Remembering Jewish giants: Adin Steinsaltz, Jonathan Sacks – opinion

While continuing to remain committed to Halacha, Jewish law, they were able to reach beyond the world of Orthodox Judaism and impact the broader society.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (Left) and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. (photo credit: THE STEINSALTZ CENTER; COURTESY)
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (Left) and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
In the last month, two Jewish giants left us: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz-Even Yisroel, and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Each in their own way left a great impression on the Jewish people and the world around them.
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s remarkable intellectual bounty included opening the Talmud with his historic translation. He authored dozens of works, including a modern commentary on the Torah synergizing classical scholarship with contemporary insights.
Rabbi Sacks’s strength was in connecting two worlds: the depth of Jewish scholarship and contemporary thought. He was able to bridge the secular bastion of Oxford and the world of Torah, becoming an articulate spokesman of Judaism to Jews and non-Jews, even on the airwaves of the BBC.
Both did not fit the conventional Jewish religious mold. While continuing to remain committed to Halacha, Jewish law, they were able to reach beyond the world of Orthodox Judaism and impact the broader society.
They shared the quality of individualism. Steinsaltz was the classic enfant terrible, always willing to challenge traditional thought. Some years ago, I organized the National Conference on Jewish and Contemporary Law headlined by Rabbi Steinsaltz and former US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
At the plenary session, with some 600 attorneys present, Steinsaltz challenged the audience by starting the session saying, “Lawyers are like prostitutes,” insinuating they would take any client despite their own principles. His intention was to prompt contemplation and reflection. In every encounter with him, I knew there would be a moment of shock, not in a malevolent fashion, but as a push to think
Sacks was also his own man. He did not follow the standard yeshiva education, and his writings reveal a pioneering intellectual spirit that challenges the status quo. As his daughter Gila stated in a eulogy at the funeral, her father taught “that people, each uniquely in the image of God, were to be individuals with their own identities.”
His most recent and, sadly, last book, Morality, argues that Western society has lost its way, becoming untethered to moral values. He bucked the norm by using prime arguments made by modern philosophers instead of teachings of Torah. However, it was this approach that perhaps had a better chance for his message to resonate beyond the narrow world of traditional Judaism.
You can trace their strong individualism to the primary mentor and teacher in both of their lives: the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Steinsaltz was an ardent hassid. Born a secular Jew, he found his way to Judaism and soared to intellectual heights. He writes as such in his biography of the Rebbe, My Rebbe, which is more of a personal memoir about his deep passionate connection to him.
Sacks was a Chabad fellow traveler, not considering himself a full-fledged hassid, but a person whose life choices had been framed by the Rebbe’s advice – poignantly revealed by the tune he selected to be sung at his final farewell, his funeral: the great hassidic melody, “Tzamah Lecha Nafshi” (“My Soul Thirsts for You”), a somber spiritual melody reflecting the inner yearning of the soul.
IT IS CLEAR that the Rebbe fostered each of their individualities. And this is the difference between the Rebbe’s attitude and the approach of much of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Haredi outreach seeks to draw people to observance with the goal of fitting into the traditional world and mold. The Rebbe’s objective was for the person to realize their own potential within the framework of Torah and tradition.
The Rebbe pushed Sacks to become a rabbi for rabbis and then to become chief rabbi, not to have “his protegé in the position,” but because it was best for the Jewish people. From the overwhelming outpouring of memories of, anecdotes about, and pearls of wisdom from Rabbi Sacks on social media in recent days, this was clearly achieved.
Some years ago I attended a small meeting of rabbis with Rabbi Sacks. Afterward, I met him and his wife, Elaine, in the elevator. I recalled to them my memory of him attending my Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad Israel for a few months. We, the students, were excited when this star student from Oxford University had arrived. Though some of the rabbis tried to convince him to stay, he returned to his studies in England.
Then I quipped, “You’re lucky you left the Chabad yeshiva. If you hadn’t, instead of being chief rabbi, you would be running a Chabad House in South London.” Rabbi Sacks and his wife roared with laughter. What was clear is that the Rebbe wanted Rabbi Sacks to be Rabbi Sacks, to change the world in the way he could do best, and that was not necessarily by becoming a Chabad shliach (emissary).
The same is true with Rabbi Steinsaltz. He took much criticism for his unique, nontraditional style. Part of that was animated by certain rabbis with an animus toward Chabad at the time, and part of it because of his distinct approach to learning and scholarship that did not fit into the traditional yeshiva mold. Here too, it was the Rebbe who pushed him forward, to ignore his detractors, and continue to make great contributions to Jewish learning in the way that only he could.
The Rebbe did nothing less with his own hassidim, prodding them to reach their own unique potential and not simply become black-hatted clones of a particular model; to realize their own unique spiritual gifts.
The courage of Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Steinsaltz to tap into the power of their individuality, to use their exceptional spiritual gifts to connect more to Torah and the Divine, is a lesson we can all learn. They never compromised on teachings of the Torah, or undermined halachic observance. Still, each in his own way, by being strong individualists, uplifted and inspired untold numbers.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, California, and author of the upcoming book Undaunted, the biography of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. His email is