King David’s lament, “Do you not know that a prince and a great man in Israel has fallen this day”, encapsulates for many a sense of loss at the death of Rabbi Lord Sacks.
Jonathan Sacks was an exceptional Chief Rabbi. Brilliant, erudite, articulate to the ultimate degree, he spanned both the world of Judaism and the world of secular scholarship. He was a polymath in an age of specialisation, at home in a surprising range of interests.
The friend of political and religious leaders across a wide spectrum, he was at the same time the moral conscience of the nation, and for many beyond its shores. It was to him that the media turned first for a view on matters affecting the country. At his farewell banquet, Prince Charles said that the Chief Rabbi’s guidance on any given issue “has never failed to be of value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by.”
Jonathan Henry Sacks was born in London, the eldest of the four sons of Louis and Libby Sacks. Winning the top prize at the Finchley Synagogue Hebrew classes, (his name is still on the board as a prizewinner) he proceeded to Cambridge with no idea of entering the rabbinate and secured a first class degree in philosophy. The summer of 1967, spent in America discussing philosophy with academics and rabbis, culminated in a pivotal meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe which caused him to change direction. It led to his becoming one of the greatest rabbinic leaders of our time.
One day in Cambridge he spotted a young woman “radiating joy”. The attraction was mutual and three weeks later he went down on one knee at Oxford Circus and proposed. Elaine brought to the marriage a consciousness of the real world, order and joy. He once described marriage as “the thing that weaves two lives together and makes of them a grace none of us can ever make alone.” They had three children, Joshua, Dina, and Gila.
He served as rabbi at the Golders Green and Marble Arch synagogues, combined with his role of principal of Jews’ College. Already developing a reputation as an independent thinker, Sacks was invited by the BBC in 1990 to give the prestigious Reith Lectures. By 1991 his appointment as Chief Rabbi was almost a foregone conclusion.
The shifting sands of intra-communal politics are never easy to navigate. As a man of the utmost integrity Sacks was not always at ease or deft in dealing with them. He sometimes found it difficult to understand that not everyone played by his rules and that a Chief Rabbi cannot always please both wings of the religious community.
When the leading Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn died in 1996, Rabbi Sacks’ absence from the funeral generated an outburst of fury, partly assuaged by a memorial meeting at which Sacks paid tribute to his friend.
He also wrote a letter to the Strictly Orthodox community to justify his actions. Sacks had believed the letter would remain confidential but it was immediately publicised and exacerbated the tensions.
Sacks was a prolific writer, with 35 books at the last count and innumerable articles. In The Dignity of Difference, written as a response to the 9/11 outrages, he declared his admiration for other religions and accepted that each was in its way a worthy approach to God for its own followers. A storm of criticism arose from the right wing, and a second edition was rapidly produced with the offending words excised.
All this however pales in significance beside his achievements as a communicator and a writer, both as Chief Rabbi and after his retirement. He was particularly interested in young people and devoted much time to visiting schools and universities, making a significant impact on the younger generation.
He was the first rabbi to have a monthly column in the Credo section of The Times, and to broadcast regularly on the BBC’s Thought For The Day. It was through such outlets, including his books, his pre-Rosh Hashanah and pre-Pesach TV programmes, that he influenced British society. His admirers were of all faiths and none and his influence spread well beyond the Jewish world.
Sacks had the ability to explain complex ideas with lucidity, and to make his audience relate to the truths he was teaching, even those who would not normally have been interested in the sayings of an Orthodox rabbi. His use of video reached out to an audience far more widespread than any previous religious leader. His CD collections of religious music proved popular with all ages and faiths.
Leonard Cohen was one of his favourite musicians, and his interpretation of the song You Want It Darker, is an insightful and moving commentary on the poem, as Sacks relates it to the Torah portion Vayera — ironically the Shabbat on which Sacks himself died.
Four Prime Ministers sought his advice and regarded him as the moral conscience of the country. Building upon the achievements of his predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, Jonathan Sacks reinforced the Chief Rabbinate as one of the Great Offices of State.
I had the honour of working closely with him when I was president of the United Synagogue from 1996 to 1999, and subsequently as chairman of the Singer’s prayer book publication committee.
We would meet regularly for a breakfast discussion which often ranged well beyond the strict agenda of communal business. We worked together on the agreement known as The Stanmore Accords, regulating relationships between various sections of the community and marked a number of achievements.
In 2006 it was decided to publish a new edition of the standard siddur (prayer book) of Anglo Jewry. As well as an insightful commentary he also produced a new and modern translation of the ancient liturgy. On the committee we used to think he could write faster than we could read! In due course the new edition developed into the Koren-Sacks siddur which is used internationally today. Ultimately he wrote the Koren Machzorim, prayer books for all the festivals.
He told me personally two of the many aphorisms in his books. They are “non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism” and “Yiddishkeit demands menschlichkeit”. It is by this imperative that he lived his life. He combined within himself the very best of Jewish and secular culture and manners. Jonathan Henry Sacks was unique. We will not see his like again.
He is survived by Elaine and their children, Joshua, Dina and Gila,three brothers and nine grandchildren.
ELKAN D LEVY
Lord Jonathan Sacks: born March 8, 1948. Died November 7, 2020