Guest writer Zaki Cooper reflects on the legacy of one of the world’s intellectual giants and moral voices. 17/11/2020
The sudden loss of Jonathan Sacks at the age of 72 has deprived the Jewish community of one of its iconic figures, but also the world of one of its intellectual giants and moral voices. The death of Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, has led to an outpouring of grief in the Jewish community, the UK and globally. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson started PMQs by paying tribute, saying his “leadership had a profound impact on our whole country and across the world.” The news also attracted mention in Australia’s and Israel’s Parliament, and tributes from political and religious leaders all over the world. Thousands of messages have poured into his office and flooded social media.
For me, it’s very personal. I had the privilege of working in his office 15 years ago. He also officiated at my wedding and become a guru, influence and inspiration with regards to my Jewish identity, my commitment to inter–faith and life as a whole. There is a famous passage in Ethics of the Fathers, read on the Sabbath, which reads: “Find yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favourably.” Rabbi Sacks was the Rabbi and teacher to thousands, actually quite possibly millions, around the world. They looked up to him for his wisdom and his beautiful philosophy melding traditional Judaism with the best of modern thought. Following his death on Saturday 7th November (in Judaism, it is thought auspicious to die on the Sabbath), I have received countless messages of condolence from people whom I worked with all that time ago, or knew of my association.
During my time working for him, I saw the special intellectual gifts he had. He read voraciously, often staying up half the night to consume multiple books. What made him unique, however, not just in the UK but on the world stage, was his ability to communicate his ideas in spoken and written form. Blessed with a mellifluous voice, he became a favourite to many on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and through other broadcasts. From the pulpit, he would be mesmerising, with an ability to hold an audience captive with what he was saying. A Jewish community leader once said to me, “I have never heard Jonathan Sacks give a bad sermon” and he was right. One of the Rabbis delivering a moving eulogy at the funeral told of his memory of a visit to a synagogue in Beverley Hills; it was 9am on the Sabbath morning and every one of the 600 seats in the synagogue was taken which was unheard of. The reason: Rabbi Sacks was in town!
Both through his breathtaking oratory and in his spellbinding writing, he could convey the most complex ideas in a simple way. He was an articulate voice for religion in the public square, believing passionately that faith had something valuable and intelligent to say about the issues of the day, as well as a champion of inter–faith relations. His favoured concepts, such as the difference between power and influence, history and memory, optimism and hope, or contract and covenant, became familiar to many. He loved to read and quote the likes of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. His gift for language was in their league. Working in his office, as head of communications, for one of the world’s great communicators was such an honour.
So what is the legacy of Jonathan Sacks? First, his books and writings. At home, I have a shelf dedicated to his published works, as do many people. Any author would have been content with one of these masterpieces, but he wrote well over 30. He addressed the most pressing contemporary issues, like religious violence, the debate between science and religion, and most recently morality. Two of my favourites are The Dignity of Difference, a blueprint for good inter–faith relations, and To Heal a Fractured World, a beautiful book on the ethics of responsibility. His regular columns in The Times ‘Credo’ were read with interest and enjoyment.
Alongside the books and newspaper articles for a general audience, were the Jewish–specific texts. For many years, he wrote a weekly commentary on the portion of the Torah we read in synagogues, ‘Covenant and Conversation’, which had a huge following all over the world. Such was his appeal, this attracted readers from outside the Jewish community. A former colleague told me of her Vicar in Brighton who often quoted from it. One of Rabbi Sacks’ staff told me of a pastor in the Philippines, with a huge congregation, who would quote from it. But Sacks also produced translations and commentaries to the daily prayer books, as well as the prayer books for major festivals. For years to come, Jews all over the world will use the Sacks prayer books. In recent times, he had been working on a huge project of producing a fresh translation and commentary on the Hebrew Bible in one volume.
A second legacy relates to his spoken words: the broadcasts, podcasts (including for Theos) and speeches which all had an impact at the time but can be enjoyed for posterity. A couple of nights ago, I re–watched his brilliant Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis at the start of the Covid–19 crisis in March. As ever, his remarks were insightful and wise, and also reassuring; his message was that we will get through this. At times of national or global tragedy, or celebration, his was an important voice, perhaps the preeminent moral voice. As an example, on the day of the Royal Wedding in 2011, the BBC asked him to deliver Thought for the Day, one of my all–time favourites of his broadcasts. When terrorism or natural disasters like the Tsunami struck, everyone wanted to hear from Rabbi Sacks, someone who had the vision to get to the heart of the issue, and deliver a message of hope. He became a known, respected and even loved voice of the nation. It was this quality which led the Prince of Wales, on his retirement as Chief Rabbi in 2013, to describe him as a “light unto this nation.”
A third legacy of Rabbi Sacks relates to the catalytic impact he had on the Jewish community, notably in his 22 years leading it. His first ten years in the Chief Rabbinate were dedicated to encouraging people’s Jewish identity and reducing inter–marriage. He challenged the community: “Will we have Jewish grandchildren?” During his tenure, there was a growth of Jewish schools, and other Jewish educational opportunities. The community became more creative, innovative and dynamic. His second decade in office was focused on “Jewish responsibility”, which led to a sprouting of social action projects and activities. Concerned that the community was turning inwards, partly to protect itself again resurgent anti–Semitism, he encouraged it to look outwards and engage with society.
For all his intellectual prowess, Rabbi Sacks was not a bookish don, who wanted to hide away in an ivory tower. He engaged with people, and was interested in meeting them, and learning from them. He developed a worldwide following. It included princes, Prime Ministers and other leaders but also multitudes of people without titles, people of all faiths and none. One of his many catchy sayings was “good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.” He was not talking about himself, but he could have been. He had millions of followers but at the same time also acted as a spur to inspire a generation of rabbis, teachers and community leaders.
One of the notable things in the last few days have been the many, many stories of the way so many people were touched by him, on a personal not just an intellectual level. When someone had a bereavement or another personal crisis, he was there for them. When they got engaged or a baby was born, again he was there for them. He understood human joy and pain and found the right words to augment the former and assuage the latter. He was a man of compassion and kindness, described by the Jewish Chronicle in a tribute editorial as “a mensch.” He was steadfast in Orthodox Judaism, but incredibly non–judgemental about Jews who were not as religious. At his core, he was a family man, who was devoted to his wife of over 50 years, Elaine, who sustained and supported him, as well as his three children and many grandchildren.
Rabbi Sacks was a one–off. His death leaves a huge unfillable hole. Jews, he once said, have not been so much interested in “the idea of power, but the power of ideas.” Through his incredible legacy, we will continue to learn from him and be inspired by his ideas, as future generations of disciples, of Sacks–ites. Whilst his death is painful, we must celebrate the majesty of his achievement and life.
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