The world lost a once in a generation luminary this past Shabbos with the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Kingdom. His death came suddenly after the news last month that he was diagnosed with cancer for the third time. His daughter Gila gave a beautiful eulogy, which we recommend listening to here.
Sacks was a frequent radio and television guest, wrote more than thirty books and was a professor at Oxford, NYU, Yeshiva University, King’s College London, the Universities of Manchester and Hebrew University of Jerusalem and held 16 honorary degrees. In addition to winning the Templeton Prize, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and was awarded a Life Peerage in the British House of Lords.
In 2017, we were privileged to get an exclusive interview with Rabbi Sacks, which you can listen to here or read the excerpt of here. The topics we covered ranged from faith for rational thinkers, squaring away challenging Torah ideas with modern mores, finding meaning and beauty in Judaism, and the push towards extremism in the world. Rabbi Sacks concluded our interview, on the topic of being a minority when it comes to promoting a moderate and nuanced Orthodox Judaism by saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll try to keep doing what I’m doing. Never ever be discouraged that you’re in a minority. Jews have always been a minority. Keep emphasizing the beauty, the spirituality and the subtly of our faith and you will bestow a great blessing on our people.”
From his unorthodox start as the son of a textile merchant and a secular primary and secondary education, Sacks went on to Cambridge University. While a student, he met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who advised him to become a rabbi. Sacks went on to earn a PhD from the University of London and semicha from Jews’ College and the Etz Chaim Yeshiva. He is noted for the efforts he made at inclusion within different sects of Orthodox Judaism, as well as with secular Jews and non-Jews. His philosophy of Torah v’Chochmah evolved from the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and the Torah U’Madda approach of Rabbi Norman Lamm. In his book Future Tense, Sacks said, “Chochmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God…Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.”
Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and was Chief Rabbi of United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK, as well as Av Beit Din of the London Beit Din. He was named Emeritus Chief Rabbi for the last seven years of his life.
The Prince of Wales, Prince Charles said “It was with the most profound personal sorrow that I heard of the death of Rabbi Lord Sacks. With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal. His immense learning spanned the sacred and the secular, and his prophetic voice spoke to our greatest challenges with unfailing insight and boundless compassion. His wise counsel was sought and appreciated by those of all faiths and none, and he will be missed more than words can say. Although Rabbi Lord Sacks’s death is a cause of the greatest possible sadness, we give thanks for the immeasurable contribution which — in the tradition of the most revered teachers of the Jewish people — he made to all our lives.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Sacks’ leadership had a “profound impact on our whole country and across the world.” Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Sacks was “a man of huge intellectual stature but with the warmest human spirit.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared that “His insights on the heritage of the Jewish people and on anti-Semitism will live on, for our generation and future generations. May his memory be a blessing.” Israeli president Reuven Rivlin said, “Rabbi Sacks bravely faced difficult questions and always found the right words to illuminate the Torah and explain its 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.” Current UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote that the world had “lost a Torah luminary and intellectual giant who had a transformative global impact.”
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said of Rabbi Lord Sacks that “when you met him, you couldn’t help but be swept up in his delight at living, his sense of humor, his kindness and his desire to know, understand and value others. It was that rare combination – profound depth, and equally profound commitment to relating with others – that made the leadership he offered possible.”
Married to Elaine for 50 years, Sacks was the father of three children and a beloved grandfather.
We asked some readers which of Rabbi Sacks’ books were their favorites. Here are some of the answers we received: Torah Studies, Dignity of Difference, To Heal A Fractured World, The Great Partnership, A Letter in the Scroll, Radical Then, Radical Now, Koren Siddur.