I MET Jonathan Sacks only once. It was at his home in St John’s Wood, in north London. There was a moment of awkwardness when he opened the door. As an Orthodox Jew, he could not shake hands with a woman. I was prepared for this, and, as he let me through, he smiled rather shyly, acknowledging the moment.
In conversation, I found him both erudite and approachable. I was not surprised to learn that his earnestness was born in the Six-Day War, when the fate of Israel hung in the balance. I had been at school in north London, and remember Jewish friends being terrified — even the atheists turning to prayer. The war was the beginning of his emergence as a scholar, philosopher, and spiritual guide.
His contributions to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day were masterpieces. But so, also, are his Bible commentaries and his series on the Torah, Conversations and Covenant. He understood the Bible as a multi-layered text. History, prophecy, tradition, mysticism: the meanings of scripture are inexhaustible, and we are deepened in faith the deeper we are prepared to go, and the more we wrestle with its ambiguities.
His 1990 Reith Lectures were a passionate argument for the inclusion of religion in public life. Secularism had failed to address core issues of identity, and there was a real danger that the gap would be filled by hate-filled fanaticism. His words have proved prophetic.
He also insisted that people of faith could not address secularism by imitating it. Secularism challenges us to live our traditions as faithfully as we can. In practice, this was not always easy for him. His relationship with other Jewish groups was complicated and not always amicable. Yet he showed in his writings that the things that our society claims to value — liberty, law, and conscience — are by no means guaranteed by the moralism of those who see virtue in religious neutrality. Secularism can breed its own intolerance.
He understood the Church of England’s mission to the nation as a whole, and believed that it had a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths. I think that he would have argued that we can take on that protective task only if we resist a too-easy identification of progressive causes with the values of “the Kingdom”.
We should nourish more diversity of thought, a wider theological intelligence. Scriptural truth, after all, is multi-layered. We misread our mission if we think that it is all about us and our personal preferences. In the same spirit, we should ensure that the conservative-minded among us are not driven to the edges, not only because this could encourage animosity, but because they retain insights that we need. We will engage effectively with secular society only if we know where our roots lie. It matters that, when we met, he did not shake hands.
Read the obituary of Rabbi Lord Sacks here