The particular universality of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

To mark Rabbi Sacks' shloshim, Bishop Robert Stearns offers a tribute to Sacks from a non-Jewish perspective.

RABBI LORD Jonathan Sacks speaks at St. Mary’s University College Chapel in London in September. (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
RABBI LORD Jonathan Sacks speaks at St. Mary’s University College Chapel in London in September.
A few times in life’s journey, you have the privilege of connecting with a soul who leaves an impression and impact on you that somehow is heightened, spiritual, and seemingly indelible. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, was one of those truly remarkable individuals. My times with him are etched in my heart and, even in his absence, continue to call me higher. As we mark his shloshim, I offer, from a non-Jewish perspective, a tribute and reflection on his life and the example he has left for us all.
The profound conundrum of Judaism and the Jewish people, it seems to me, is the never-ending tug-of-war between uniqueness and universality. The children of Israel are “a people who dwell alone”, and yet they are to be a “light to the nations”. Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and yet, it is destined to be a “house of prayer for all nations”.
It seems to me that the burden of a Jewish person, when their Jewishness is taken seriously, is to bear the weight of walking in “chosenness” while at the same time actively pronouncing to the world that certainly ALL are invited to chosenness, by discovering and cultivating the “image of God” we are each created in.
No one in our generation, in my non-Jewish opinion, accomplished this divine balancing act with greater grace and impact than Rabbi Sacks. He was simultaneously profoundly rooted in the Jewish worldview, while constantly zooming out to help us see what that worldview has to say to the whole world, to all the human family.
In his time as the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sacks became a distinct voice for the uniqueness of the Jewish people with respect to the changing climate of Europe with the rising presence of Islam. The way in which he held staunchly to the invaluable importance of Judaism and the Jewish community, while at the same time recognizing the inherent ability of the Judaic worldview to transcend social and religious barriers to other faith communities, was truly remarkable.
It was because of Rabbi Sacks’ powerful and intentional perspective that I, a non-Jew, became one of the untold millions of beneficiaries of his global leadership.
In light of the distinct yet universally applicable nature of his theology, Rabbi Sacks wrote:
“I believe faith is part of what makes us human... Without faith in one another we could not risk the vulnerability of love. Without faith in the future we would not choose to have a child. Without faith in the intelligibility of the universe we would not do science. Without faith in our fellow citizens we would not have a free society.”[i]
Rabbi Sacks believed that theology has something definitive to say about human behavior and societies as a whole – not only in ancient times when theology originated, but today in the accelerating modern world of governments and technological innovations, of wars and pandemics. Unafraid and unapologetic in his stance against the particular blight of anti-Semitism, his comments became a plumbline for all instances of racial and religious discrimination around the world.
In the social and political climate of the 21st century, my journey as a community leader has compelled me to recognize the essential role of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people in the global battle for democracy, human rights, and religious freedom – and to fight for the rich, irreplaceable foundations of faith that come to us, particularly those of us in the Western world, directly from the Land of Israel. Because of this, I have personally brought thousands of Christian pilgrims and pastors to Israel to begin to recognize the inherent connection within our faith to that of the Jewish people.
Confronting those who demonize Israel, Rabbi Sacks’ legacy defeats the common objection that to support the Jewish people is to embrace narrow-mindedness or bigotry, because his view is balanced by his indisputable support of other people groups and by his extensive work in interfaith efforts. He taught us that to be loyal to the Jewish people is a beginning place, not an end – that to be true to the unique particularism of Judaism and the Jewish people requires a commitment to actively seek the well-being of others.
The historic, growing relationship between non-Jews and the Jewish world, as well as the vital role that I believe non-Jews have in standing with and defending Israel and the Jewish people, are the very reasons that Rabbi Sacks’ life message spoke volumes to me of the need for the work we are spearheading. His worldview has brought clarity to the mission that I and millions of Christians together hold – that without a strong Israel there is no effective democracy in the Middle East; that Israel is an example of what can be right in the Middle East, not the cause of regional conflict; and that without the strong support of others, especially the Christian community, the nation of Israel could be in existential danger in the modern era.
Rabbi Sacks showed us that we from different faith groups have much more in common than we would have dreamed. As he continues, through his countless lectures and writings, to speak today to both Jews and non-Jews alike, let us call to mind his words about the importance of faith and courage in difficult times: “Faith is the ability to know the worst and yet remain committed to the best; to know how cruel life can be, and yet never, ever to despair. Faith is the courage to hope.”[ii]
Bishop Robert Stearns is the founder and executive director of Eagles' Wings, a global movement of churches, ministries and leaders.