Profiles in Faith: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948 – 2020)

Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth


Rabbi Sacks“What do we worship?” The question, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Henry Sacks put it in a 2017 TED Talk, “How We Can Face the Future Without Fear, Together,” is key to understanding humanity’s future. In a world where the object of our worship increasingly tends to be “the self, the me, the I,” he explained, citing, tongue-in-cheek, the “selfie” as a “wonderful new religious ritual,” there is no simpler way of “safeguarding the future ‘you’” than to “strengthen the future ‘us’ in three dimensions: the us of relationship, the us of identity and the us of responsibility.”

The TED Talk, Sacks’ first, has recorded more than 2 million views. It vividly highlights his unmatched ability to communicate religious ideas with great wisdom, wit and eloquence — a talent that has made him not just a towering figure in the international Jewish community but also in wider society.

Sacks studied philosophy at Cambridge University. He went on to become a rabbi and one of the world’s most influential voices of Orthodox Judaism. When he died of cancer in November 2020 at age 72, the international response came from well beyond the Jewish community.

Sacks, a British citizen, was knighted in 2005 and served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He was particularly renowned for his ability to communicate Jewish philosophy to the general population — a skill he regularly used on Thought For the Day, a BBC Radio 4 show, as well as in his columns for The Times.

In the last of his many books, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, published two months before his death, Sacks wrote of the compatibility of science and religion. His brilliance and legacy are the product both of his identification with secular British society as well as the Judaism into which he was born.

In His Own Words

“Every time we hold out the hand of friendship to somebody not like us, whose class or creed or color are different from ours, we heal one of the fractures of our wounded world.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 2017 TED Talk, “How We Can Face the Future Without Fear, Together.”

“I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14, so he never had an education — not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16. So my parents didn’t know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And you know I tend to think that’s the greatest gift you can give a child. Wordsworth said it beautifully, ‘What we love, others will love and we will show them how.’” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in a 2010 conversation with Christa Tippett, host of the National Public Radio show, “On Being.”

“Jews have been scattered and dispersed and exiled for 2,000 years. We never lost our identity. Why? Because at least once a year, on the festival of Passover, we told our story and we taught it to our children and we ate the unleavened bread of affliction and tasted the bitter herbs of slavery. So we never lost our identity. I think collectively we’ve got to get back to telling our story, who we are, where we came from, what ideals by which we live. And if that happens, we will become strong enough to welcome the stranger and say, ‘Come and share our lives, share our stories, share our aspirations and dreams.’ That is the us of identity.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 2017 TED Talk, “How We Can Face the Future Without Fear, Together.”

“Have you noticed how magical thinking has taken over our politics? So we say, ‘all you’ve got to do is elect this strong leader and he or she will solve all our problems for us.’ Believe me, that is magical thinking. And then we get the extremes: the far right, the far left, the extreme religious and the extreme anti-religious, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a utopia that never will be and the religious and anti-religious equally convinced that all it takes is God or the absence of God to save us from ourselves. That, too, is magical thinking, because the only people who will save us from ourselves is we the people, all of us together. And when we do that, and when we move from the politics of me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations.

“So here is my simple suggestion. It might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world. Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind, and wherever you encounter the word ‘self,’ substitute the word ‘other.’ So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ We can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone. So for the sake of the future ‘you,’ together let us strengthen the future ‘us.’” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 2017 TED Talk, “How We Can Face the Future Without Fear, Together

“In January 2002 I stood at Ground Zero, site of the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Standing beside me were representatives of the world’s faiths, brought together by their participation in the World Economic Forum, which had moved from Davos, Switzerland, to New York as a gesture of solidarity to a city which had suffered so much trauma and loss. The Archbishop of Canterbury said a prayer. So did a Muslim imam. A Hindu guru from India recited a meditation and sprinkled rose petals on the site, together with holy water from the Ganges. The Chief Rabbi of Israel read a reflection he had written for the occasion. Another rabbi said Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. It was a rare moment of togetherness in the face of mankind’s awesome powers of destruction. I found myself wondering at the contrast between the religious fervor of the hijackers and the no less intense longing for peace among the religious leaders who were there. The juxtaposition of good and evil, harmony and conflict, global peace and holy war, seemed to me a fitting metaphor for the century we have just begun. We have acquired fateful powers. We can heal or harm, mend or destroy on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. The stakes have never been higher, and the choice is ours.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, a 2002 book that was his response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States

“Religion can be a source of discord. It can also be a form of conflict resolution. We are familiar with the former, the second is far too little tried. Yet it is here, if anywhere, that hope must lie if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead. The great faiths must now become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends. That will require great courage, and perhaps something more than courage: a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search — each faith in its own way — for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith. Can we make space for this difference?” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference

“That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national paper carried the story in its diary column, and concluded: ‘If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist!’ The day after, I sent them the following reply: ‘To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.’” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, quoted in The Guardian, following the defeat of his favorite football team.

