My Word: The lasting legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Knighted in 2005 and made a life peer four years later, Rabbi Sacks will forever be known as Britain’s former chief rabbi.

POPE BENEDICT XVI greets Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks during a private audience at the Vatican in 2011. (photo credit: OSSERVATORE ROMANO / REUTERS)
POPE BENEDICT XVI greets Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks during a private audience at the Vatican in 2011.
Like so many others, I had been praying for a miracle. A miracle that didn’t happen. When I checked the news last Saturday night to see what I had missed during the 25 hours when, as an Orthodox Jew, I switch off all my electronic devices and take a blessed break from current affairs, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut.
Among the polarization and vitriol surrounding the US presidential election results that was filling up my Facebook news feed was a post from a friend written through tears: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had passed away – just a month after it was announced that he was battling cancer for the third time in his 72 years.
I swiftly went through several classic stages of grieving from denial – I checked the rabbi’s official website to make sure this was not pernicious fake news – to anger that he had died when he had so much still to give, and on to acceptance, because Rabbi Sacks himself stressed that death is a natural part of life. Only God is immortal.
“What the parsha is telling us is that for each of us there is a Jordan we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter. ‘It is not for you to complete the task,’” he wrote in a commentary on the Torah portion Hukkat in 2016.
Rabbi Sacks was known to a broader audience through his regular appearances on BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day,” as well as speaking engagements and interviews. The tributes that poured in from around the world confirmed that we had all lost a special person.
Knighted in 2005 and made a life peer four years later, Rabbi Sacks will forever be known as Britain’s former chief rabbi. The title is misleading. His title was “Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth” for 22 years. He never officially represented all Anglo Jewry and yet, particularly after he left office in 2013, he became the voice of all Jews everywhere.
Furthermore, he became the sane, moral voice for all those, of any religion, looking for reason. Earlier this year he published the last of some 30 books. The title says it all: Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
Rabbi Sacks’s standing can be seen from those who eulogized him. Charles, Prince of Wales, issued a statement describing his “profound personal sorrow” and saying: “With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the most senior bishop in the Church of England, said: “We are all the beneficiaries of his wisdom” while Nick Baines, the Anglican bishop of Leeds, declared: “A giant has gone.”
As reported by Vatican News, Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, recalled his meeting with Pope Benedict in September 2010, in which Rabbi Sacks “gave eloquent expression to the shared Jewish and Christian beliefs with these poignant words: ‘In the face of a deeply individualistic culture we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about the things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism, we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships.”
I NEVER MET Rabbi Sacks, although interviewing him was on my professional and personal wish list. Every week, I read his “Covenant and Conversation” discussion on the Torah portion. It was as much a part of my Shabbat as prayers and kiddush.
With his doctorate in philosophy, Rabbi Sacks had the incredible ability to make Judaism accessible while drawing on broad sources. These went well beyond the great Jewish names such as Maimonides and Nachmanides and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
Discussing “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” Sacks quotes ancient Athenian historian Thucydides, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Moses, Job, the Talmud and more – all in an article of a few hundred words. It’s incredible that what could have been distant and pretentious instead was readable and easy to understand and identify with. His genius was in the way he pulled the different threads together to create something original.
Over and over, there is a message that a true leader must take personal responsibility, moral responsibility and collective responsibility. A central tenet was that we must each act morally. “There is one respect in which each of us has precisely the same strength as Moses. Namely, the strength to choose. There is no hand of heaven – no physiological, genetic, psychological or Providential compulsion – that forces us to act one way rather than another,” he wrote in Tradition in an Untraditional Age.
Of the current crisis he was quoted as saying: “The coronavirus is going to test our capacity to work for the benefit of others. Selfishness is not going to protect us.”
Recently, I looked up something he wrote in which he quotes New York Times columnist David Brooks’s book The Road to Character, distinguishing between what Brooks calls “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
“The resumé virtues are the ones we write on our curriculum vitae, our achievements, our qualifications, our skills,” explained Rabbi Sacks. “But it is the eulogy virtues that are the ones for which we will be remembered. Are we kind, honest, faithful? What are the ideals for which we live, and how do we live them? These are not what we write on our resumé, but they make all the difference to our quality of life and the impact we have on those around us.”
In Rabbi Sacks’s case, both the resumé virtues and the eulogy ones are evidently impressive. His intellect, warmth, wit and humanity were mentioned in many tributes.
Rabbi Sacks had pride in his Judaism and taught other Jews to speak out. “Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution,” he declared. For Israel’s 60th anniversary he published a double CD in which he narrated the country’s history interspersed with Hebrew songs.
In his book Radical Then, Radical Now, he wrote: “The only sane response to antisemitism is to monitor it, fight it, but never let it affect our idea of who we are. Pride is always a healthier response than shame.” Although he rarely tackled political subjects per se, he did not keep silent about what he perceived to be the dangerous climate of antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.
Fortunately, his voice lives on in his recorded talks, books and articles. His website contains a treasure trove of his thought and wisdom, including a selection of quotes arranged alphabetically by topic. I hit “C” for “Challenges” and find: “We are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake”
There is something for everyone, for as Rabbi Sacks told readers in Faith in the Future, “Faiths are like languages. There are many of them, and they are not reducible to one another. In order to express myself at all, I must acquire a mastery of my own language... But as I venture out into the world I discover that there are other people who have different languages which I must learn if we are to communicate across borders.”
One of my favorite quotes is: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.” It comes from Rabbi Sacks’s book Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places – a title that was also the motto by which he lived.
“Choose life” is God’s message to the people of Israel as Moses hands over to Joshua (Deut. 30:19). “Celebrate life” is a fitting message on which to end a tribute to Lord Jonathan Sacks – a revered rabbi of blessed memory.
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