Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: A giant of his time

Rabbi Sacks has been a walking kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) for his people. He presents a vision of Judaism which is authentic.

Pope Benedict XVI receives a gift by Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, during a private audience at the Vatican in 2011.  (photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AFP)
Pope Benedict XVI receives a gift by Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, during a private audience at the Vatican in 2011.
(photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AFP)
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who passed away this week at the age of 72, is probably the most important and well known Jewish theologian of the 21st century. Over the course of his illustrious career, he has authored more than 20 books, numerous academic papers, and hundreds of newspaper articles, as well as delivered several university sponsored lectures and made numerous television and radio appearances. For these endeavors, he has received many honors, including a lordship and many honorary professorships. All this is in addition to his overwhelming communal and rabbinical responsibilities as the former leader of British Jewry. It’s hard to imagine that one man could have accomplished so much in one lifetime.
The crux of Sacks’s academic work has been to create a relevant Jewish theology for the post-modern world. Like his predecessor, Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Sacks believed passionately that Jewish values have relevance for all of mankind. In his numerous writings over the course of decades, Sacks has consistently looked to the biblical text as the source of his modern theology. His theological interpretations go beyond the traditional use of the Torah as a starting book point for homiletical insights (commonly referred to as derash). Instead, they are meant to capture, using modern literary methodologies, what he feels is the simple (or peshat) meaning of the text. These original and sometimes provocative readings are the basis of his grand project to develop a modern Jewish theology for a generation skeptical of authority in general and of religion in particular.
Sacks’s most important idea, fully developed in his book The Dignity of Difference, is the relationship between tribalism and universalism in Jewish thought. According to Sacks, Judaism preaches the progression from the universal to the particular. The Torah begins with God creating a covenant with all of humanity and then singles out some people (the Jews) as different – not because of any notion of moral superiority, but “in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference.” Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith and one way of life. It is just the opposite; it is the idea that unity creates diversity. This idea of the dignity of the other is perhaps the most important lesson that Sacks can teach us in our tragically divided small Jewish world and the larger global community.
Sacks has also written profoundly about the relationship between science and religion in the modern world, most systematically in his book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning. The first main thesis of the book is that science and religion are not in conflict because they address two very different issues. In explaining his contention, Sacks writes “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see how they work.” This distinction is primarily a reflection of the difference between how the right brain and left brain operates and different cultures and traditions emphasize to a differing degree these disparate brain functions. This distinction enables a religious person to fully participate in the staggering scientific and technological achievements of the modern world without sacrificing his or her religious beliefs.
His second point is that religion is important to the modern world because without it there is a loss in the belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life, a loss of the collective responsibility for the common good, a loss of morality, a loss of marriage and the loss of a possibility of a meaningful life. Sacks devotes a chapter to each of these themes and demonstrates how religion and faith strengthens these values. He then attempts to show how modern views of cosmology, biology and history are all consistent with religious faith. This is an important work for all those (not only Jews) seeking the purpose and meaning of religion in our modern highly technological and digital world.  
 But in addition to his impressive academic qualifications, he was after all the recipient of a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University, he was the foremost expositor of Jewish values and traditions to the world at large. He was also a brilliant public speaker capable of explaining complex philosophical Ideas to the laity interspersed with homespun, touching stories. Sacks has been a visiting professor at universities around the world and is a religious figure respected around the world and a renaissance man in terms of his intellectual pursuits and knowledge. Sacks, in addition to all his religious and academic achievements, was also a journalist of some note producing and starring in important radio and television programs for the BBC on contemporary issues, and in this capacity has been a bridge to other religious and cultures and has had an influence far beyond the Jewish community. He was regularly consulted by the political, economic and academic leaders of Britain for his opinion and insights.

His last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, is a demonstration of all of these strengths and is a recapitulation of ideas that he has thought about and written about over the course of a lifetime. He begins as a journalist and social commentator would by the use of stories and data to describe our current political, social and economic environment. The book’s main thesis is that we have moved from a society based on We, or the common good, to one based on I, or self-fulfillment, and this movement has had many repercussions for the individual, family and society. It has caused a loss of the feeling of community, leading to increasing loneliness and social isolation, has been harmful to marriage and the family and has had negative economic and political effects as well. Large corporations are solely guided by the profit motive with less concern for their workers or the environment. And in politics this has led to identity politics, social unrest and populism. This lack of a common vision, aspirations and goals has also led to a breakdown in civil conversation with people unable or unwilling to listen to ideas or people with which they disagree, free speech has been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and safe spaces.
His solution to these problems goes something like this, “If you start with benevolence, then apply the rules of reciprocity, you create a basis of trust on which groups can form… It depends though on repeated face-to-face encounters.” The challenge is to duplicate these face-to-face encounters on a much larger scale and that’s where morality enters the picture. His cure for many of these problems is to create moral communities with a shared vision. He continues, “the early religions created moral communities, thus solving the problem of trust between strangers.”

He maintains that religion has three functions:
Religion has something to add to the conversation and to society regardless of its metaphysical foundations. It builds communities. It aids law-abidingness. And it helps us think long term. Most simply, the religious mindset awakens us to transcendence. It redeems our solitude. It breaks the carapace of selfhood and opens us to others and to the world.
All messages which are crucial in today’s tragically divided and fragmented world.
But in addition to all his important and groundbreaking theological work, Rabbi Sacks has been a walking kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) for his people. He presents a vision of Judaism which is authentic and traditional but has global as opposed to just particular concerns. Judaism has much to say about globalization, capitalism, ethics and environmentalism and is concerned about the welfare and happiness of all of God’s children. His singular voice and message of tolerance and compassion will be missed not only by his beloved People but by all the citizens of the world. He was also innovative in the use of technology and media to spread the ancient teachings of Judaism. His classroom was not the Bet Midrash or the synagogue but television, radio and the Internet and was thus able to reach thousands of students.
I encourage readers to search on the internet for his hundreds of classes available, including classics such as the relationship between the Special Olympics and teshuva, the function of Kol Nidre and his lectures on Genesis. I never had the privilege to meet or study in person with Rabbi Sacks but like thousand of others I consider myself one of his students and his wisdom and guidance will be sorely missed.
The writer is professor of medicine, director of the Medical School for International Health and Medicine, and director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.