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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Loss of a Jewish Global Visionary

The Jewish world and the whole world have lost a great teacher and leader, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks was an unparalleled scholar, teacher, speaker and communal leader. From my several encounters with him, the times I heard him speak, and from the eulogies given at his funeral I also learnt that he was a good father, a good friend and mentor and related to people of all ages. Thank G-d the Jewish people have other great figures who excel in many of these areas. In an age of specialization, some people are inspiring speakers but do not produce original scholarship. Some are great teachers are not communal leaders. Some can relate to adults but not to children. However, Rabbi Sacks excelled in all of these areas. What also made him unique was that he was able to take sophisticated ideas and make them accessible to all audiences and relevant for the modern world, and this is also a rare gift that many scholars are not able to do.

What drew me most to Rabbi Sacks’ teachings, and he was often my ‘go to’, from the parsha to philosophy and ethics, is his vision of Judaism, the Jewish people and our role in the world. He sees a primary role of the Jewish people as one was meant to impact on a global scale. Jewish ideas and teachings are invaluable to Jews as well as to the entire world, and it is our role to impact the world through Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s name. At an address he gave in 2012 when he stepped down from the position of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (no, the official title is not Chief Rabbi of England) entitled A Judaism Engaged with the World, Rabbi Sacks talked about different models of living a religious life. There is the model of Noah who took the path of segregation, distancing himself from a world antithetical to his values. He is the only figure called a tzadik in the Torah, but he did not influence the world around him. This is in contrast to Avraham who reached out to those around him and influenced others. This is from his book Future Tense (2009):

“The Jewish story is not for Jews alone. From the very beginning it was meant to be shared. When G-d said to Abraham ‘Through you all of the families of the earth will be blessed’, when Moses said ‘This is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations’, they were signaling that, improbably yet certainly, this journey across the wilderness of time in search of the Promised Land would be one from which all who believe in G-d, Jew and non-Jew alike, would draw courage. They too would walk in it towards….their own destination of hope.”

While Rabbi Sachs recognizes the need to build up one’s own spiritual wellbeing, he sees engaging with modernity presenting new opportunities and challenges:

“The challenge of our time is to go out to Jews with a Judaism that relates to the world – their world – with intellectual integrity, ethical passion and spiritual power. There is no contradiction, not even a conflict, between contributing to humanity and affirming our distinctive identity. To the contrary: by being what only we are, we contribute to the world what only we can give. We have much to teach the world – and the world has much to teach us. It is essential that we do so with generosity and humility. I have called Judaism the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. Our ability to survive some of the worst tragedies any people has known without losing our faith in life itself; to suffer and yet rebuild; to lose and yet recreate; to honour the past without being held captive by the past – all of which are embodied today in the State of Israel, living symbol of the power of hope – are vitally important not just to ourselves but to the world."

Rabbi Sacks tells us that if we are to teach Torah to Jews who are disconnected from their tradition, it must be a Judaism that relates to the world at large. And the mission goes beyond that, to bring a message of G-dliness to the entire world. He relates the story of when he was a young student meeting with two of the leaders of the generation, Rabbi J.D. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Both of them showed him models of great leaders who were engaged with the world, Rabbi Soloveitchik in the world of ideas, and the Rebbe by building a movement that would project religious values and faith to other Jews and to the world at large.

Many in the Jewish world have chosen the path of separation from the general world, which is not surprising after 2000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, and with a modern world whose values are so antithetical to those of the Torah. While Rabbi Sacks recognized this path, he believed that more could be accomplished. As Chief Rabbi he was sought out by non-Jewish leaders to be a voice of wisdom and direction. He was appointed to the house of Lords of the British Parliament, enabled us to quip at rabbinic conferences where he spoke ‘we are going to hear the Lord.’ He hosted a regular radio program on the BBC. And in his farewell speech quoted above he announced that he would be spending the coming years dedicating himself to ‘try to inspire a new generation of Jewish leaders, to deepen the conversation between Torah and the wisdom of the world, and to do so globally.’ His second to last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times came out in September, and like a number of his other books was written for a general audience. In the eulogies at his funeral, one of Rabbi Sacks’s colleagues said that he told him that he was starting with the broader engagement and vision of Judaism in the world, and afterwards he would turn to Jewish scholarship. Indeed, his next project was to work on a translation and commentary on the Torah. That work, and Rabbi Sacks, will be sorely missed. I end with his opening address at an Interfaith gathering at the Vatican in 2010 where he delivered an appeal, in his beautifully crafted, impassioned, and inspiring prose on how religion is all the more relevant and needed in our modern world:

“In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about the things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships. We believe in marriage as a commitment, parenthood as a responsibility, and the poetry of everyday life when it is etched, in homes and schools, with the charisma of holiness and grace.

In our communities we value people not for what they earn or what they buy or how they vote but for what they are, every one of them a fragment of the Divine presence. We hold life holy. And each of us is lifted by the knowledge that we are part of something greater than all of us, that created us in forgiveness and love, and asks us to create in forgiveness and love.

Each of us in our own way is a guardian of values that are in danger of being lost, in our short-attention-span, hyperactive, information-saturated, wisdom-starved age. And though our faiths are profoundly different, yet we recognize in one another the presence of faith itself, that habit of the heart that listens to the music beneath the noise, and knows that God is the point at which soul touches soul and is enlarged by the presence of otherness.” May his memory and his teaching be a blessing for his soul, his family, the future of the Jewish people and the world.

Photo: January 2020 at the Sefardic Temple in L.A. with Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Tal Sessler.

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