Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

22 Dec 2020

When President Kennedy awarded Winston Churchill with honorary American citizenship, he said that Churchill had mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. So too Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, mobilized his extraordinary eloquence and erudition and sent it into battle on behalf of the Jewish people and the Torah.

He was in his time, in the modern era, the most profound and eloquent spokesman for Biblical belief. His message was universal, while rooted in the particulars of the Torah. It resonated with Jew and non-Jew, scholar and layman, student and prime minister alike.

When Rabbi Sacks was just a 20-year-old student at Cambridge, he came to the United States at a crossroads in his life. It was soon after the stunning success of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, and he was actively seeking the contours of his Jewish identity. He met with both Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He later commented that the Rav charged him to think, and the Rebbe challenged him to lead. He did both and, because of those encounters, instead of going into academia or becoming a barrister, he devoted his life to Jewish leadership and scholarship.

Beyond his extraordinary intellectual qualities, Rabbi Sacks was also an aristocrat of the soul. The Midrash quotes that Rabbi Akiva saw his students were dozing at the beginning of shiur, so he posed a question: Why is it that Esther was able to rule over 127 provinces? It was because she was the descendant of Sarah, the matriarch, who lived to be 127 years old. Rabbi Akiva was puzzled: How was it that Esther, an innocent girl, ripped from the bosom of her family, unschooled in the art of diplomacy, could outmaneuver her enemies and successfully rule over an empire of 127 provinces? Where did she get the sophistication, poise and strength to be queen, outwit the nefarious prime minister Haman, and save herself and her people?

Rabbi Akiva believed that those qualities of leadership were inherited from Sarah. These are internal qualities, qualities of the soul. Sarah means princess; Esther, like Sarah, was endowed with that princely bearing and insight that allowed her to navigate and overcome the pressures and intrigue of the royal court.

So too with Rabbi Sacks. He had a regal quality. His kindness and consideration enhanced his leadership and teaching qualities and had an impact on anyone who met him.

When I wrote an edited book of letters to President Clinton, Rabbi Sacks wrote the foreword. It is marked by deeply moving insights about how Jewish thought has a fundamental role to play in the shaping of contemporary political, social and moral experience. After a startling and tragic episode in Britain involving the murder of a very young boy, Rabbi Sacks wrote an essay discussing the social conditions that could lead to such a crime, and identified the moral issues that the British would need to work through to come to grips with the tragedy. The essay resonated with then Prime Minister John Major, who contacted Rabbi Sacks the next day to initiate a dialogue with Rabbi Sacks; this dialogue would later be replayed with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Rabbi Sacks saw that these leaders had a genuine interest in the Torah’s perspective on society. He understood that there is a pressing need in a liberal democracy to articulate Jewish principles as central, such as the sanctity of marriage, the family and the home, the dignity of the individual, and the centrality of community, reciprocity and kindness. He believed in the promise of a liberal democracy to allow for people committed to faith to embrace their faiths, while existing together in a greater polity. Motivated by his discovery and firm belief in the importance that Torah thought has for general society, he became a passionate and inspiring ambassador; his speeches addressed the human condition.

In his 1997 book “Politics of Hope,” Lord Rabbi Sacks argued that the main threat to contemporary society is not totalitarian systems but the loss of a moral consensus on the family and community. A fervent and passionate searcher for truth, Rabbi Sacks sent a copy to the venerable political philosopher Isaiah Berlin to solicit his thoughts. When he did not receive a reply, he mustered the energy to call the revered thinker. His wife picked up the phone. “We have just been speaking about you,” she told him. And, although it is not clear that Rabbi Sacks received a reply to his original inquiry, she did inform him of Professor Berlin’s request that he officiate at his funeral (“although he was not a believing Jew,” Rabbi Sacks writes, “he was a loyal one.”).

Rabbi Sacks had three bouts with cancer. First at age 30, second at age 50, and then this last one. In an interview he was asked: How is it that you never speak publicly about it? He answered because he has complete emunah that whatever Hashem decides for him, whether he should be on this earth, or ultimately in heaven, he has complete faith in Hashem. And it was that quality of faith merged with his extraordinary intellect that marked him for true greatness.

He will be very sorely missed, but he leaves us with a rich legacy of scholarship with 40 volumes of his works and a memory of a true aristocrat. A nasi b’Yisrael. “Nasi Elokim ata betochenu.”

Watch the OU’s tribute to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. 

This article originally appeared on The Jewish Link