An encounter with Rabbi Sacks, a Jewish leader who inspired a generation

My spiritual and intellectual development were very much crystallized by his words and perspectives.

RABBI JONATHAN SACKS speaks at a meeting of religious leaders at St. Mary’s University chapel at Twickenham in West London, in 2010. (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS speaks at a meeting of religious leaders at St. Mary’s University chapel at Twickenham in West London, in 2010.
For many Jews born into my generation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shaped the very way we look at the world. We grew up on his books, speeches and weekly writings. He had a profound impact on my life. My spiritual and intellectual development were very much crystallized by his words and perspectives.
As a Cambridge philosophy student, a young Rabbi Sacks boarded a plane to America, seeking advice from the generation’s great Jewish leaders. He met Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, discussing issues of faith, philosophy and the Jewish people’s future.
Later, he penned the Rebbe, asking whether he should be a lawyer, a philosopher or perhaps an economist. The Rebbe crossed out all three options, challenging a young Rabbi Sacks to lead, become a Jewish communal rabbi and help train Jewish leaders. Decades later, Rabbi Sacks retired from his lengthy tenure as chief rabbi of the Commonwealth. He would say, following his encounter with the Rebbe, that: “Good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders.” The Jewish people of our generation are a testament to Rabbi Sacks’s life as that mantra’s expression.
With Rabbi Sacks’s story in mind, I decided to seek out his advice: on faith, philosophy and the 21st century Jewish people’s future. I had heard that Rabbi Sacks was speaking in Cornell University and unsuccessfully reached out to him through a friend there. Later, Rabbi Sacks gave a speech at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, where my attempts to gain an audience with the rabbi again failed. While serving in the IDF, I eventually arranged a meeting with Rabbi Sacks in Israel. Excited to finally meet the rabbi, I was unfortunately called back to base for a mission. I would have to wait patiently before meeting Rabbi Sacks.
After being discharged from the IDF, particularly inspired by Rabbi Sacks, I decided to join a rabbinical ordination program. The 21st century required Jewish leadership. The idea of “Am Yisrael,” of Jewish peoplehood, needed more voices. A generation being formed among the rough tides of social media, post-truth and political discord needed Rabbi Sacks’s message and leadership reiterated.
Yet I vowed to receive Rabbi Sacks’s advice before taking any major strides with my spiritual and professional life. I reached out to Rabbi Sacks through a good friend, requesting a personal meeting in London, a “yechidus,” as the Lubavitchers call it. A little over a year ago, after completing the first rabbinical tests, I booked a ticket to London to go and meet Rabbi Sacks.
I found myself standing at a humble home’s entrance, in a small alley of Golders Green, London, the last place you’d think to find a man of such international proportions. Joanna, the rabbi’s assistant, opened the door and warmly invited me in. Lady Sacks kindly offered me tea and led me to the study, where I saw the rabbi sitting, with that gentle smile on his face. Upon entering the room, I stumbled with my speech, awed by the image of Rabbi Sacks in an endless library of books: Judaism, philosophy, economics, you name it.
Rabbi Sacks was wise, kind and humble. We discussed many things, yet there was one piece of advice that has guided my thoughts ever since, embodying within it much of who Rabbi Sacks was. I was at a crossroads, I explained. I was learning for the rabbinate, beginning law and philosophy studies, and was passionate about Jewish leadership and Israeli politics. I expected to hear the advice Rabbi Sacks received from the Rebbe, maybe even hoping for it. I was positive that I had flown to London to hear that I must be a rabbi. But Rabbi Sacks was truly a leader, a creator of leaders. Above all, he knew how to translate the message, for a whole generation, and for each person individually.
Rabbi Sacks did not in fact advise me to be a rabbi. Israel is unique, he said. Its public sphere is not shaped by rabbis in the same way that Diaspora communities are. Listening to my story, he crafted the befitting message. The Rebbe had told Rabbi Sacks to become a community rabbi and train Jewish leaders. If I wanted to help shape the Jewish future, Rabbi Sacks claimed, being a rabbi, for me, may not be the only path. Rabbi Sacks challenged me to seek the platforms to promote Judaism and Israel, and shape Jewish peoplehood in the special arena of a Jewish homeland. Jewish leadership in every place and generation takes different form. I should dedicate my life to Klal Yisrael by seeking those spaces in which the Jewish people need public servants for tomorrow.
Beyond his unbounded wisdom, humility and kindness, Rabbi Sacks uniquely carried the mantle of Jewish translation. Second-century tanna Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi translated the Oral Torah and kept it alive. The Rambam translated Judaism to philosophy. Rabbi Sacks translated Judaism to the world, and the world to Judaism.
He taught the UK, the queen and all who would listen, that Judaism promoted a particularism, a “dignity of difference.” And he translated a message of universalism to Judaism, inspiring a generation of Jews to try and “heal a fractured world.” During my brief, yet powerful encounter with Rabbi Sacks, he translated the advice he received in his youth, to help guide my life, recognizing the dignity and difference in everyone. May his memory be a blessing for all of us.
The writer is a student in Hebrew University’s Law and “Amirim” Excellence Program, a rabbinical student and the national coordinator of the Derech Eretz political party.