Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Modern Orthodox Ideal Who Couldn't Thwart Orthodoxy's Slide to the Right

The former UK Chief Rabbi was a model for a modern Orthodox generation, excelling in both Jewish and secular learning, and elucidating Jewish thought to a global audience with intellect and grace. But he bent those principles with the compromises he made with religious conservatives to his right

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in London. March 2, 2016
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in London. March 2, 2016Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth,AP
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died Saturday after a third bout with cancer at the age of 72, represented what had once been the ideal of modern Orthodoxy: a religious leader who was both rabbi and Ph.D, with a foot firmly placed in both the worlds of Jewish and secular learning, and who excelled at both, demonstrating that these two universes could co-exist and inform each other.

Despite the confidence in which he inhabited this space, it was not always an easy ride; the secular world honored him, but some of the compromises he made with religious conservatives to his right laid him open to charges of appeasement.

Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013, and a member of the House of Lords from 2009, was in many ways the epitome of a modern Orthodox rabbi. 

Steeped in Torah learning, he both attended the Etz Chayim Yeshiva in Golders Green, London, where he received his semicha (rabbinic ordination), and Jews' College. But he also received a proper "English" education at St. Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College, and went on Caius College at the University of Cambridge gaining first class honors. 

He received his doctorate in 1982 from the University of London, and taught at Kings College, London, Yeshiva University, New York University as well as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

He began his career as a rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue, but soon became the rabbi of the prestigious Marble Arch Synagogue in central London as well as the Principal, or head, of Jews' College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) a seminary for Orthodox rabbinical studies and a college in the liberal academic tradition. 

It was in this capacity that I first met him during the 1980s and was powerfully impressed by his genuineness, knowledge, and powerful commitment to the synthesis of critical thinking and Torah. 

He went on to be a prolific author of more than 24 books, spanning the range from prayer books including the Koren series for the High Holy Days, a Haggadah and books on the weekly Torah portion to volumes about God, science and the search for meaning as well as the persistence of faith, tradition modernity and Jewish unity.

Rabbi Sacks became an outstanding embodiment of outward-looking Orthodoxy, a religious identity that saw its responsibility to serve not only the community of those who believed as he did, but also to speak to the world at large and show what Judaism had to offer to general culture.

Indeed, his book "The Dignity of Difference" articulated this view most vividly. He wrote there: "No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth." That sentence triggered a controversy with the religious right.

At the same time, Sacks often saw himself as reaching out to the general society to offer the wisdom of Judaism as a spiritual guide for all people. This was the essence of his message during the years he served as a commentator on BBC 4’s widely heard program "Thought for the Day." 

And it undoubtedly was an important part of the reason he was awarded the  £1 million Templeton Prize in 2016, one of many trophies he collected that included, in 1995, the Jerusalem Prize, the prestigious Grawameyer Prize for religion in 2004, and the Kuyper Prize from the Princeton Theological Seminary, as well as many others. 

His success in elucidating Jewish thought, not least to a largely unaware UK audience, can be clearly seen in the tributes that have come from all corners of Britain.

The Prince of Wales called him "a steadfast friend" and "a valued adviser" and praised his "spiritual awareness and [his] comprehensively informed philosophical and historical perceptiveness," while Prime Minister Boris Johnson described him as having "a profound impact on our whole country and across the world." Labor leader Keir Starmer called him "a towering intellect whose eloquence, insights and kindness reached well beyond the Jewish community."

But while he championed modern Orthodox principles, he also – as so many of today’s Orthodox rabbis – was powerfully aware of the slide to the right in Orthodoxy and often tried to placate, if not bend to, the demands of Haredi Orthodoxy. 

Thus, after his comment about no creed having a monopoly on spiritual truth was attacked by several UK Orthodox rabbis, who demanded that he "repudiate the thesis of the book" in which the statement appeared, and withdraw it from circulation, they were joined by Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv of Jerusalem, a leading Haredi rabbi in Israel.

Sacks backed down, and issued a revised edition of his "The Dignity of Difference" book (ironically perhaps, in the light of events, subtitled, "How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations") in which he removed statements suggesting that Christianity and Islam are as valid as Judaism, and with that any doubt that he was relativizing Judaism's message. 

That reversal sat uncomfortably with many in the modern Orthodox community, and with the title of the book itself, a phrase that he had made his own.

Perhaps even more significantly, while Sacks was Chief Rabbi he refused to attend Limmud, the worldwide cross-denominational Jewish educational program which was founded in the UK that seeks to educate, inspire and entertain people of all levels of observance on their Jewish journeys, with lecturers on Jewish topics from the broadest range of backgrounds. 

The Haredi rabbinate has consistently refused to participate, and Sacks joined that snub (even though his son-in-law was a leader of the conference). His successor as Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, defied the pressures of right wing Orthodoxy from the start of his tenure and made a point of attending Limmud. In an echo of the book affair, Sacks was accused by some of lacking the courage of his modern Orthodox convictions.

Nevertheless, no contemporary Orthodox rabbi maintained more universal respect and affection in the English-speaking world. No doubt his presence and his ideas will be missed by many in the modern Orthodox world as a model for Jews who wish to remain steadfastly attached to halakha and Jewish tradition, yet neither remote from nor untouched by the modern world – rather, enthusiastically engaged with it.

Whether Sacks managed to (re)establish a sufficiently robust outward-looking form of modern Orthodoxy that can survive his passing, and what the chances are for this worldview to survive the polarization of the Jewish world, are open questions that only the next few years, or decades, will answer.

Samuel Heilman is Emeritus holder of the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York

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