It is hard to find the words to express how much Jonathan Sacks meant. He was a great rabbi, a faith leader, leading first the Golders Green Synagogue, then the Marble Arch congregation, and then the entirety of Orthodox British Jewry: and serving as a spokesman for the other parts. He was an intellectual powerhouse and the reams and reams (twenty-five!) of books he wrote on the thorniest topics, always containing cutting insight, attest to that fact. He was an author, writing, laying out, and translating some of the very most beautiful Jewish prayer books that have ever been written.
That CV (impressive though it is) cannot do justice to how influential and how brilliant he was, though. He was fascinated by the ethical dimension of Judaism. He insisted always that the lessons of the faith of the Abrahamic religions had an essential role to play in grounding moral commitments generally, and interpersonal morality in particular. In the last books he wrote before his death, he pleaded with a society that he saw as riven by polarising and radicalising influences to rediscover the moderation that he saw with such great clarity lying at the heart of his faith and of what society could be. In Not In God’s Name, he incisively exposed the psychological roots of religious extremism, and then thunderously indicted extremists as not simply non-religious, but anti-religious.
He was also interested in religion and truth. Like another great rabbi of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Sacks drew on his impressive secular education (Oxford, Cambridge, King’s) to analyse the truth that he saw with such clarity at the heart of Torah. Sacks is responsible for the great innovation in Jewish thought that science is absolutely correct in the realms that it deals with. If we are told by the best scientific theory of the day that the Big Bang happened in one way or another, then it did. In his opinion, Torah is not a science textbook. But what science has nothing to say about – can have nothing to say about – is those particular instances where we reach out for an answer and don’t find one in the cold logic of science. A moral dilemma. A question of love. A relationship with another person. That, he said, is where faith can step in and provide an answer.
He had thrown himself headlong into the modern era, becoming a podcaster, a radio show host, even a Youtuber! And that was because he really and truly believed that Judaism, a tiny religion of less than 15 million adherents, had something to say to everyone. That it really was a “light unto the nations.” Jonathan Sacks was Judaism’s lens, focusing its light into a razor-sharp point that could see right through waffle and dogma and cut straight to the heart of something really true about faith.
And Jonathan Sacks, by the way, was a proud Zionist. When he was studying at Oxford, in order to become an academic, he heard news of the Six Day War and instantly realised what his calling was. It was not to toil in academia, producing brilliant works of philosophy that only a few people would ever read or care about. It was, as he said in his installation address as Chief Rabbi, to “revitalise” British Jewry. He brought in his writings so many deep and profoundly beautiful ideas to common usage that it can be said without exaggeration that his titanic efforts to drag Judaism into the modern era succeeded. And his Zionism and unstinting support for the state of Israel was part of it. When he said in 2019, sadness etched upon his face, that there was almost no country in the world where Jews could feel safe, he really meant it. Jonathan Sacks truly believed in the necessity of Israel as a sanctuary for the Jewish people.
In Rabbi Sacks’ prayer book, the pagination is backwards. Normally, the Hebrew is on the right and the English is on the left. But in Sacks’, the Hebrew is on the left and the English is on the right. Even after more than four thousand years of Judaism, Rabbi Sacks was willing to buck a trend in the name of innovation. But at the same time, he was absolutely insistent on the need to keep tradition. This apparent contradiction would have been impossible to hold for many. But Jonathan Sacks seemed to flit back and forth between the universal and particular with ease that made everyone who watched jealous. He bestrode the religious and the secular confidently, with one foot planted firmly in each, knowing exactly where he was standing.
Jonathan Sacks was a great man, but he was also a truly good man. He was a kind man, a loving man, and a generous man. May his memory be a blessing and may God comfort his family among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The Jewish community – and Britain – has suffered a great loss. We shall not see his like for many years to come.