Remembering Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Last Saturday night, many of us first learned that President-Elect Biden had won the election only after coming back online after Shabbat. That was also when we learned the very sad news that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, had passed away.

In addition to his life of service to the British Jewish community, Rabbi Sacks was a prolific Torah scholar, as well as a writer on moral philosophy and ethics in the modern world. His work as a teacher and public intellectual reached far beyond the Jewish community, probably more than any contemporary rabbi.

I am not the one to offer a personal tribute to him. For that I encourage you to read and view the memorials this week from those close to him, such as this one from his daughter Dina Sacks, who writes that “he recognised the beauty and the pain of life and knitted them together in a compulsion to build, to renew, to hope.”

I will, however, briefly note that his teachings deeply informed our work here, and like so many other Jewish institutions, we have quoted him often over the years when framing a Jewish approach to some of the most significant challenges of our times.

Five years ago, on this very week, during one of his many trips to Boston, Rabbi Sacks reached out to JCRC and expressed a desire to sit down with interfaith leaders. We discussed his newest book, Not In God’s Name, in which he examined the phenomenon of violent religious extremism as a misreading of all three Abrahamic faiths, and the role that faith leaders play in overcoming these desecrations of our traditions.

Thus, in a room at Harvard Divinity School, hosted by Dean Dudley Rose, a dear friend and partner of JCRC, students, teachers, rabbis and ministers gathered to learn with Rabbi Sacks. For a full hour, we were mesmerized as he spoke eloquently, with no notes, graciously answering our many questions on the critical themes his book addresses. His topic was the use of violence to resolve religious disputes, characterizing it as a conceptual error at a fundamental level. He talked about how “victory does not establish truth” and why “religion and power are two separate enterprises that must never be confused.” He quoted Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Robert Putnam.

He challenged us:

"We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of a case, forgiving the injuries of the past and focusing instead on building a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith and races, can live together in grace and peace."

I was reminded of this memory this week while engaging in one of my own practices. This year I have been re-reading Sacks’ collection of readings on the weekly Torah portion, Covenant & Conversation. For tomorrow’s reading, Hayei Sara from the Book of Genesis, he has a piece exploring Abraham’s relationship with Hagar, the mother of his son Ishmael. Rabbi Sacks notes the presence of both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, at his funeral; a family reunification that Sacks calls “surprising” given the earlier treatment of Ishmael. Sacks teaches “an extraordinary midrash” that explains that father and son had been reconciled through Ishmael’s second wife, a woman named Fatimah, who herself embodied Abraham’s approach to welcoming strangers into the tent.

Sacks notes that this midrash is from an eight-century work, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, and that given that timing, the offer of the name Fatimah – also the name of Mohammad’s daughter in the Koran – “is highly significant… making an explicit, and positive, reference to Islam.”

Sacks goes on to say that “the hidden story” of this week’s parshah “has immense consequences for our time” in its story of reconciliation. “Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.”

This week the Jewish people and the world lost a giant. I am blessed to be amongst the millions who have had the opportunity to learn with and from Rabbi Sacks. I know that his work, his moral core, and his hope for the role of united faith communities as a transformative force in western society will continue to inform our work in the years to come.

His memory is, truly, for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy