Remembering Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
In these uncertain times, we all feel adrift, and in need of guidance, wisdom, and leadership. There was a man who offered the world all of these things, but he passed away recently. Luckily, his legacy — written and oral — remains.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, and member of the British House of Lords, passed away on Saturday, November 7. He was mourned by people of all faiths — as he was, in the words of one admirer, “Chief Rabbi to the world.” In a stirring eulogy, Prince Charles called him a close friend and advisor. Sacks’ friendship with senior Christian and Muslim leaders was reciprocated, and he helped make great strides in interfaith cooperation.
The rabbi’s message, in his writings and lectures, was always hopeful and uplifting. He placed the problems and dangers of our era in the larger perspective of history, because he knew that Judaism offers values that are most needed in a world that is losing its sense of both history and religion.
The Saturday that he passed away, the Torah passage, read in synagogues, was the one that recounts the story of Abraham, father of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Sacks wrote a commentary every week on the Torah reading — but, in his illness, he chose to publish ones from a previous year.
His selection for the week of his passing is stunning, and contains an essential message for his followers around the world, many of whom now feel lost without him. It is a message of consolation, which also constitutes a challenge.
The theme of the weekly reading is Abraham’s calling to establish a new faith. Rabbi Sacks wrote that previous figures in the Torah — Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah — all failed the critical test of responsibility. Adam fails to take personal responsibility for disobeying God, Cain refuses to accept moral responsibility for killing Abel, and Noah does not take collective responsibility for the other souls who will be lost in the flood because he never tries to save them by convincing them to repent or by pleading with God.
Abraham, on the other hand, is the embodiment of personal, moral, and collective responsibility. He takes personal responsibility in preventing a major dispute between his herdsmen and those of Lot; moral responsibility in rescuing Lot, his brother’s son, from invaders; and finally, collective responsibility in challenging God Himself in His decision to destroy Sodom (“Will not the Judge of all the Earth do justice?” Gen. 18:23-25).
The founding father of Judaism, writes Rabbi Sacks, had to be one who would challenge the status quo, who would not accept the world as it is, who is a partner with God in improving, if not perfecting, the world. Rabbi Sacks concludes with these words: “Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.”
After reading his books, his weekly discussions of the Torah reading, and listening to many of his speeches, I find it deeply meaningful that this was the Torah commentary that coincided with his passing.
In it, he entreats his followers to continue the struggle, to understand the essence and purpose at the heart of Judaism that has been there since its inception, and to ensure that it is safeguarded for future generations.
He saw no threat from atheism and secularism, as those modern “faiths” did not understand that religion plays a vital role in the moral imperative of perfecting the world.
In his book A Letter in the Scroll, he writes: “I am proud to belong to the people Israel, whose name means ‘one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.’ For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with Him nor He with us.”
During his 72 years, Rabbi Sacks took it upon himself to teach the importance of religion, and Judaism in particular, to a society in need of moral direction. I take the commentary that we read on the Shabbos of his death as the very core of that mission. To honor his legacy, we must pick up where he left off, continue to study and teach, live with one another and for one another, take responsibility — personal, moral, and collective — and lead the world one step further along the road toward the ideals taught by our tradition.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.