by R. Gil Student
The passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l leaves thousands if not millions of people of faith — Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Jewish and gentile — mourning their teacher and source of inspiration. Everyone is unique but some of us, just a few, are irreplaceable. I doubt whether anyone can fill Rabbi Sacks’ oversized role in this world. In this age of disbelief, Rabbi Sacks improbably achieved great success in projecting an uncompromising pride and confidence in the wisdom of Jewish tradition, motivating non-affiliated Jews to come closer to tradition, inspiring faith in people across all nations and religions, and achieving respect for his global message of the societal importance of family, community, morality and religious faith. I know of at least three sides to Rabbi Sacks’ unique role, each of which is challenging but the combination of all three in one person seem quite remarkable.
I. The Inspirer
The first side of Rabbi Sacks is the most recognizable. He was a superbly successful advocate for religion in general and Judaism in particular. Many people fail to realize that Rabbi Sacks actually filled two slightly contradictory roles in doing this. On the one hand, he was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, speaking to the Jews of England and beyond. This was no simple matter, since many members of the United Hebrew Congregations had limited Jewish education and observance while many other Jews in England had intense traditional Jewish upbringing. Serving as Chief Rabbi meant balancing the messages that inevitably affected all Jews. Rabbi Sacks’ legendary weekly divrei Torah reflect this balance. The insights are, on the one hand, built on the text and classical commentaries. On the other hand, they incorporate stories and insights from philosophy, psychology and social science. His massive erudition and eloquence, his ability to speak to the heart and mind at the same time, gave his Torah lessons more gravity to the average reader. The combined impact of his messages are inherently traditional but dressed in contemporary garb. The net effect was spectacular, resonating with traditional Jews as well as those non-Orthodox with little education and even academic scholars of Judaism.
At his core, Rabbi Sacks was a story-teller. He had a rare sense for the right message for the time. His book, A Letter in the Scroll, is the most effective outreach book I have encountered. Carefully sidestepping all the difficult philosophical and scientific challenges that face many outreach arguments, Rabbi Sacks builds an emotionally and intellectually compelling case for the beauty and excitement of Jewish life. The Jewish story is the most exciting story in world history. Don’t you want to be a part of that story, a letter in the scroll? This book has changed countless lives by refocusing the Jewish story away from obscurity and persecution into a vibrant tale that enhances pride, instills faith in the Torah and Sages, and describes the excitement of living a committed Jewish life.
I remember once attending a shiur Rabbi Sacks gave on sippur yetzi’as Mitzrayim, a classic Pesach topic full of lomdus. Many of the attendees clearly had limited yeshiva background. Rabbi Sacks mesmerized the audience and asked a classical question based on a contradiction of Torah texts, reviewed answers of Rishonim and suggested a resolution worthy of any Acharon. He did this all without anyone noticing the technical weight he was carrying. To all onlookers, he seemed to be telling stories about Pesach, Jewish life and eternal spiritual aspirations. It was a master performance that engaged experienced yeshiva students and complete novices at the same time, commanding everyone’s full attention for a complete hour. Most of his Jewish writing functions in this way, conveying Divrei Torah along with inspiration, dressed in stories about philosophy and social science. He used new media — print, audio, video and animation — long before most rabbis began experimenting with them. Personally, even though I prefer reading, sometimes I listen to a recording of the written text just to hear his elegant accent and dramatic intonations make the message come alive even more. Rabbi Sacks was a master of enhancing his message through wise use of the medium.
Rabbi Sacks saw his role also as an advocate for religion in general society. Secularism is now the majority ideology throughout the Western World and religious belief of any kind is subject to ridicule. Most religious leaders are in retreat. Rabbi Sacks, through the force of his own celebrity and charm, defeated the cynicism of atheism and secularism with sincerity and introduced a generation of non-believers to the necessity of faith for both individual and societal flourishing. With society breaking down around us, Rabbi Sacks proposed a return to a covenantal community. He used his ample skills of Torah interpretation, combined them with a keen sociological analysis of the problems facing society, and produced a plan for societal reinvigoration. In a number of award-winning books, worldwide lectures and media appearances, Rabbi Sacks made a compelling case for traditional religious values.
II. The Rabbi’s Rabbi
A second side to Rabbi Sacks was his private interaction. He mentored young rabbis, offering sound advice and encouragement. The rabbinate is a difficult career. As the Chief Rabbi, and as someone with experience as a successful pulpit rabbi and educator, Rabbi Sacks had a store of experience and — of course — stories to help young rabbis navigate their vocations.
However, Rabbi Sacks was more than a rabbinic advisor. He was a charmer. Rabbi Sacks was one of those people with the natural ability to always have the right word for every circumstance. He knew how to make every individual feel like the most important person in the room. Some people work a crowd to network and establish business contacts. Rabbi Sacks worked a crowd to inspire and uplift.
