Former U.K. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Dies at 72

News comes less than a month after Rabbi Sacks, who was the foremost Jewish religious authority in Britain between 1991 and 2013, was diagnosed with cancer

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in London, April 17, 2002.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in London, April 17, 2002.Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Hird

The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, died on Saturday, aged 72. 

The news, which was relayed on his official Twitter account, comes less than a month after it was made public he had been diagnosed with cancer.

A statement released on October 16 said he was undergoing treatment, urging followers to pray for his swift recovery. Rabbi Sacks had battled the illness twice before, in his 30s and again in his 50s, a fact that wasn’t widely known until it was disclosed in a 2012 book.

>> 1948 - 2020: The contradictions of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Lord Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Although that position is often referred to as the United Kingdom's Chief Rabbi, it in fact represents the Orthodox stream of Judaism.

He was known during his career as the 'Teflon Rabbi,' overcoming criticism to develop into a popular, media-savvy figure that was able to punch above his relatively small community's weight.

He also faced criticism, not least from fellow Jews, with some referring to him as the "rabbi of the goyim," in reference to his visible comfort in the company of royalty, prime ministers and journalists and what they saw as his lack of relevancy to Jewish communal life.

Lord Sacks was a distinguished scholar of Jewish thought, who held multiple academic positions at several leading institutions in the United Kingdom and the United States.

"We are distraught at the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Sacks," Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said in a statement on Saturday night. "He was a giant of both the Jewish community and wider society. His astounding intellect and courageous moral voice were a blessing to all who encountered him in person, in writing or in broadcast."

In recent years, he came out strongly against what he perceived as antisemitism in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as leader. Keir Starmer, who replaced Corbyn, tweeted his condolences on Saturday night. 

"He was a towering intellect whose eloquence, insights and kindness reached well beyond the Jewish community," Starmer said. "I have no doubt that his legacy will live on for many generations."

Sacks leaves behind his wife Elaine, Lady Sacks, and three children.

JTA contributed to this report.