Lord Sacks obituary for The Guardian November 8 2020
The former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, Lord Sacks, who has died of cancer aged 72, was a much admired figure in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Even though his writ did not run across all of the Orthodox community – and not at all in Progressive Judaism – Sacks won high praise and was generally acknowledged as one of the most brilliant intellects of his generation. He was particularly lauded for his ability to explain Jewish philosophy to the wider community, which he did with great frequency on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
But at the same time, Sacks’ tenure as chief rabbi, between 1991 and 2013, was controversial, both internally and outside Anglo-Jewry. Some of the furores regarding his decisions left a bitter taste at the time, but have receded into the background, as he embraced a hard-working retirement and a deliberate distancing so as not to overshadow his successor, Ephraim Mirvis.
Sacks came from an entirely different background from Mirvis and from his own predecessor, Lord (Immanuel) Jakobovits: his family, though observant, was not from a long line of rabbis and he had an utterly non-traditional path to the rabbinate, attending the local grammar school, Christ’s college, Finchley, in north London, before graduating from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, with a first-class degree in philosophy.
His rabbinical contemporaries would have received a very different, and much more insular, kind of education. But throughout his career – particularly when he became chief rabbi at the relatively young age of 42 – there was a feeling that Sacks was in thrall to the strictly Orthodox sages on the right of the religious spectrum. They were the sons and grandsons of rabbis; he was the son of Louis Sacks, a market trader who had come to Britain from Poland, and his wife, Louisa (nee Frumkin), who had driven ambulances in London during the blitz.
A Greyhound bus tour of the US in the summer of 1967, when he was just 19, enabled him to meet many leading religious figures, including Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Sacks ditched his plans to become an accountant, and decided to become a rabbi instead.
At Cambridge, he met his wife-to-be, Elaine Taylor, who was training to be a hospital radiographer. The couple, who went on to have three children, married when he was 22 and she 21, in 1970, enabling them to mark their golden wedding this year. He decided three weeks after meeting her that she was the one: last year, he told the Sunday Times that he had bought a ring from Woolworth’s and proposed to Elaine, on one knee, in Oxford Circus, determined to seal the deal.
Sacks’ rise was rapid. He received his rabbinical ordination in 1976 at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies), where he later taught and served as principal (1984-90), and spent a short time heading religious teaching to children in Luton before becoming rabbi of Golders Green synagogue in 1978. A move to Marble Arch synagogue in central London – where he was rabbi from 1983 to 1990 – brought him into contact with many of the leading philanthropists of Anglo-Jewry, cementing lifelong friendships.
Throughout this time, Sacks, who wrote more than 20 books on Judaism, kept up his academic life, lecturing in moral philosophy at Middlesex Polytechnic, or as a visiting professor at Essex University.
By 1990 it seemed clear that there was no better candidate to succeed Jakobovits as chief rabbi than Sacks. He was a compelling orator who spoke beautiful, declarative English, and he had – as well as a classical British education – a warm and lively approach to the complexity of being a diaspora Jew.
He and the newly-designated archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, became good friends at the same time, discovering a mutual passion for Arsenal football club. Carey invited Sacks to his box at Highbury stadium to watch a midweek match, an invitation which the rabbi accepted with alacrity. But, as he recalled, the presence of two men with an assumed hotline to heaven did nothing for Arsenal’s chances that night.
He remembered: “That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national paper carried the story in its diary column, and concluded: ‘If the archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist!’ The day after, I sent them the following reply: ‘To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.’”
His assumption of the role of chief rabbi was greeted with something like rock-star rapture. But it was not long before he ran into controversy: having proposed a communal charity walkabout, open to all, he then refused to allow people from the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Helpline to take part. It was, perhaps, a calculation designed to mollify the strictly Orthodox – and, sadly, it was only the first example of Sacks’ problem with the religious right wing of the community.
For every kind and inclusive thing he did – and there were many, such as private, encouraging phone calls to those who needed metaphorical hand-holding – there were other occasions in which his decisions seemed inexplicable to centrist Jews. Why, they wondered, was it fine to be friends with an archbishop but not to sit with a Progressive Jew?
The problem, in hindsight, was Sacks’ inability to stamp his religious authority on the rebellious right. Whereas Jakobovits and, today, Mirvis, were able to say “I am chief rabbi, and this or that will happen because I say so”, Sacks appeared to concede on too many occasions. The two most controversial clashes were what have been termed the Hugo Gryn affair and the Dignity of Difference row.
When Rabbi Hugo Gryn, then both Britain’s best-known Holocaust survivor and the leading figure in Reform Judaism, died in 1996, Sacks did not attend his funeral lest that be seen as countenancing non-Orthodoxy. A massive row erupted, not least after the Jewish Chronicle published a leaked letter which Sacks had written, in Hebrew, which described Gryn as “among those who destroy the faith”. Both the newspaper and Sacks were attacked; and Sacks’ subsequent decision to attend a memorial service for Gryn did not appease communal anger.
In 2002 another row erupted, seemingly arcane on the surface but pointing to deep divisions in the community. Sacks published a new book, The Dignity of Difference, whose central message was that each religious community had parity in its attempt to find God. He had written: “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims … No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilisation encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind … In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths … God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”
But despite his initial protestations that the book was intended for a wider, non-Jewish audience, Sacks was forced into an embarrassing climbdown. He was summoned to explain himself before a group of rabbis, one of whom accused him of “heresy”; and in the second edition of the book, he rewrote several passages, acknowledging that “one or two sentences might be misunderstood”.
If his relations with the religious right wing were difficult and complicated, those with the Progressive side of Judaism were scarcely less so. Ironically, one of his relations by marriage was the leading Liberal Judaism rabbi, David Goldberg, who took a mischievous delight in reminding people of the link.
The Reform rabbi Jonathan Romain, meanwhile, while admiring Sacks’ intellectual brilliance, called for him to be the last such holder of the post. Britain did not need a chief rabbi, he argued, not least because “although Sacks entered office in 1991 with great hopes for his ability to unify the Jewish community, he has proved unable to do so, and many would say that he has become a highly divisive figure”.
Knighted in 2005 and made a life peer in 2009, Sacks became a “must-hear” guest around the world as he spoke to many communities, as often in Hebrew as in English. He won many awards and distinctions, including the interfaith Templeton prize in 2016; and his translations of religious books to accompany services in the Jewish calendar became standard works in many homes. As a world-renowned scholar, he became professor of Jewish thought at Yeshiva University, New York, in 2013.
For much of his life – starting in 1967 with the outbreak of the Six-Day War – Sacks was both an outspoken and trenchant defender of Israel, and a fierce opponent of antisemitism. He made frequent radio and TV appearances, and in the last few years he used his place in the House of Lords to denounce the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He described Corbyn’s reported comments that Zionists had no sense of “English irony” as among “the most offensive comments since Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech”.
He is survived by Elaine, their children, Joshua, Dina and Gila, and three brothers.
• Jonathan Sacks, Lord Sacks, rabbi, born 8 March 1948; died 7 November 2020