Not very long ago, theologians could be found on the covers of popular magazines or regularly broadcasting on the radio—lending their voices to various causes, leveraging spiritual gravitas and notoriety with the public toward noble ends. Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel are perhaps the most well-known of this particular stripe of public intellectual. But with the untimely passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks this past Shabbat (November 7, 2020/20 Cheshvan 5781), the world has lost perhaps the last of this increasingly rare breed: the orthodox sage on the world stage; counsel to kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers (in his own Great Britain, Sacks was arguably more influential than even the Archbishop of Canterbury); and guide to men and women of faith thirsting for the wisdom to unapologetically engage the burning questions of the day. This is not merely a loss for the Jewish community, which for decades turned to the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth for inspiration to lead thoroughly faithful but culturally-engaged lives; this is possibly the end of an era of a certain kind of religious prominence, a prominence that all peoples of the West still desperately need, even if they don’t know it.
Born in the London borough of Lambeth in 1948—the same year his beloved State of Israel was born—Rabbi Sacks was educated at St. Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College, Finchley, before going up to Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. There, he earned a First in Philosophy, studying under greats like Bernard Williams, Phillipa Foot, and Roger Scruton. A life-altering yearlong visit in 1967 to the United States—where he met with the late rabbinic giants Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, the dean of American modern orthodoxy—moved the young man to pursue a rabbinical career instead of an academic one. He would return to England, receive his rabbinical ordination at Jew’s College, pursue graduate work and his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford and King’s College, London, and take up a couple of prominent rabbinical posts before being elected chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth in 1991.
His output was prodigious by any standard: some thirty books and countless articles, learned and readable commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, and many prizes and awards—including the Templeton Prize in 2016.
Although sometimes depicted as a conservative for certain social-cultural stands (see his 2014 Humanum: An International Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman lecture at the Vatican), in his politics Rabbi Sacks retained classical liberal loyalties. This was true from his days as an undergraduate at Cambridge to his last publication, Morality, released just last month. His principled aversion to political correctness throughout his life is more a token of his classical liberalism and embrace of epistemological pluralism than any purported conservatism, but he also had definite communitarian leanings, evident especially in his philosophically traditionalist The Home We Build Together. Tellingly, upon taking his seat in the House of Lords after being awarded a lifetime peerage, Rabbi Sacks was a “crossbencher,” avoiding party allegiances to Labour or Conservative lines. For Rabbi Sacks, as his spiritual mentors Rabbis Schneersohn and Soloveitchik emphasized, human experience is dialectical and Orthodoxy must always transcend and absorb Right and Left, conservative and liberal—or even progressive.
Still, there are indications that Rabbi Sacks was drawn more to Adam I, cosmic man of conquest, than Adam II, the man of submission and surrender, in Soloveitchik’s typology. Rabbi Sacks was fond of saying that “Judaism is a protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that ought to be.” And books like The Politics of Hope, To Heal a Fractured World, and Radical Then, Radical Now underscore Rabbi Sacks’s belief in the perfectibility of man and world—not the Burkean tropes one might expect from a conventional conservative. His youngest daughter, Gila, in a heartrending eulogy at his funeral, put it pointedly: For her father, there were no such things as unsolvable problems. Things could always be changed, and people could change them. Perhaps even global anti-Semitism could be solved while the kettle was boiling. The last item was said in jest, of course, but the sentiment remained. Does hope ever cease to be a virtue? Rabbi Sacks didn’t think so, but perhaps it matters if the subject is theology or politics.
Transcending what he viewed as the false alternatives of cultural secession and assimilation to the deepening demands of secular consumerism, relativism, and anomie, Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulated a Third Way, what he playfully but seriously dubbed the Jeremiah Option. At the 2013 First Things Erasmus Lecture, Rabbi Sacks took on the reductionism of Toynbee and argued for the durability and lasting relevance of the “creative minority,” something all people of faith, and not just Jews, must now identify with:
So you can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said. It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.
It is precisely this sort of creativity that Rabbi Lord Sacks lived so exquisitely in his own life. His legacy of articulating the truth, goodness, and beauty of his own particular faith community while creating the spiritual space to acknowledge, in his most daring book, The Dignity of Difference, that “We encounter God in the face of the stranger” will be hard to match as the twin blights of incivility and ignorance increase in our lands.
The great Alasdair MacIntyre, himself a profound influence on Rabbi Sacks’s thought, summed it up well when he said that because Sacks has recognized there are some precepts and virtues to which moral philosophers need to give unconditional allegiance, “he has been able to integrate in his speaking and writing both rabbinic fidelity to Torah and an acknowledgement of what is philosophically at stake in taking the stands that he does. This is why he has put so many of us in his debt.” And this is why his loss is so great. Yehi Zichro Baruch, may his memory be a blessing for us all.
Rabbi Mark Gottlieb is senior director of the Tikvah Fund and a trustee of the Hildebrand Project.
Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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