Words this week have poured forth in memory of the late Rabbi Lord Sacks z’’l who passed away last Shabbat. They have come from all sections of the Jewish world and far beyond too. None of course can fill the void which his loss brings. His eloquence through his writing, his newspaper columns and books, his broadcasting be it on the airwaves or on television touched the lives of religious and secular alike. His much needed prophetic voice, so prolific during the pandemic which pointed us to the portal of change that it must yield, sadly did not make it to the other side. And yet as perhaps the first Rabbi of the digital age (his mastery of the Ted Talk format, utilisation of the podcast or construction of a documentary for Radio 4 were equal to his mastery of the pulpit in shul) his legacy will live on online and his ideas will continue to inspire for generations.
We had a few things in common. He grew up round the corner from where we live in Finchley. He attended the primary school at the bottom of our road, St Mary’s from where he no doubt developed a love of Christmas Carols during the festive season – and a passion that I share. Some 30 years apart, we both studied at the same college in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius. At a critical juncture in his life, at the end of his first year at university he visited the US to meet the greatest Rabbis of the time. This included a life-changing encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe whose encouraging words and outward looking focus played such an important role in his own Rabbinate. At a slightly earlier stage of my life, shortly before university, I too journeyed to America where I attended on Gimmel Tammuz, the commemorations to mark the yahrzeit of the Rebbe both at his grave site and 770 Eastern Parkway, davening mincha in the study where Rabbi Sacks would have met with him. The Rebbe’s teachings have ever since also held an important influence in my life too.
Rabbi Sacks has also had an important influence on my own Jewish journey. His Faith in the Future accompanied me to my Cambridge interview, where I managed to pepper some answers dropping in literary or philosophical references that he had used in some of his articles in that book, a ploy that has unashamedly continued until today. Perhaps in a similar vein it has not only been his writings that have continued to have so much impact but also following his bibliographies and footnotes (not nearly as diligently as I might have liked) that have guided me on a tour through perhaps the greatest treasures that both the Western philosophical tradition and past Jewish luminaries have had to offer. On a visit back from yeshiva during my gap year, I gatecrashed a gathering of Rabbis at LSJS on hearing that Rabbi Sacks would be in attendance in order to get him to sign copies of Politics of Hope that I could take back with me. Each year, from when I was seventeen, my Dad and I would attend Selichot. It became something of an annual pilgrimage to listen to Rabbi Sacks’ eminent pre-selichot address, which set the tone so perfectly for the upcoming Yamim Noraim and of course to hear the melodies of the Shabbaton Choir which he so enjoyed. On setting up our Jewish community in Dubai, he had heard indirectly of its establishment and on seeing some secret footage taken from our first Yom Kippur service sent us his blessings. Most of his books occupy a shelf at home where many of Rabbi Jacobs’ books sit too. His Covenant and Conversation pieces for well over a decade have punctuated my week. Whilst I visit his books fairly frequently it is his translated Singer’s siddur (a pocket version), a gift on the occasion of my Grandmother’s passing from my Bar Mitzvah teacher that I use more than any other.
He was ultimately a story-teller, whose erudition and ability to translate complex jargon into digestible and practical takeaways was perhaps only paralleled by Rabbi Jacobs. His writing, as with his oratory, would modulate between the exploration of profound ideas, followed with relevant, pithy anecdotes to emphasise his argument. My favourite joke that I heard him share and first referenced in his Politics of Hope tells a totally hypothetical story about two great Jews, Theodor Herzl, architect of Jewish national rebirth and Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis:
There was a time when both men lived in the same neighbourhood of Vienna. Luckily they never met. Had they met the following conversation might have ensued. Theodor Herzl would have told Freud of his aspirations for a Jewish state and would have added his famous saying: ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ Sigmund Freud would have replied; ‘’Tell me, Herr Herzl, how long have you been having this dream?’’ He would have invited Herzl to his consulting room, laid him down on his couch, tracked down his idealism to a disturbed childhood and cured Herzl of his dreams. Had they met there would have been no Jewish state.(1)
In some ways this amusing tale is emblematic of Rabbi Sacks. He too continued to dream, despite the many obstacles that lay in his path, not least the two battles with cancer that he fought and did successfully overcome. His shiurim would invite thought experiments taking his audience well outside their comfort zones, enabling a dialogue between generations and between disciplines in ways that only he could achieve. He refused to accept the world as it is and challenged us all to pursue a partnership with the Almighty in perfecting it. Indeed so much of his exegetical imagination was focused on plumbing the depths of Torah to highlight this very theme. His daughter, Gila Sacks, in her eulogy for her Father also spoke on this subject joking that he would enjoy challenging a member of the family to solve the issue of global antisemitism during the time that it took for the kettle to boil in the kitchen.
