Baruch dayan emet: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ztz”l

On motzei Shabbat this week we heard the extremely sad news that former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had passed away. He had only announced a couple of weeks before that he was suffering from cancer. To say that the world is in shock is an understatement.

Rabbi Sacks was not only the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of the UK, there were many times when he seemed to be the Chief Rabbi of Britain in its entirety. He was a voice of morality, integrity, reason, and amazing erudition. Yet he never allowed his erudition to appear patronizing, or above the heads of the audience he was addressing. His astonishing ability to connect with his audience, whoever they were and wherever they were, was one of his very rare talents.

He was prolific in his output, writing 20 books, producing weekly shiurim and discussions on the parshat hashavua, (the weekly Torah portion), on the festivals and more. His early death has cut off any further publications but he has left a deep and lasting legacy which we will all continue to learn and benefit from for generations.

This beautiful obituary in the Times of Israel blogs describes how Rabbi Sacks could connect to non-Jewish audiences as well as to his Jewish community.

We have lost our greatest teacher

Judaism has just lost its greatest teacher and the world has just lost the most important Jewish voice, one of the few that was able to address the concerns of all of humanity. In the flood of sound-bytes appreciating and commemorating Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, especially those uttered by Jewish spokespersons, he is recognized as very valuable, but one of many. I see things differently. He was unique, in a class of his own. He is irreplaceable. There is not a single personality in all of Jewry’s leadership worldwide who can fill the gap created by his departure. This is why his loss is so painful.

His true greatness lies beyond these specific manifestations of greatness. It is rooted in a comprehensive vision of Judaism and the world, in expansive knowledge both religious and secular-scientific, and above all in the uncanny ability to formulate a message of relevance that addresses simultaneously multiple audiences and therefore gives Judaism a relevance on the global stage in a way that no one else in recent memory (or ever?) was able to.

He was Judaism’s foremost ambassador, representative, public voice, thinker. Beyond the thousands of thoughts and dozens of key ideas, he was a model for how a deeply rooted Jewish message can speak to the entire world.

In every video he produced, and thank G-d he produced hundreds if not more, his humanity and humility come shining through.

Here are just two clips which resonated deeply with me, which demonstrate his love of Israel, his love of fellow man, and his ability to discuss deep philosophical questions in layman’s terms without patronizing or simplification.

This first clip is about his love of Israel:

And this is the second clip, just 90 seconds, which left me in tears:

His levaya in England was unfortunately held under Covid rules of limited numbers instead of being attended by thousands. You can see the hespedim (eulogies) at the graveside at Rabbi Sacks’ website.

But he will be mourned throughout the world and his loss is going to be felt by an entire generation.

May the memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z”l , be for a blessing, may he be a melitz yosher for all of us up in Heaven.

And may his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

יהי זכרו ברוך.


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12 Responses to Baruch dayan emet: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l

  1. Reality says:

    You wrote so beautifully about this wonderful amazing Rabbi. I am still trying to accept that he has gone from this world.
    The world is a poorer place without Rabbi Sacks here with us
    יהי זכרו ברוך

    • anneinpt says:

      I haven’t really taken it in yet, and I didn’t even know him personally. I’m not sure if I ever even heard him speak in person. And yet he touched us all so deeply.

  2. Barney says:

    I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Sacks and of hearing speak on many occasions here in the UK. He was a great supporter of the interfaith scene and his wisdom, open-heartedness and warmth of spirit shone through at all times. He graciously received a message addressed by the Universal House of Justice (the worldwide Bahá’í community’s governing council) to religious leaders and it was my privilege to present it to him over coffee and cakes in his home on behalf of the Bahá’ís of the UK. Many years ago Rabbi Sacks and Archbishop Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, led a group of senior religious representatives from the UK together with a plane-load of sixth form students on a day’s visit to Auschwitz. This was an experience I will never forget. We all, whether Jew or not, will hugely miss this remarkable scholar, teacher, ambassador for Judaism, this man of deep humanity and spirituality.

