Sacks was Chief Rabbi to the English-speaking world

Rabbi Lord Sacks' death robs us of our most celebrated rabbi


The death of former Chief Rabbi Rabbi Lord Sacks has robbed Britain of its foremost religious intellectual and the Jewish world of its most celebrated rabbinic voice. 

An electrifying speaker, a graceful writer and a polished broadcaster, he ensured that Judaism could compete in the marketplace of ideas, producing a string of books that showed that the teachings of the Torah contained a social philosophy that was as relevant as ever. 

When he received the Templeton Prize four years ago, the most prestigious global prize for religion, the citation said that it was his “central message of appreciation and respect of all faiths, with an emphasis that recognizing the values of each is the only path to effectively combat the global rise of violence and terrorism, which sets him apart as one of the world’s most respected intellectuals and admired religious leaders”. 

His appointment as Chief Rabbi in 1991 came as little surprise and, ushering in a “Decade of Renewal”, he inspired new educational enterprise with his unparalleled ability as a communicator. 

Although his Chief Rabbinate was not without its controversies, he was able to surmount these and in his final years of office achieved widespread acceptance as the most eloquent spokesman for Judaism today. His friend, Prince Charles, was guest of honour at the dinner in his honour to mark his retirement from formal office. 

After that he became, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Levy, emeritus spiritual head of London’s Sephardi community, “Chief Rabbi to the English-speaking world”. He spent much of this time in the United States, speaking and lecturing. 

He was quick to realise the potential of the new electronic media to spread his teachings, reaching new audiences with his Covenant & Conversation series on the weekly Torah portion and his video talks. His recording of a new version of the song Oseh Shalom with schooldchildren at the studio of producer Trevor Horn to mark Israel's 60th anniversary in 2008, which earned more than three million YouTube hits, showed his readiness to engage with young people.

The elegant edition of the festival machzorim he produced for Koren publishers is likely to become the standard for English-speaking modern Orthodox congregations. He was recently working on an edition of the Chumash. His sophisticated interpretation of Bible stories penetrated the sometimes deceptive simplicity of the text and teased out new insights.

His books, which seamlessly integrate rabbinic thought with ideas drawn from secular disciplines, tackle such topics as religious co-existence, social responsibilty and the relationship between faith and science. For anyone wanting to understand the place of Judaism in the contemporary world, they remain essential reading.

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