“[T]he Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation because, when Moses at the burning bush says to God, ‘Who are you?’ God says to him three words: ‘Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.’ And those words are mistranslated in English as ‘I am that which I am.’ But in Hebrew, it means ‘I will be who or how or where I will be,’ meaning don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.” — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, National Public Radio show, 2010, “On Being.”

The Stories Others Tell

“Sacks wrote about how to generate compassion, kindness and mutual respect. He wrote about the importance of freedom and its paradoxes and challenges; he argued that tolerance depended on accepting that everyone is entitled to tread their own path to the divine. These are all precepts which originated in the Hebrew Bible. Sacks also appealed to so many because he never downplayed complexity, contradiction or doubt. He didn’t run away from these into doctrinal over-simplification or facile biblical literalism, which are such a turn-off to anyone who thinks about things. Instead, he acknowledged and engaged with them. And that again is a defining characteristic of Judaism, which is built not upon doctrinal conformity or obedience reinforced by punishment but upon argument, disputation and doubt.” — columnist and author Melanie Phillips, The Times of London.

“With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal.” —Prince Charles tribute to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in November 2020.

He was “a man of words … and of creativity, a man of truth, whose generosity and compassion built bridges between people.” He “bravely faced questions and always found the right words to illuminate the Torah and explain his paths. We will always remember his warnings against violence in the name of God, and his belief that we have the power to heal a fractured world.” — Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, November 2020.

“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.” — Elkan D. Levy, former President of United Synagogue November 2020

“In 1991, shortly before he became chief rabbi, Rabbi Sacks appeared on a popular BBC program, ‘Desert Island Discs,’ where celebrities are asked to imagine what they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The host uses those items to shape a discussion about the guest’s life, career and passions. Rabbi Sacks said that he would take a Talmud, the Jewish library of law and lore, and a pencil to write a commentary on it. As for music, he would take a devotional song from the Lubavitch tradition called ‘Tzomoh L’cho Nafshi,’ which means, ‘My soul thirsts for you, God.’ ‘Quite simply,’ he said, ‘I hope that someday something like that would be my epitaph: That his soul thirsted for God.’” — November 9, 2020, The New York Times.

A Life in Brief

Jonathan Sacks was born on March 8, 1948, the eldest of four children to Polish immigrant parents. His father, Louis Sacks, was a textile trader whose wife Louisa was a one-time driver of ambulances in London during the Blitz in World War II. The young Sacks was educated in Anglican schools rather than the Jewish schools rabbis typically attend during their formative years.

While on a Greyhound bus tour of the United States in the summer of 1967, Sacks, then 19 years old, encountered many religious figures, including Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a charismatic rabbi based in Brooklyn, New York, considered one of the greatest Jewish figures of the 20th century, who influenced Sacks to abandon his plans to become an economist and decide to be a rabbi instead.

During his undergraduate studies, Sacks was drawn to the universalism of philosophy as well as to the distinctiveness of his Jewish faith. “The words ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ went together like cricket and thunderstorms,” he wrote in 2011. “You often found them together, but the latter generally put an end to the former. Philosophers were atheists, or at least agnostics.

“Those two halves of his identity fueled his passionate insistence on the crucial role of religious faith in modern life, and his analysis of how the West was destroying itself by abandoning the biblical morality that underpinned its civilization,” Melanie Phillips wrote of Sacks in The Times in 2020.

Widely acknowledged as one of the most brilliantly iconoclastic minds of his generation, Sacks won the 2016 interfaith Templeton Prize and taught Jewish thought at Yeshiva University, New York, in 2013, as well as several other leading schools.

Achievements We’ll Remember

• 1976: Jonathan Sacks is ordained a rabbi

• 1991: Named Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Calls for a “decade of renewal,” in an effort to reinvigorate “Jewish identity, the Jewish family, above all, commitment to the Torah.”

• 2000: Appointed Associate President of the Conference of European Rabbis

• 2005: Received knighthood from Queen Elizabeth

• 2009: Became a life peer in the British House of Lords

2013: Retired as Chief Rabbi and accepted dual professorship at New York University and Yeshiva University

• 2016: Awarded the Templeton Prize for “bringing spiritual insight to the public conversation through mass media, popular lectures and more than two dozen books.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Religion

Orthodox Judaism, a major branch within Judaism, teaches strict adherence to the rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law and traditional observances of the Jewish faith. Orthodox Jews believe that the moral principles expressed in the Torah and other sacred writings of Judaism are eternally valid and must therefore be unquestionably obeyed, provided rabbis deem them practical.

Although there is considerable variety in the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Jews, the branch rejects the position taken by Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism, arguing that Jewish ancient laws and customs need not be adhered to in the modern world. Orthodox religious leaders also challenge the legitimacy of certain non-Orthodox marriages, divorces and religious conversions because they consider them to be violations of long-prescribed Jewish law.

Orthodoxy is the official form of Judaism in the state of Israel.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


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