I remember the first time I met Rabbi Sacks personally. It was the New York launch of the Koren Sacks Siddur, with his translation and commentary. Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Lincoln Square Synagogue, a British rabbi serving in New York, arranged for me to walk Rabbi Sacks to his seat as he entered the room. I had at most 20 seconds to speak with Rabbi Sacks during which he made me feel like his partner in inspiring the world and encouraged me to continue serving Klal Yisrael in my own way. He later signed my siddur with a genuine smile, solidifying the personal connection. Every time I saw him after that, he recognized my face and greeted me with great joy, offering encouragement that was specific enough to let me know that he was truly invested in my success. While I would like to feel special, I am told he treated every young rabbi this way, offering encouragement, advice and assistance. He gave blurbs to new books like Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson (author of the Sho’el U-Meishiv and jokingly called the “Sar Ha-Maskim”) gave haskamos, rabbinic approbations. He wanted people to succeed, books to sell, Torah teachers to solidify their achievements.
III. The Early Sacks
Rabbi Sacks’ third role became apparent during the early years when he served as a shul rabbi and educator. His abundance of natural talent led to success and a larger, more prestigious post until he rose to the position of Principal of Jews’ College and next in line for the position of Chief Rabbi. During those years, Rabbi Sacks was heavily involved in the publication of the magazine L’eyla, published by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and Jews’ College. As would be expected from a Cambridge-trained philosopher, he wrote about issues of the day in Jewish thought and reviewed important Jewish books, including the initial books published by Artscroll.
Perhaps surprising to many people, Rabbi Sacks also wrote the magazine’s contemporary halakhah column. In this column, he surveyed recently published responsa on a variety of interesting topics. For example, he discusses the permissibility of cosmetic surgery based on responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg and Rav Chaim David Halevi. When the first three volumes of Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s Yechaveh Da’as were published, Rabbi Sacks summarized a selection of responsa, offering readers a tour through the otherwise dizzying encyclopedic discussions about, for example, whether a kohen who killed while serving as a soldier can continue blessing the congregation, whether to recite a blessing on seeing a president, and more. In another issue, Rabbi Sacks contrasted the views of Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Moshe Feinstein on the rabbi saying a devar Torah in between aliyos, summarized Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s responsum on whether the obligation to unload a donkey applies to a stranded motorist, analyzed Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron’s responsum on mourning a divorced parent who had severed relations with the child and forgiven all honor, and explored Rav Dr. Mordechai Halperin’s article on naming a baby before a delayed circumcision.
These articles demonstrate a rabbi fluent in the language of halakhah and capable of presenting to others the core ideas and sources of cutting edge responsa. In other writings of this era, we find Rabbi Sacks building arguments based on a deep reservoir of halakhic literature. His book, One People?: Tradition, Modernity and Jewish Unity, uses halakhah at length in order to articulate an authentic Jewish view on what pluralism is and is not. At the first Orthodox Forum conference convened by Yeshiva University in 1989, whose proceedings were published in a book titled Rabbinic Authority and Personal Authority, Rabbi Sacks presented a paper arguing against rampant creativity in halakhic decision-making in general, and against women’s ordination in particular, based on among other sources a teshuvah of the Chasam Sofer which Rabbi Sacks explains and expands with great perception. Perhaps most importantly, he rules out any kind of philosophical or functional approach to halakhah, arguing for a traditional fidelity to the sources and precedents.
Put differently, while not a halakhic decisor himself, Rabbi Sacks was intimately familiar with the ways of the leading decisors and a vocal defender of the traditional method of reaching halakhic decisions. He was a halakhic traditionalist. In addition to his opposition to women’s ordination mentioned above, in another of his contemporary halakhah columns, Rabbi Sacks covered the 1985 controversy over Women’s Prayer Groups. Rabbi Sacks discussed the prooftexts and critiques but gave the final word to Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav J. David Bleich, both of whom strongly opposed this innovation.
This was the early Rabbi Sacks, before he rose to the position of Chief Rabbi. He was a defender of Orthodoxy and tradition against liberal agitators. Once he ascended community-wide public position, he seems to have withdrawn from public discussion of practical halakhah, leaving that to the London Beth Din. He instead focused his attention on using his unique voice to inspire global religious revival. A wise man plays to his strengths and Rabbi Sacks was among the wisest of his generation, sharpening his already keen philosophical and homiletical skills for his later career. You have to look with great care at his later writings to see his earlier traditionalist halakhic views peek out from hiding.
With the passing of Rabbi Sacks we have lost a unique, multi-faceted voice of religious passion. Within this void, we each have to work harder to inspire ourselves and others. However, thanks to his prodigious creation of audio and video recordings, Rabbi Sacks characteristically leaves us with a new interpretation of the Talmudic phrase “sifsosav dovevos ba-kever, his lips move in the grave” (Yevamos 97a), and he can continue to inspire us and future generations. May his memory and teachings continue to generate passion toward greater religious devotion.