. They may need something more concrete and particular.
Rabbi Jacobs was running through a hierarchy, starting with the highest and moving even to the founding principles of democracy. He realized and was sharing that in a time such as this, in a time of maximum threat and the temptation to disunity one must appeal to the entire arsenal of truths. That arsenal includes the loftiest religious understandings all the way to the most patriotic ones. They do not necessary prop one another up but they mutually reinforce.
Just in case you don’t get that there is one God and one humanity and you should act those truths remember that we are Americans who are guided and governed by patriotic principles of solidarity.
Thank you, Rabbi Jacobs, for showing up in my morning hours. Thank you for articulating the highest tier of lofty spirituality and the most practical ways to make it work in the same country and same planet. We need all of that, especially in certain times. Now would be one of them.