Our teacher, Rabbi Jonathan

The death of Rabbi Lord Sacks leaves the world bereft of a crucial voice

Rabbi Lord Sacks

The death of the former British chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, is a heavy blow not just to his family and not just to the Jewish community but also to the wider world.

The greatest of his stellar gifts lay not just in his learning but in the way he was able to draw upon this to convey moral and religious truths to Jews and non-Jews alike. His personal shyness made all the more remarkable his ability to communicate the most profound of messages in the most accessible way.

While he sometimes blundered as chief rabbi in a world of community politics where he was visibly uncomfortable, his outstanding achievements which will be his enduring memorial lay in his writing. 

For the Jewish world, his great legacy is the body of prayer books he edited containing his unmatched commentaries on the liturgy. These furnished a profound and illuminating insight into the texts in a historical, literary and philosophical context, all written in luminous and accessible prose. His emailed commentaries on the Torah portion of the week have similarly sustained many with their creative, original and deeply human interpretation of a text whose often obscure or elliptical meaning suddenly emerged as a result into sharp and clear focus.

What blazed out from this great and hitherto unstoppable body of work was his deep love for Judaism and the Jewish people, and the overwhelming lesson of hope that he drew from Jewish teaching and Jewish history and offered to everyone. 

And what gave him such unusual authority was something which conversely gave him the most trouble from ultra-conservative rabbis. This was that he straddled two worlds. While these conservative rabbis viewed with unassuageable suspicion anyone who had not been educated solely within orthodox Jewish institutions, the ultra-British Sacks had been educated in non-Jewish schools in London and read philosophy at Cambridge.

Having travelled, as he put it, “through philosophy and out the other side,” this background gave him the invaluable ability to show how reason and faith, science and religion were not antagonists but two sides of the same human coin. 

In his ability to set out religious ideas in words which spoke to the hearts even of those who had no religious faith, Sacks had no rival. Indeed, while he was chief rabbi it was common to hear people who weren’t Jews wistfully sigh: “If only he was the Archbishop of Canterbury”. 

This combination within himself of “Athens and Jerusalem” also enabled him to grasp earlier than most that western societies were under unprecedented assault from the moral and cultural relativism that they had unthinkingly allowed to permeate their universities and other cultural institutions. He saw in the consequent erosion of the traditional family, above all else, the seeds of the destruction of morality and the consequent fragmentation of western society. 

First in his 1990 BBC Reith Lectures entitled The Persistence of Faith and then in successive books and other writings, Sacks urgently addressed this fundamental challenge by a post-Biblical orthodoxy intent on destroying the core moral precepts of the west based on the Bible.

In the early nineties, when I was myself trying to make sense of the onslaught I was seeing on core western values and institutions, Rabbi Sacks taught me a very great deal in a very short space of time as he set out for me the historical and philosophical explanation for what was happening. 

He had flaws, like the rest of us; but his gifts set him apart from the rest of us. I owe him a very great deal, and I shall miss him.

May his memory be a blessing.

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