Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks succumbed to cancer on Shabbat at the age of 72.
He had two previous bouts with cancer in his 30s and 50s and recently requested that people pray for him as he underwent treatment for the disease again.
Rabbi Sacks was a towering intellectual and prolific author who was probably the most eloquent champion of orthodox Judaism to the secular public of his generation. His 25 books on a broad range of subjects in Jewish thought received numerous prizes and he himself was chosen on many occasions to present the viewpoint of Judaism to the uninitiated, such as when he spoke on the BBC’s “Thought for the Day” and wrote opinion pieces in the British Times. In 1990 he delivered the BBC Reith Lectures, a series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of the day, on The Persistence of Faith.
Born in in Lambeth, London on 8 March 1948, Rabbi Sacks commenced his formal education at St Mary’s Primary School and at Christ’s College, Finchley. He completed his higher education at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class honours degree (Master of Arts (Cambridge)) in Philosophy.
While a student at Cambridge, Sacks travelled to New York to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to discuss a variety of issues relating to religion, faith and philosophy. Rabbi Schneerson urged Sacks to seek rabbinic ordination and to enter the rabbinate.
This meeting profoundly shaped Rabbi Sack’s life. In later years he wrote of it that “here was one of the leaders of the Jewish world taking time—considerable time—to listen to an unknown undergraduate student from thousands of miles away and speak to him as if he mattered, as if he could make a difference. He was, powerfully and passionately, urging me to get involved. Years later, looking back on that encounter, I summed it up by saying that good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.”
Rabbi Sacks decided to continue his academic studies but at the same time embarked on a career in the rabbinate. Subsequently he continued postgraduate studies at New College, Oxford and at King’s College London, completing a PhD which the University of London awarded in 1982.
Sacks received his rabbinic ordination from Jews’ College and London’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva. After a tenure as rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue in Northwest London and Rabbi of the prestigious Marble Arch community, Rabbi Sacks was inducted as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, a position he served in from 1991 until his retirement in 2013. Rabbi Sacks also served as principal of Jews College in London from 1984 until 1990 and as a visiting professor at various universities in Britain.
Rabbi Sacks received 16 honorary degrees as well as numerous international awards. In 2016 he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He was knighted by the queen in 2005 for his “services to the Community and to Inter-faith Relations” and in 2009 was recommended for a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords, taking the title “Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London.”
The Prince of Wales called Sacks a “light unto this nation”, “a steadfast friend” and “a valued adviser” whose “guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by.”
Sacks published commentaries on the daily Jewish prayer book (siddur) and completed commentaries to the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach festival prayer-books (machzorim) as of 2017. His other books include, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning.
His books won literary awards, including the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for The Dignity of Difference, and a National Jewish Book Award in 2000 for A Letter in the Scroll. Covenant & Conversation: Genesis was also awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 2009, and his commentary to the Pesach festival prayer book won the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience Dorot Foundation Award in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards in the United States. His Covenant & Conversation commentaries on the weekly Torah portion are read by thousands of people in Jewish communities around the world.
In his most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good In Divided Times, published in 2020 , Sacks traced today’s social crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and our elevation of self-interest over the common good. He argued that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility and stressed that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.
Rabbi Sacks considered three people to be his mentors, as he wrote in a pamphlet on retiring from the Chief Rabbinate:
The first was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who “was fully aware of the problem of the missing Jews… inventing the idea, revolutionary in its time, of Jewish outreach… [He] challenged me to lead.”: Indeed, Sacks called him “one of the greatest Jewish leaders, not just of our time, but of all time”
The second was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik whom Sacks described as “the greatest Orthodox thinker of the time [who] challenged me to think.”: Sacks argued that for Rav Soloveichik “Jewish philosophy had to emerge from halakhah, Jewish law. Jewish thought and Jewish practice were not two different things but the same thing seen from different perspectives. Halakhah was a way of living a way of thinking about the world – taking abstract ideas and making them real in everyday life.”
The third figure was Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, a former principal of the London School of Jewish Studies and head of the Maaleh Adumim Hesder Yeshiva, who passed away four months ago. Sacks called Rabinovitch “One of the great Maimonidean scholars of our time, [who] taught us, his students, that Torah leadership demands the highest intellectual and moral courage.”
Sacks believed in the fusion of Torah and Chokhmah (general wisdom), stating in his book Future Tense that “Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.”
Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine and his three children: Joshua, Dina and Gila.