    • anneinpt says:

      Barney, thank you for these wonderful warm memories of Rabbi Sacks. You were so lucky to meet him in person. What a great privilege!

      I feel like we are all reeling in shock and sadness at his death. He has left a huge gaping void.

      • Barney says:

        Yes, it really was a privilege. One was in the presence of a great mind and a great heart. I always felt uplifted after having conversations with him or hearing him speak. He leaves a huge gap at a time when we need wise prophetic/spiritual/religious voices in the public realm!

  3. ReePeeTee says:

    As usual Anne, your writing is excellent. His death is a tragedy for not only the Jewish world but for humanity in general. He was truly a great scholar and a beacon of light and integrity. He possessed the rare ability to engage with people on all levels, the likes of whom are not seen too often in this world.
    He will be sorely missed.
    יהי זכרו ברוך


    • anneinpt says:

      We so often say someone will be sorely missed and it seems like a platitude. But in the case of Rabbi Sacks it is deeply meant from so many people, of so many religions and nationalities. He is one of those very rare people who is truly irreplaceable.

  4. DavidinPT says:

    Very well summarized, Anne. It is a truly overwhelming loss, however I feel he will live on in us forever, just like whenever we study Torah or Talmud, Rashi’s presence is felt and is helpful, so when we continue to learn Chumash, Talmud and pray with his Siddur his presence and commentary will be alongside us, guiding our understanding with his deep philosophical and moral insights. But the saddest fact is that there will be no future chidushim, his life’s work is now a closed book. What a loss!

  5. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Sadly, I must post a dissenting note.

    Everything said above is true, and is a great tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. And yet…

    Some years ago, the Reform Judaism Rabi Hugo Gryn died. So notable was he in the wider jewish community of Great Britain (and beyond) that a pubic service of remembrance was held. As Anne knows, while I am a member of a United Synagogue (conventional orthodox and mainstream in the UK), I am hardly a conventional member. As such, my wife and I attended that public service.

    Hugo Gryn was born and grew up in a town on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As such, he once noted, his nationality changed something like 5 times without his family ever moving house. He also survived the Holocaust. He then came to Britain, married, raised a family and became a Reform Judaism Rabbi.

    He, too, was a public intellectual: he frequently gave the BBC Radio 4 (religious/ethical) Thought for the Day at 8.50 am on a weekday.

    However, Rabbi Sacks did not attend the Service of Remembrance. It was believed that this was because the Beth Din (literally, House of Justice) and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community brought pressure on him to stay away.

    Bear in mind that Hugo Gryn was Jewish: he undoubtedly maintained the dietary rules of Judaism. Where he dissented was over the nature of the liturgy and, among other things, how it was permissible to arrive at the Synagogue on the Sabbath and Festivals.

    In contrast, when Rabbi Sacks successor was appointed (Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis), he announced that he would attend Limmud (a Jewish secular festival of literature and learning held annually and at which virtually all strands of UK Jewry are to be found). At once, the Jewish schools in London (where the Chief Rabbi is based) announced that they were full and had no vacancies for his children.

    Rabbi Mirvis made this sudden lack of space known to the wider (Jewish and non-Jewish) community and, all of a sudden, the schools found that, after all, they were not full to overflowing, and, of course, the new Chief Rabbi’s children would be able to attend them.

    Perhaps if Rabbi Sacks had had the thought to make a similar statement, he might have been able to attend the service for Rabbi Gryn: after all, the latter had a similar reputation among the non-Jewish population of the UK to Rabbi Sacks. And, as a Holocaust survivor, deserved that level recognition.

    • anneinpt says:

      I remember that bitter dilemma at the time. I think we can say that it was a temporary aberration on Rabbi Sacks’ part, since his whole ethos was about outreach. It is outrageous that such pressure is brought to bear on “public” Rabbanim – and don’t think it doesn’t happen in Israel too. This is something that all of Am Yisrael needs to work on: acceptance of the other, and unity above all else.

  6. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Anne, thank you for your understanding of this issue.

    In no way was it meant to detract the overwhelmingly positive impact Lord Sacks had both on the Jewish community as well as the wider UK world.

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