It’s rare to see so many testaments and obituaries for one man flood social media and both the Jewish and secular press. But such was the impact of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
I came to the United Kingdom a few months before Rabbi Sacks became chief rabbi, and I had the privilege of serving as a rabbi in a United Synagogue shul for the entire duration of his tenure. During that time, I had countless opportunities to engage with him on both a rabbinic and personal level.
He inducted me into office in 1991 and guided me during my early years in the rabbinate. When I wished to leave my then small community after a couple of years, I went to seek his guidance. Although he suggested I remain for five years, I ultimately decided to tender my resignation the next morning. He was surprised I neglected his advice, but he didn’t take it personally.
There was internal opposition to me, a Chabad rabbi, taking a rabbinic position in Mill Hill – where I currently serve – but he overruled the dissenters. It is to his credit that I owe my now 27 flourishing years with the Mill Hill community.
Rabbi Sacks was very much a rabbi’s rabbi, always truly caring and empowering the rabbinate in his unique way. True leaders are like the best conductors. They reach beyond the notes to touch the magic in the players.
He once encouraged me to go on a radio program to discuss religion. It was my first ever media experience. The sum total of my “media training” was his call to me just before I stepped into the studio, during which he offered me one line of advice: “You don’t have to always answer the question.”
He was a master of the sound bite, and his brief sentences always contained so much wisdom. This wisdom was also reflected in his carefully-worded lectures and numerous books.
To be sure, his role as chief rabbi was fraught with challenges. It was bound to be – particularly because he was eyed with suspicion by charedi Jews who found it difficult to relate to someone who had a modern Orthodox upbringing, was educated in non-Jewish schools, and became a philosopher long before he became a rabbi.
But that was the reality of his dichotomous character: “Dr. Jonathan” and “Rabbi Sacks,” as the media was wont to point out. It was this contrast that led to several controversies during his tenure. When Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor and leader in the Reform movement in the UK, died in 1996, Rabbi Sacks planned on delivering a eulogy at a memorial event. This plan incited severe backlash from more right-wing Jews, prompting him to write a letter to the late Rabbi Chanoch Dov Padwa, head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, insisting he was going to use the opportunity to criticize Reform.
The letter was leaked, and what became known as the “Gryn affair” ensued. He once confided to me that the rhetoric and backlash was so intense at the time that he contemplated resigning.
Another controversy erupted after the publication of his book, The Dignity of Difference, in 2002, which contained several lines that were perceived as anathema to traditional Judaism. “I’m a poet, and I like using poetic license,” he told me in a phone conversation, explaining why his words can sometimes be misconstrued.
Faced with more criticism, he opted to republish the book, removing the “offensive” lines. Some hailed him a hero for his courage, others described him as weak for caving. That was his reality – much as he tried, he was never going to be able to please everyone.
It was in 1968, when he was in his second year at Cambridge University, that Lord Sacks went to New York to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe, true his style, did “a role reversal,” as Rabbi Sacks put it. Rabbi Sacks said, “He started asking me questions, asking me what I was doing for Judaism on campus.”
When Rabbi Sacks started responding, “In the situation in which I find myself…” the Rebbe stopped him: “No one finds himself in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in one situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”
“Those words,” said Lord Sacks, “changed my life.” At the Rebbe’s behest, he went on to get semicha and he attributes becoming chief rabbi of Great Britain to that experience.
Chaburahs with the chief rabbi were always spellbinding experiences. The way he would weave his depth and breadth of Torah knowledge, often with contemporary disciplines, gave one insight into a rare multifaceted mind. They were uplifting and inspiring.
He had a unique gift of making Torah relevant and inspiring for everyone. There were times we didn’t see eye to eye, and there were times we argued, but matters were always resolved amicably in the end because true leaders don’t bear grudges. They mend hearts.
Retiring from the Chief Rabbinate afforded him time to travel the world. His name and fame grew as he assumed professorships abroad and inspired audiences everywhere. A testament to his leadership qualities is the respect he ultimately courted across the Jewish spectrum as both left and right found reassurance in his voice as he went to battle on the frontlines, combating anti-Semitism and defending Israel. He became one of the most eloquent spokespeople for the Jewish world.
In 2016, he won the coveted Templeton prize for his efforts in countering religious extremism while “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He was deemed an ambassador for the Jewish people as is evident from the outpouring of tributes we’re currently seeing from Jew and non-Jew alike, including many religious and political leaders and, indeed royalty. The Prince of Wales said, “With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader.”
Many years ago, I took ill. I told no one, but Rabbi Sacks somehow knew and called me to offer encouragement. The words he shared with me at the time were the very same, he said, that the Lubavitcher Rebbe said to him when he had battled cancer many years earlier: “The world still needs you.”
The world needs the voice of Rabbi Lord Sacks now more than ever, and his legacy will live on through his teachings. May his memory be a blessing.