The right leader for a ‘stiff-necked people’
The Chief Rabbi with friend and admirer Prince Charles
I have always been a dedicated student of the Chief Rabbi, but I only really appreciated the scope of his reach on the Friday night of a conference in Los Angeles.
As Shabbat approached, we split into six different groups, from the strictly Orthodox to the most liberal. Each group ran its own services and they had little in common. Only one thing united them. At every service, the person giving the sermon chose to base their message on the writings of Chief Rabbi Sacks.
My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once suggested that the mark of a great Jewish scholar is one who is able to translate ancient Jewish traditions into the genre of their times. Therein lies the greatness of Rabbi Sacks.
His Torah is unique because, in contrast to most scholars who remain cloistered in the sacred walls of the yeshiva, he is able to draw on worldly experience and unassailable academic credentials to pioneer Torah which engages with the spirit of contemporary society.
In a world where so many people are searching to contextualise their faith, Rabbi Sacks is our trail-blazer. In book after book, he brings the wisdom of classic Jewish texts to bear on the most pressing issues facing humanity.
The result is a new field of Jewish political philosophy, and sensitive religious messages that speak to scholars and lay people, Jews and gentiles alike.
Rabbi Sacks has also become the embodiment of his own rule that non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism. While so many fret about the growth of antisemitism, the status and confidence of Anglo-Jewry has been enhanced and strengthened by Rabbi Sacks’ leadership.
His retirement produced an extraordinary groundswell of affectionate tributes from the highest echelons of British society. The Prince of Wales and four British Prime Ministers lined up to describe how the Chief Rabbi has inspired their work, and four archbishops, representing millions of Christians world-wide, praised his work and declared him “a national treasure”.
Chief Rabbi Sacks has shown us the effect that a great Jewish leader can have. It is hard to imagine a greater kiddush Hashem — sanctification of God’s name.
Those who are jealous of Rabbi Sacks brush off these achievements saying: “He has been a great chief rabbi for the non-Jews”. Such mealy-mouthed praise ignores the fact that week after week, he criss-crossed the country meeting and greeting Jews at synagogues, schools, university campuses, community centres and charitable events.
Whether on a pastoral visit to the most disadvantaged or lecturing to our most brilliant university students, he took the time to listen, to teach and to offer wise counsel.
Since he cannot teach all of his communities all of the time, he has used modern media to broadcast his message everywhere — speaking out against antisemitism, challenging anti-Zionism and pushing our communities to think about their future.
He even recorded CDs of contemporary music to tell the story of the state of Israel. Those discs reached almost every Jewish house in the country.Those discs reached almost every Jewish house in the country.
Likewise, so many of our homes and study halls are filled with his volumes of Jewish philosophy - at our Passover Seder tables we pore over his Haggada, in our synagogues we pray from his daily and festival prayer books and read his Bible commentaries. Even our children have his Children's Siddur to pray from. Few rabbis in history have had such an impact on Jewish life.
As Moses handed over the reins of leadership to Joshua, he warned that the Jew are a “stiff-necked people” who are hard to please. It has never been easy to be a Jewish leader, but Chief Rabbi Sacks has filled the role with distinction.
Rabbi Gideon D Sylvester in the United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel.