The second annual “Sacks Conversation” focused on the late U.K. chief rabbi’s message and impact on Israel.
(September 14, 2022 / JNS) Stepping down in 2013 after 22 years as chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks did not retire to Israel. Instead, the Cambridge University-educated Orthodox rabbi took up a post as visiting professor at Yeshiva University and New York University and went on to solidify his position as a global religious leader, respected moral voice, and prolific writer and broadcaster.
While many of Sacks’s 21 books have been published in Hebrew, it’s fair to say that during his lifetime he achieved his greatest prominence outside the Jewish state.
Since his passing in November 2020, however, the Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust (RSLT) has been committed to ensuring that his message is more broadly perpetuated in Israel.
On Tuesday, to mark two years since the rabbi’s death, President Isaac Herzog hosted and took part in the second annual Sacks Conversation, held at Beit Hanassi, the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. It focused on the moral teachings of Rabbi Sacks and their impact on modern Israeli society.
“This year, we wanted to bring the Sacks Conversation to Israel, which was so central to his message and where so many of his colleagues, students and supporters live,” said RSLT Chief Executive Joanna Benarroch.
Cotler-Wunsh expressed the hope that the Israeli branch of the RSLT would succeed in making the teachings and philosophy of “this fearless thought leader” more accessible to Israelis.
Addressing the question of Sacks’ choice to remain in the Diaspora, Cotler-Wunsh told JNS, “Rabbi Sacks would not have been Rabbi Sacks had he been in Israel.” It’s a limited perspective when one sees Israel’s role from the inside looking out, she said.
Hard work to make things better
In his conversation with Erica Brown, director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership at New York’s Yeshiva University, Herzog spoke about his relationship with the rabbi, the teachings and how they have informed his personal visions for international diplomacy, the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and the role of religion and faith in Israel’s governance.
Like many in the audience, the president had a personal relationship with Sacks. In the foreword of “I Believe: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible,” a collection of the last essays written by Sacks before his death, Herzog recounts how the rabbi and his family chose to remain in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War when the country was under heavy Scud missile attack.
“This was a display of courage and unity during a time of great distress,” Herzog writes. “In my eyes, this was an act of true leadership—one of countless examples provided by Rabbi Sacks through his lifetime.”
Rabbi Cantor Lionel Rosenfeld, the former cantor and rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in central London, was a close personal friend who eulogized Rabbi Sacks at his funeral. Rosenfeld told JNS of the deep sense of loss he feels, particularly at this time of year. He explained that Sacks, who officiated at the synagogue as a young rabbi starting in 1983, returned every year on Yom Kippur as well as to address the congregation before the Selichot penitentiary poetry recited in Ashkenazic communities on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana.
Rosenfeld pointed out to JNS the poignant message Sacks recorded a few months before his passing in a video produced by his former congregation for the High Holidays Days of 2020. “How precious time is and how important it is to pray to be written in the Book of Life,” Sacks states.
Several speakers at Tuesday’s event noted that hope was a central theme of Sacks’s philosophy. That message ran particularly true for professor Ben Corn, M.D., chair and co-founder of Life’s Door—Coping with Illness and Loss and chair of Radiation Oncology at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
Corn told JNS, “Rabbi Sacks has written several books on hope, emphasizing that optimism is the belief that things will get better. It’s a passive worldview. Hope, in contrast, is an activist assertion that—if we work hard enough—we can make things better.
“Healthcare providers and society have an obligation to offer people a path to enhance hope. Rabbi Sacks helped me as an Israeli understand that only hope can transform the human situation,” Corn said.
A video screened at the event included remarks by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Justice Esther Hayut, former Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and other prominent Israelis who spoke of the impact of Sacks’s teachings on their lives.
The event was sponsored by the Wohl Foundation and attended by several hundred Israeli religious leaders, social activists and community leaders as well as leading members of British Jewry. Family members including Lady Elaine Sacks, the rabbi’s widow, were also present.
In her closing remarks, Lady Sacks emphasized the teaching of Rabbi Sacks that “Torah is a blueprint for society. There is only one space on the whole planet where the Jewish people have a chance of creating their own society in accordance with their own values and that is the State of Israel. Here in Israel, the Jewish values of responsibility, of the dignity of difference, of chesed and tzedakah can truly be put to the test.”