Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks lost his third battle with cancer on Shabbat at age 72. He had previously suffered from the condition in his 30s and 50s.
The London-born Jonathan Sacks was inspired to devote his life to spreading Judaism in the summer after the Six-Day War, when he went to the United States to philosophically examine his religion.
Meetings there with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik changed his life. He said later: “The Rebbe challenged me to lead. Rabbi Soloveitchik challenged me to think.”
After studying philosophy at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, Sacks began lecturing in that subject at Jews’ College, London. He obtained semicha at the institution as well as at London’s Yeshiva Etz Chaim.
He later became the rabbi of London’s Golders Green and Marble Arch Synagogues, after which he was appointed Jews’ College principal in 1984.
It was in that role that our paths first crossed. During the 1980s, I had been exploring and writing about Orthodox Jewish feminism. Lord Sacks’ idea for a “Traditional Alternatives Conference” on women at Jews’ College in 1990 excited me, and we began corresponding, sharing our views on the issue.
But besides being the year when I organized a “Traditional Alternatives Conference” offshoot meeting in Manchester, 1990 was also the year in which my marriage and my position as rebbetzin of one of Manchester’s largest shuls were rapidly falling apart.
Allegations against my late ex-husband were being judged by the previous chief rabbi, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, and in September 1991, just before Rosh Hashanah, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was inducted into office. Because of my previous connection with the new chief rabbi, I made an appointment to see him in the hope that he would overturn Jakobovits’ dismissal of my ex from his synagogue position.
I managed to obtain one of Rabbi Sacks’ earliest appointments after Simchat Torah. As I went to London that day, my whole world was crashing around me. I explained my situation to the chief rabbi, telling him about myself and how I had always committed myself to the promotion of Judaism.
He listened very carefully throughout, after which he said very quietly, “I cannot intervene.”
But then he took out of his drawer a Jewish Telegraph, containing my last opinion column, in which I had written about relations between the Orthodox and Reform in the UK. He said to me solemnly, “Your column has helped me. You must carry on!”
I was on cloud nine. I had helped the chief rabbi! Wow!
He kept me going through the hardest of times. Chief Rabbi Sacks was my raison d’etre for many years.
Then there was my professional life. As the Jewish Telegraph’s senior reporter, I was responsible for all the news coverage about him and had monthly interviews with him. I followed him on all his visits to Manchester and surrounding areas, as well as on his first visit to Glasgow Jewry.
As I trailed him, he would usually drop back and ask me how I was. There were times when I was carrying out these duties while laden with personal problems that I was able to approach him and ask for a beracha. They always worked.
My professional position gave me a first-hand view of the immense difficulties the new chief rabbi faced. By the time he took office in 1991 British Jewry had moved from its previous moderate, traditional stance. Neo-charedism was growing exponentially, and the Reform movement was becoming more self-confident. Both sides unfortunately used the chief rabbi to assert themselves.
From day one, charedim, several of whose rabbis held prominent positions in leading provincial synagogues nominally under the chief rabbi’s authority, were far from impressed with Rabbi Sacks. Most of these were in my neck of the woods, Manchester.
Rabbi Sack’s first major project on becoming chief rabbi was to institute a “Review of Women in the Jewish Community” under the halachic auspices of the London Beth Din. I was involved locally, heading the Manchester Synagogal and Religious Review group.
Days after the Review findings were published in 1994, it was sabotaged by Manchester rabbis, and both Rabbi Sacks and Review head Rosalind Preston stepped back from its findings.
In 1996, the chief rabbi was attacked by both charedim and Reform after the death of prominent Reform rabbi Hugo Gryn, when Sacks angered the Reform by not attending Gryn’s funeral and charedim for attending his memorial service.
Rabbi Sacks was a man of peace, who found it hard to cope with discord.
Manchester was also the place where the controversy over Sacks’ 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference, erupted. A Manchester rabbi used his Rosh Hashanah speech to label Sacks an apikorus for comments he made in the book implying that Judaism only contained part of divine truth. This controversy came just after a Guardian interview in which Sacks had inferred that Israel’s presence in the West Bank occupation was “corrupting” Israel’s culture.
On the back of both these controversies, the Orthodox Encounter conference disinvited Sacks as its keynote speaker. Eventually the chief rabbi was re-invited and the Encounter executive stepped down. But Encounter, which had been formed to rival the Limmud cross-community conference, never met again.
Rabbi Sacks rode all these controversies with great dignity and perseverance, while managing to breathe new life into the mainstream United Synagogue.
He left his office in 2013 and, sadly, on Shabbat, he left this world with a name second to none as an outstanding communicator, a prolific author, and a philosopher who was admired alike by world statesmen, faith leaders, and countless Jews whose lives he touched.