The Chief Rabbi worked out that confrontation was best avoided

By Naftali Brawer, August 30, 2013
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I first met Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when as a 26-year-old I joined his rabbinate to serve Northwood United Synagogue.

In the 17 years that followed I occupied a front-row seat looking onto his career and achievements.

On a personal level I gained much from him. He is an unparalleled rabbinical thinker who poses questions that go right to the heart of what Judaism means in our contemporary world.

His answers are creative, compelling and sometimes challenging. His assertion that the dichotomy between holiness and worldliness is a false one and that religious Jews must engage fully in society, deeply enriched my Judaism.

Crucially he led by example in this regard. He taught a compelling and beautiful Judaism not just to Jews but to people of all faiths and of none. He significantly raised the bar on what it means to be a faith practitioner as well as a faith leader today, and I, like so many others, aspire to respond to his challenge.

He often comes across standoffish but over the years I came to realise that behind his aloof exterior the Chief Rabbi has a highly sensitive interior.

When I was going through a particularly difficult period he was one of the few people who consistently called to to offer support. More importantly, I felt that he really understood what I was going through and this gave me a lot of comfort.

The title and office of Chief Rabbi can be oppressive, especially when the occupant’s every gesture and statement are scrutinised and often criticised.

Yet, on occasions I caught a glimpse of the Jonathan Sacks that is normally suppressed under the heavy cloak of the Chief Rabbi — dancing exuberantly at his daughter’s wedding, sitting forlorn and vulnerable after his father’s passing and singing Chasidic nigunim with abandon at a communal Shabbaton.

Far from undermining his position as Chief Rabbi, these tender moments only led me to respect him all the more.

What is his legacy in general terms? The United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth would be the wrong place to look. He outgrew the United Synagogue years ago. He might have been its spiritual head but his stage was always wider and his aspirations higher.

He elevated the Office of the Chief Rabbi not the other way around. Paradoxically the role of Chief Rabbi often hampered his creativity and kept some of his best ideas from achieving fruition.

He could have been more assertive in shaping the United Synagogue ideologically instead of allowing its ethos and policies to be determined by his conservative and Charedi Beth Din.

Yet, it wasn’t just his Beth Din that got in his way; many of his rabbis never entirely appreciated his brand of Judaism or bought into his vision. This must have been terribly disheartening.

I suppose at some point he did a cost-benefit analysis and came to the conclusion that the effort of going head to head with his detractors was not worthwhile. Instead he invested his energy in what he does best; thinking and articulating Torah and Jewish ideas.

Through his prodigious literary output as well as his knack for social media he disseminated his ideas far beyond his constituency, even transcending Jewish denominational divisions.

He has become rabbi to thousands of thinking Jews across the globe who draw deep inspiration from his teachings and apply his thought to the way they serve God and wider society.

I once heard it said that a rabbi can measure his success when his congregants stop referring to him at “the rabbi” and instead refer to him as “my rabbi.” Jonathan Sacks' legacy is that through his inspiring writings and teachings increasing numbers of Jews of all backgrounds have started thinking of him as “their rabbi”.

Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 30 2013