Rabbi Jonathan Sacks exemplified the best of Modern Orthodoxy. Erudite, personable, a prolific writer, a beloved teacher and a public intellectual, Sacks moved comfortably in the Jewish community and in the larger world. He began his career as a congregational rabbi in London, served as Britain’s chief rabbi and then devoted the remainder of his public life as a scholar, teacher and public speaker. He passed away last Shabbat, at age 72.
American Jews became familiar with Sacks through his writings, frequent speaking appearances and through his teaching at Yeshiva University and New York University, where he held endowed chairs. In Britain, he held the post of chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013. Queen Elizabeth made him a lifetime peer in 2009. And he shared his views on Jewish values in a regular column in The Times newspaper and in his popular “Thought for the Day” on BBC Radio.
Sacks authored 25 books. His most recent, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” was published in September. “He was an outspoken advocate of religious and social tolerance throughout his career,” the Times of Israel wrote. “He was also an advocate for the compatibility of science and religion, which some people see as mutually exclusive.”
Throughout his career, Sacks was recognized as a gifted orator, who was careful not to mix religion and politics. But in a 2017 TED Talk about “facing the future without fear” and what he called a “fateful moment” in Western history, he gained even more of a following for what was understood to be concern expressed after the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president. In September of this year, when some haredi rabbis published endorsements in the U.S. presidential race, Sacks was critical, and called the blurring of the line between politics and Judaism, “a big, big, big mistake. You mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion,” he said.
Yet he did take very public stances on Israel and anti-Semitism. “We have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition,” Sacks said in 2018 during an interview with the New Statesman. “That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr. Corbyn and those who support him.” And in a YouTube video in 2017, Sacks called anti-Zionism a new form of anti-Semitism, and an effort to deny Jews the “right to exist collectively with the same rights as everyone else.” Those and similar comments were well publicized because of his popularity and reach to mainstream audiences.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Sacks “bravely faced difficult questions and always found the right words to illuminate the Torah and explain its paths. We will always remember his warnings against violence in the name of God, and his belief that we have the power to heal a fractured world.”
May his memory be for a blessing.