Of course he differed on significant issues with Rabbi Louis Jacobs. I remember speaking with Rabbi Jacobs about his frustration at Rabbi Sacks’ refusal to engage. It certainly seems sad that whilst Rabbi Sacks shared public platforms or engaged through his own writing with some of the greatest thinkers of our age – George Steiner, Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Michael Sandel, Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, he dismissed the opportunity to dialogue with Rabbi Jacobs. Perhaps the two greatest Rabbis that Anglo-Jewry has ever seen lived round the corner from each other in St John’s Wood and yet remained worlds aparts, only for reasons of petty political expediency.
Navigating Rabbi Sacks’ thought there are though areas of influence which Rabbi Jacobs perhaps exerted. At the very least there are clearly discernible themes where the two overlapped in their approach. The first remained the very hallmark of Rabbi Jacobs’ entire career neatly summed up in his opening paragraph of We Have Reason To Believe:
A true Jewish Apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia, and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, ‘the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He’, is one, and that a synthesis is possible between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day.(2)
For Rabbi Sacks too, synthesis was paramount – between faith and reason, universalism and particularism, science and religion, liberty and morality, freedom and responsibility, religion and modernity. Rabbi Sacks’ work charted a path between these often seemingly conflicting polarities. The areas where their attention on synthesis lay differed. For Rabbi Jacobs it was more – to what end can modernity shape our Judaism. For Sacks it was more of an emphasis on how the best of Judaism can help shape modernity. Nonetheless for both the quest for synthesis was perhaps the key to unlocking the framework for understanding both their work.
The second area of significant similarity was in their attitude towards faith itself. They were both true defenders of faith in the face of a secular onslaught. Neither of course though ever resorted to doctrinal over-simplification or facile biblical literalism(3). For both of them their faith was not about dogmatic certainty or doctrinal conformity but built on argument, disputation and perhaps most importantly the incorporation of doubt. They both also resisted an appeal to relativism on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other. They both encouraged us to listen to the truths of others even where they conflicted with our own. Both urged the quest for truth, wherever it may be found not as in ‘’Socratic dialogues, by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own’’(4).
Both Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Sacks saw Torah as a journey not a destination, appealing to their audience to write the next chapter. Both drew on Judaism’s rich tapestry encouraging the notion of argument for the sake of heaven. Rabbi Sacks of course publicly drew the line at any influence of biblical criticism. This is of course where he parted company with Rabbi Jacobs. And yet in numerous places throughout his work there are certainly nods to the subtle influence that the finds of modern biblical scholarship had on his work. (This is a subject to which I look forward to discussing on a future occasion).
There are plenty of questions that I had for Rabbi Sacks that I am sadly now unable to ask. I regret that at Friends of Louis Jacobs we were never able to arrange a platform in which to engage with him. It is also sad to think that whilst he gave perhaps some of the most important speeches on the role of faith in society in the chamber of the House of Lords ever, graced his presence at plenty of Royal occasions, shared his counsel at Downing Street with several Prime Ministers and offered advice to business leaders and governments, he never did make that much anticipated journey to Limmud. It is perhaps ironic then that surely now his thought will be discussed by all sections of the community in that setting as never before.
There is a story a friend shared on good authority that on a rare occasion Rabbi Jacobs received a call from Rabbi Sacks shortly before Rosh Hashana one year. He had called to seek forgiveness following a recent eruption of the Jacobs Affair. At the end of the conversation Rabbi Sacks supposedly exclaimed: ‘’Ultimately we will know in heaven whether the truth is as you or I have it!’’. Rabbi Jacobs true to form is then reputed to have replied: ‘’Rabbi Sacks if the truth is as you have it – you will not find me in heaven!’’ In Rabbi Sacks’ Dignity of Difference discussing the very notion of truth he says:
Truth on the ground is multiple, partial. Fragments of it lie everywhere. Each person, culture and language has part of it; none has it all. Truth on earth is no, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true the other false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality, an alternative way of structuring order, no more and no less commensurable than a Shakespeare sonnet, a Michelangelo painting or a Schubert sonata. In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths.(5)
Perhaps now in heaven together the two will indeed have the chance to enjoy a chevruta, dwelling on the ultimate truth only found there and the quest for which their lives on earth were so dedicated.
(1) Jonathan Sacks, The Politics of Hope, xi-xll
(2) Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason To Believe, p.9
(3) Melanie Phillips, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sacks-knew-faith-and-reason-can-live-together-9wcsb5l3d?shareToken=044370c3f6afc91f6e27ac57c2751c81
(4) Jonathan Sacks, Dignity of Difference, p.23
(5) Jonathan Sacks, Dignity of Difference, pp.64-65