Jonathan Sacks, the former UK Chief Rabbi who emerged as an important and widespread voice on the role of religion in the modern world, died in London on Saturday. He was 72 years old.
According to Dan Sacker, a spokesman, the cause was cancer. Rabbi Sacks, who wrote extensively and made frequent media appearances, retired from public life in mid-October after announcing that he would be treated for the illness.
While his religious home was Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Sacks was one of the broadest voices in Judaism. In a 2013 study of his work “Universalizing Particularity”, the editors wrote: “Sacks has the rare ability to balance the universal requirements of the modern, multicultural world with the particularism associated with Judaism.”
His universalism sometimes got him into the hot water with more fundamentalist elements of the Jewish community. When he was Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks published “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations” (2002), a book whose central message was that religious communities had parity in their attempts to find God.
“God spoke to humanity in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims,” he wrote. “No creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; No civilization encompasses all of humanity’s spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions. “
He added, “God is greater than religion. It is only partially understood by any belief. “
Some in the Orthodox community accused him of heresy. Judaism, they said, is the ultimate truth. Rabbi Sacks later retracted some of his statements and subtly revised them in a later edition.
From 1991 to 2013 he was chief rabbi. His official title was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, a title that made him head of a large network of Orthodox communities, but not communities at the end of the Jewish religious spectrum, liberal and ultra-Orthodox.
Even so, the title has always been one of the most well-known Jewish positions in Europe, and he used this pulpit effectively, both during and after his time as Chief Rabbi, to speak out against anti-Semitism and in favor of the State of Israel.
Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and was made a partner in the House of Lords in 2009. He had a close relationship with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said in a statement that the rabbi “had the rarest gifts – expressing complex ideas in the simplest possible way. “He called him” a man of great intellectual stature, but with the warmest human spirit “.
Rabbi Sacks was a leader in interfaith relations and was close to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. Their common interests extended beyond religion: they shared a passion for Arsenal football club and occasionally went to games together.
Jonathan Sacks was born on March 8, 1948, to Louis Sacks, a textile merchant, and Louisa (Frumkin) Sacks, who drove ambulances in London during the Blitz. Unlike other future rabbis, he did not attend Jewish schools as a child, but was taught in Anglican schools. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University.
In a 2011 essay entitled “Finding God,” he wrote that he had been drawn to both the universalism of philosophy and the specificity of his own Judaism. At the time of his studies he wrote: “The words ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ went together like cricket and thunderstorm: they were often found together, but the latter generally put an end to the former. Philosophers were atheists, or at least agnostics. “
In the mid-1960s, at the age of 19, he began a so-called “Greyhound Tour” through North America in search of academic and spiritual direction. Two encounters in particular were “life changing,” he wrote. He met with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch movement, in Brooklyn.
“Rabbi Soloveitchik had asked me to think,” wrote Rabbi Sacks, “Rabbi Schneerson had asked me to lead.”
He decided to devote his life to Jewish study and leadership. He was ordained a rabbi in 1976 and later earned his doctorate. in Philosophy from the University of London. He later served as spiritual director of several prominent London synagogues before being appointed Chief Rabbi in 1991.
Rabbi Sacks wrote more than 25 books, and the subjects became more universal as time went on. His most recent book, published this year, is Morals: Restoring the Common Good in Times of Divide. In 2009 he published a new commentary on the Daily Prayer Book published by Koren which has become the standard in many Orthodox communities around the world. His 2017 TED lecture “Looking to the future without fear” received almost 2 million views.
Rabbi Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine; their children Joshua, Dina and Gila; three brothers, Alan, Brian and Eliot; and nine grandchildren.
In 1991, shortly before becoming Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks appeared on a popular BBC show, Desert Island Discs, which asked celebrities what they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The host uses these elements to create a discussion about the guest’s life, career and passions.
Rabbi Sacks said he would use a Talmud, the Jewish Library of Law and Tradition, and a pencil to comment on it. As for music, he took a devotional hymn from the Lubavitch tradition called “Tzomoh L’cho Nafshi,” which means, “My soul thirsts for you, God.”
“Quite simply,” he said, “I hope that one day something like this would be my epitaph: that his soul thirsted for God.”