Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory - Memorial

Rabbi Sacks led the ship of Torah right into the hearts of some of the world’s most gifted, influential people.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, theologian, author, and former Chief Rabbi of the UK. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lord Jonathan Sacks, theologian, author, and former Chief Rabbi of the UK.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is impossible to grasp. My friend and teacher is no longer with us.
I consider Lord Rabbi Sacks’s death a world-shattering event, for Jew and non-Jew.
Over the years, most of us rabbis have become irrelevant on a global level. We wanted to be spiritual leaders and teachers, serve our congregants and become heads of yeshivot. But we shunned the idea of going beyond these tasks and taking on the world.
That religious faith was challenged worldwide as never before did not bother us. It was for others to deal with, and we decided to bury our heads in the sand.
By doing so, however, we robbed Judaism of its most powerful tasks: to challenge, disturb, rebel and send a strong, passionate message that will help all of humankind to move forward.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that religion has to function as a thunderstorm, but that over the years it invented sundry lightning conductors and lost its purpose. So, Judaism has become a pleaser and comforter, as opposed to a biting critic of our moral failure and our spiritual and intellectual mediocrity.
The rabbinate was meant to be a test tube in which its own foundations could be challenged and new ideas experimented with. It was supposed to redeem Judaism from the sandbank in which it had gotten stuck, so that it would again become a vibrant experience on a global level. Instead, it denied its task of being “a light unto the nations” and decided to be a dwindling night lamp.
That is why Rabbi Sacks became a world-class teacher. Where we rabbis feared to tread, he traveled on his own to challenge not only the Jewish community but the world at large. His confidence in the power of Judaism and its infinite wisdom enabled him to enter the lion’s den, taking on famous philosophers, sociologists and scientists, as well as religious and secular thinkers, showing them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn’t afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of these disciplines. He showed us that science had to justify itself in the eyes of religious belief, and not the other way around.
Long before Rabbi Sacks left the British Chief Rabbinate, he already went his own way and became a lonely man of faith. While we rabbis convinced ourselves that to engage and challenge the academic world was not possible, Rabbi Sacks showed us that we were using this argument to cover up our own limitations. We knew there were Jewish Orthodox institutions that taught how Judaism could exist in a secular world, but to maintain that Judaism could actually challenge the scientific, philosophical and academic communities was unheard of. Rabbi Sacks showed us that, in fact, the reverse is true. But above all, it was his daring, moral religious voice that made prime ministers, world leaders, and clergy men and women stand up and take notice.
Rabbi Sacks was able to do so only because he had to discover Judaism on his own, guided by some great teachers. People can grow into outstanding thinkers only when they encounter doubt, struggle with their own faith, and are constantly challenged. As he indeed told me, he felt many times in his earlier years that he nearly fell off the cliff of faith, holding on to it with only one hand. But these were also the most exalted and revealing moments in his life. After all, religion in general and Judaism in particular are a protest again religious mediocrity and complacency. Religious contentment is the archenemy of any genuine faith, and in such an environment no great leaders or thinkers will emerge.
Of course, this is not the case for most of us, for whom a conventional education is crucial, but for truly great men an education like that is often an obstacle. Sure, it means, as in the case of Rabbi Sacks, that they will clash with the religious establishment, including their own. And they learn how to live with it.
Most exceptional thinkers are considered suspicious. They are unappreciated, ignored, condemned and often boycotted. History teaches us that very often their influence will become prominent and world-transforming only after their demise.
Rabbi Sacks had the great merit to see his influence in his own lifetime. That indeed made him even more exceptional.
What Rabbi Sacks did, and what few others have done, is lead the ship of Torah, in full sail, right into the hearts of some of the most gifted and influential people in the world. He took them all by storm.
ONE CAN only hope that the future Chief Rabbinate of Israel will take an example from Rabbi Sacks’s legacy. One does not have to agree with all of his policies, decisions or philosophical insights, but nobody can doubt his contribution of many splendid theological ideas to Jewish tradition, ethics, and general philosophy. With the exception of Rav Kook, Hacham Uziel, Rav Herzog and a few more chief rabbis, there has been total silence on the part of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on all the fronts where Rabbi Sacks was so active and influential.
To be a chief rabbi, one needs to be deeply involved in religious philosophy, and be acquainted with general philosophy, science and other human disciplines. One needs to understand and identify with the complicated issues with which many fine people struggle, and learn the art of thinking independently. One needs to be fully knowledgeable in other important monotheistic religions – even Hinduism and Buddhism – as well as in the writings of people such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, David Hartman, David Weiss Halivni, Arthur Green, Spinoza and Richard Dawkins. Without all this knowledge, one cannot lead a population consisting of, to a great extent, secular Jews, important thinkers and those who are searching for meaning.
With the demise of Rabbi Sacks, world Jewry has to ask itself, as never before, how it can produce rabbis on the level of Rabbi Sacks, so that Judaism can continue to be a world player. Until now, it has bitterly failed in educating young men to take over the task that Rabbi Sacks had taken upon himself, and move beyond him, confronting many important matters that Rabbi Sacks couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with.
It is crucial that Judaism and Halacha be viewed as exciting and ennobling experiences, not just as a religion or legal system that has stagnated and become irrelevant to most secular Jews, non-Jews and even some religious Jews.
But the most important pursuit is to ensure that a highly intelligent Jewish religious voice will continue to speak to the outside world – especially to academia, the moralists and the policy-makers in government and high-ranking institutions.
Faith, Rabbi Sacks wrote, is at its best when it becomes a countercultural force; when it has no power, only influence; no authority except what it earns.
We can only hope that, with his demise, Rabbi Sacks’s teachings will become more and more challenging, disturbing and daring, showing us the way. He had, no doubt, more up his sleeve than we know, and we pray that now that he is no longer with us, Orthodox Judaism will do what it needs to do, including trying to bring all religious denominations closer together. Oh yes, it will be painful, but the benefits will be priceless.
I will miss him dearly, and ask God to help me continue without his friendship and our marvelous discussions. May his memory be a blessing.
The writer is dean of Jerusalem’s David Cardozo Academy and the author of many books, including the bestseller Jewish Law as Rebellion. Find his weekly essays at www.cardozoacademy.org/