My mother reminded me of the story of when she was flying back from Israel to London after Passover and shortly after my father died. When she landed at Heathrow, she struggled a little getting her bag from the overhead compartment and a kind voice said “allow me.” My mother turned to see Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as the source of the helpful offer, which she accepted. This episode is a reminder of the humility, dignity and kindness that can be the qualities of great leaders. Jonathan Sacks, whose death came as a shock to the Jewish world and beyond, was an intellectual giant and a voice of moral authority whose influence has been broad and significant.
Growing up in Britain’s Reform Movement, my relationship with Rabbi Sacks and the Modern Orthodoxy that he represented was complex in its awkward reflection of the messy politics of the UK’s Jewish Community. The very title Chief Rabbi has always been somewhat controversial as the person in that office represents the United Synagogues of Great Britain, which is the organizational arm of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and non-orthodox Jews have never really felt recognized or represented by the office. Indeed, there were some awfully painful incidents of disrespect of a very beloved and well known Reform Rabbi, which left its mark. As a rabbinical student in London interacting from time to time with Orthodox rabbis and students, it was clear that Rabbi Sacks was an incredible mentor and guide to those students, valuing his connection with them, but I was definitely not included in invitations to be in his presence. So, sadly much of my Jewish life kept me clearly outside the brilliance and influence of this great man.
It is really only in the last ten years or so that I have come to appreciate and embrace Rabbi Lord Sacks as one of my most important teachers, even though I had no personal relationship with him. Though I did know his wonderful daughters back in the days where we were involved in the Limmud conferences together. Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Torah commentaries and other writings have become central texts for me and I have so much admiration for the great depth of sources that he brings from so many different worlds, making them clear, original and accessible. This video is a very inspiring view of identity and the call to know who we are.
There have been some incredibly moving tributes and eulogies throughout the world in the days and weeks since his passing, including this beautiful piece by Joshua Berman and I was brought to tears by the eulogy by Rabbi Sacks’ daughter Gila:
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has left a very profound legacy to the world and I have been especially inspired reading his book “Morality,” which was published earlier this year, and its prophetic and timely warning about populist leaders and the threats to democracy. He writes:
“…populist leaders have to produce scapegoats to blame their failure – elites, the media, immigrants, Muslims, Jews – and then the vortex of authoritarianism begins, sweeping aside rights, justice, and liberty itself. One of the first people to warn us of this was Plato, who said that democracy would always degenerate into tyranny.”“Morality,” p.126
What a sobering warning from this highly respected religious and moral leader. In 2017, Rabbi Sacks said:
“A nation is strong when it cares for the weak, it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.”
We have much work to do.
May his wisdom and integrity and humility and vision protect us.