By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The world is shocked by the sudden loss of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l. Former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Sacks made his mark not only on the Jewish world, but also on the secular world.
Rabbi Sacks was also one of the great espousers of the universalness of Judaism. His thoughts, writings, and prose all tended to reflect the ideals of the Rosh Hashanah davening that looked toward that future time when all the nations of the world would unite into a worldwide agudah — “v’yei’asu kulam agudah achas … la’asos retzon Konam” — that they should form an organization to do the will of their Creator.
Rabbi Sacks had such knowledge, erudition, and a grasp of the breadth and depth of the full gamut of man’s philosophical quest in this world which combined with his unique ability to inspire his fellow Jews to passionately embrace the beauty of Torah and Yiddishkeit. He inspired Jew and gentile alike, and earned a deep and abiding respect among many of the world’s religious leaders.
Comfortable in the worlds of Torah knowledge and secular learning, he often drew parallels from one to help shed interpretive light on the other. Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Rainer Rilke — we see them all. Thus, we perceive Kantian motifs in Rabbi Sacks’s writings, sometimes clearly stated, at other times with just an allusion; a heading in a Machzor is titled “A Critique of Pure Happiness,” hinting to Kant’s limits and scope of metaphysics but applying it to Shlomo HaMelech’s exposition of the limits and scope of Pure Happiness. All of this in allusion.
And yet Rabbi Sacks was not reticent in his comparisons between the two worlds he inhabited. Why some only in allusion and others more fully explicated? Perhaps we will never know. Does it have to do with not irking the right wing? Or perhaps he delighted in thoughtfully engaging his readers.
Often, his statements and writings put him at odds with the chareidi world; his push toward universalness and the desire to conduct conversation perhaps pressed him at times to push the limit. He felt strongly that the Orthodox should participate in interfaith dialogue, something that is anathema to the chareidi world. After his Dignity of Difference came out, the book was banned by Rav Elyashiv. He came out with a second edition from which he removed certain passages. The Reform and Conservative movements took issue with the fact that he valued and identified strongly with the chareidi world to their exclusion.
Rabbi Sacks was an eclectic personality with many interests, perspectives, and pursuits. He was a student of history, too. I was working on a project with him on the history of the Jews of York. He was a strong advocate of human rights and felt that no one could stand idly by while people, created in the image of Hashem, were trampled upon. He celebrated life and brought his message not just to Jews but to all people. He worked with the BBC in order to bring to others the message of Hashem and emulating Him.
Rabbi Sacks’s writings dealt with contemporary expressions of morality, of true leadership, and how to see that through the lens of the Torah and its commentaries. He decried religious violence and marshaled lessons from the Bible against it. He dealt with science and how there is no contradiction between science and tradition.
Rabbi Sacks wrote a Siddur, authored Machzorim, and produced a Hagaddah. He wrote commentaries on numerous sefarim in Chumash and Tanach. He wrote of Jewish continuity. Rabbi Sacks’s writings inspired so many people to have tremendous hope for the future, and not despair of so many contemporary negative trends. His written legacy is extensive.
Rabbi Sacks was also passionate. He spoke out against gashmiyus, consumerism. His lively metaphors in that speech included his explanation of the origin of consumerism: “The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTunes … I, I, I! When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about ‘I’, you don’t do terribly well.” He got flak for it and had to backpedal, but the contrast with Moshe Rabbeinu coming down the mountain with the luchos was a unique and memorable turn of phrase.
Why did he quit the chief rabbinate? It is likely that he was sick of the constant straddling that he had to do as representative of all British Jewry. The Torah world took issue with any conciliatory statement that he had to make vis-à-vis the secular and gentile world. The Reform and Conservative movements took issue with his statements and actions regarding movements that denied the authenticity of Torah. Both sides, however, did not fully appreciate one of the most powerful pens and voices that espoused the ideals of Judaism.
Rabbi Sacks’s life and his career seem to so many, Jew and gentile alike, to have been truncated too early. Author of 30 volumes, all of them filled to the brim with profound thought, Rabbi Sacks had it in him to write so much more. Those who followed his writings, his ability to explain a tefillah, to bring out deep meaning in a yom tov or a perek of Tanach, mourn the fact that he had so much more to give, to offer. Rabbi Sacks’s writings were powerful, poignant, and uniquely expressive. He was a champion of the Torah perspective on so many topics. He will be sorely missed.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.