Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died on Shabbat at the age of 72, had the unlikeliest beginning in life for one the generation’s most renowned Orthodox rabbis and philosophers. Despite growing up in a traditional family, going from his Church of England primary school to Christ’s College high school and then Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge, until his early twenties – when he traveled to Israel and spent time in a Chabad yeshiva – he had no formal Jewish education.
It would be the Six-Day War that changed everything. At 19, gathered together with other students in Cambridge’s synagogue, he prayed for Israel’s deliverance from a feared second Holocaust. The experience, he said, “planted a seed in my mind that didn’t go away,” and opened up “a burden of responsibility” to the Jewish nation.
He would spend the next decade studying and lecturing on moral philosophy before he finally joined the Rabbinate. But his ascent in his belated vocation was meteoric. His sparkling oratory, natural charisma and the originality of his sermons and books, fusing Jewish canonical texts with a wide range of Western thought, made him just the kind intellectual and spiritual rock star that Britain’s fusty and hidebound Orthodox mainstream United Synagogue sorely needed to raise its stature.
After serving as the rabbi of two synagogues in London, he was selected chief rabbi at the age of 43.
Sacks said he was “reluctant” to accept the position, but his ambition was clear: After taking the reins of the Rabbinate, he outlined a “decade of renewal” for British Jewry. He was very conscious of the fact that he was the rabbi of a community shrinking in number due to assimilation, emigration and lower birth rates, and also shrinking in influence.
Along with post-imperial Britain, the community had lost its centrality as Israel and the United States – two countries he loved and admired – had become the main centers of post-Holocaust Jewry. He set out to be an ambassador for Britain’s Jews to the wider British society, a role he was arguably better at than unifying his deeply divided community.
He was a unique combination of an ultimate communicator and original thinker with an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge. Upon his appointment as chief rabbi, he swiftly learned how to make a deep impression within the short attention span of television, becoming the British media’s most sought-after religious leader.
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His mellifluous tones were to become a near-constant feature on BBC Radio 4’s three-minute "Thought For the Day" for many years. His books featured in the bestseller lists, popular among non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jewish readers alike, and his advice was sought by British prime ministers who became his confidants.
The chief rabbi’s wide acclaim made many British Jews proud, and his writings inspired thousands of young Jews – particularly those who had not grown up in religious settings and had no rabbis of their own – with his vivid descriptions of Judaism as an empowering tradition of hope and the original radical faith of freedom.
His books, like his speeches and media appearances, were marked not only by the richness and diversity of his learning, but also catchy sound-bite titles like “Radical Then, Radical Now,” “The Dignity of Difference” and, long before Barack Obama, “The Politics of Hope.”
But his media savviness and scholarly showmanship also provoked the oft-muttered criticism that he was “the chief rabbi of the goyim.” There was some truth to this. While his non-Jewish admirers and listeners always saw him as the leader of all British Jews, his official congregation consisted only of a minority of the community.
He wasn’t the rabbi of the progressive streams and certainly not that of the growing ultra-Orthodox community. He was too aware of his ultra-Orthodox rabbinical critics saying of him that he was “more Cambridge than Etz Chaim” – the small London yeshiva where he studied for a few years for his ordination.
During his 22 years as chief rabbi, he was fearful of crossing the Haredi rabbis, including the members of Beth Din (rabbinical court) of which he was nominally the president. Few if any Jewish intellectuals of the generation could rival his knowledge, but he seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex toward those rabbis who had spent their entire lives in yeshivas and, unlike him, had the self-confidence to issue rulings in halakha (Jewish law).
In an attempt to maintain cordial relations with them, he refused to attend the annual Limmud conference of Jewish learning, due to the presence of Reform, Liberal and Masorti (Conservative) rabbis (despite his having been involved in Limmud before becoming chief rabbi), and referred to them in private letters to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, which were gleefully leaked, as “intellectual thieves” and “those who destroy the faith.”
He agreed to revise some sentences in “The Dignity of Difference” when ultra-Orthodox rabbis accused him of heresy for implying there that there was truth in other religions besides Judaism.
As chief rabbi, he repeatedly delayed a report on the role of women in religious services and prevented the participation of Jewish LGBTQ groups in communal events he endorsed. His successor, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, would be the first chief rabbi to attend Limmud and issue groundbreaking (by Orthodox standards) guidelines on the duty of care for Jewish schools and institutions toward LGBTQ students.
Sacks may have been the most prominent and influential Modern Orthodox rabbi, way beyond the British Isles. But he also personified the contradictions and limitations of Modern Orthodoxy, especially in the Diaspora – not being frum (traditional) enough for the ultra-Orthodox; too cautious for non-Orthodox Jews; and too foreign for Israelis.
While some of his books were translated in Israel, he himself was surprisingly stilted in Hebrew, and frustrated that he never achieved anything near the recognition there that he had in English-speaking countries.
Sacks never lost his talent to inspire thousands of Jews with his speeches and writings, but also for dismaying many Jews when they felt he let them down. In November 2016, five days after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U.S. presidential election, he roused a shell-shocked audience as the keynote speaker at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) when he spoke of the “acrimonious” nature of the election campaign (without mentioning Trump) and told them that the Hebrew word for “crisis” – mashber – originally meant a birth stool. “Every crisis, for Jews, is chevlei leida (the pains of childbirth), something new is being born,” he explained. A year later, many were disappointed to discover that Sacks had helped Vice President Mike Pence write the speech he had delivered during his visit to Jerusalem.
Perhaps it was too much to expect. As it was, few if any rabbi ever succeeded in navigating far away from his home community and comfort zone, and communicating with as diverse a range of audiences, as Sacks.
“He had a status that perhaps no other rabbi in the world attained – a wide global Jewish voice, in demand from Jewish and non-Jews,” said Yair Ettinger, one of Channel 11’s state and religion commentators and author of “Unraveled: The Disputes that Redefine Religious Zionism.”
“Unlike anyone else, he was listened to both by Orthodox and Reform Jews, a cosmopolitan rabbi, revered by the widest range of Jews,” Ettinger added.
Sacks fully came in to his own at the age of 65, when he finally retired from the Rabbinate and became a globe-trotting public intellectual, freed from the restraints of office. He still wouldn’t challenge Orthodoxy, but he had been evolving.
Much of his early writing had focused on advancing the cause of Jewish Orthodox tradition. In later books, he broadened his theme to arguing in favor of all monotheistic religions as a bulwark against the modern crises of society, caused in his view by secular moral relativism, as he claimed in one his last books, “Not in God’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence,” a response to popular militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
Israeli philosopher and author Micah Goodman, an admirer of the former chief rabbi, said that “in his philosophical writing over the last 15 years, Rabbi Sacks transformed from being just a Jewish theologian to becoming a major Western philosopher, without losing his Jewish patriotism in the process.”