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Obituary: Rabbi Lord Sacks

13 November 2020


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth writes:

JONATHAN SACKS, who was Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, died, aged 72, on Saturday, at the height of his powers and with so much still to contribute.

He was prodigiously talented in two areas that only rarely come together. He had a trained and sharply honed philosophical mind, and he com­­bined this with superb powers of story­telling and popular communication. He gained a first in philo­­sophy at Cambridge and under­took a doctorate under Bernard Wil­liams, who much respected his intellect.

It is a wonderful piece of divine irony that, at a time when religion was under attack from “the new atheists”, two of the most out­standing public intellectuals should be the Chief Rabbi and Rowan Williams, the Arch­bishop of Canterbury. The intelligence, wide reading, and ability to write arrestingly for a non-technical audience resulted in nearly 30 well-received books by Sacks, many on the fundamental issues of our time. After he was made a cross-bench life peer in 2009, he was always listened to in the Lords with attention and respect. He had numerous academic ap­­pointments and received many honours, including the Templeton Prize.

He mostly avoided getting into theological issues, and concentrated on fundamental values and how we can hold together as a hu­­man community, whatever our differences. His regular appearances on Thought for the Day and his articles in The Times ensured that this message came across widely, not just to those who read books. Avoiding politics and focusing on ethical issues, it could be said, he was The Times’s favourite Anglican bishop, because he emphasised what it would like to hear from Anglican bishops but usually didn’t.

He had a wide range of friendships across religious and political divides, brought about chiefly by his own personal warmth and gra­ciousness. This friendship found expression in small dinner parties that he and his wife, Elaine, gave at his official residence in Maida Vale, to which leading Jewish figures would be invited together with those not of his own community.

There was a particular bond with George Carey, because of their shared support for Arsenal. On one occasion, they watched Arsenal lose to Manchester United 6-2, their worst defeat for 63 years. A paper commented that if their combined forces could not help, then it just proved that God did not exist. Jonathan replied: “To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He sup­ports Manchester United.”

In contrast with the very high reputation that Jonathan Sacks enjoyed with the wider public and people of all faiths, the relationship with the Jewish community as a whole was not always an easy one. Pressure came from two op­­posite poles. One was from the more con­servative section of the community, always sens­­itive to any deviation from their under­­standing of the faith. Indeed, there was unease in some quarters from the beginning because he had not had a full Jewish education of study at a Yeshiva for many years; so he was sent off to one in Jerusalem for a year before he took up his position.

The other pressure was from the Reform and Liberal traditions of Judaism, who do not come under his jurisdiction as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the formal title of the post. Orthodox Judaism does not recognise Re­­formed and Liberal Judaism as authentically Jewish, as is the situation in law in Israel. So the Rabbis of those traditions are not regarded as rabbis. This gave rise to hurt, not least among women rabbis.

This tension came to a head with the funeral of Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor and brilliant panellist on The Moral Maze, who was no less funny and loved than Lionel Blue. Jonathan Sacks did not attend his funeral service, and a leaked letter in Hebrew de­­scribed him as “among those who destroy the faith”. This gave offence, though some kind of rapprochement was achieved later by a mem­orial meeting in a more neutral envi­ron­ment at which Jonathan spoke, which in turn gave offence to the ultra-Orthodox. In 2013, Hugo Gryn’s widow, Jackie, wrote: “From the beginning, relations were cordial and sympathetic and have remained so. There has never been any personal grievance be­­tween us concerning his non-attendance at the funeral.”

The other dark period came when some Haredi rabbis, who are strong in north London, Gateshead, and Manchester, and who do not accept the Chief Rabbi’s authority, criticised a sentence in one of his books in which he suggested that God made himself known also to those outside Judaism. This contradicted their view that, while God made his moral standards known to everyone, the so-called Noachic covenant, God was revealed only in the Torah. As a result of this criticism, copies of the book were destroyed and then reprinted with the offending sentence changed but so as not to contradict the earl­ier text, i.e. God can be known outside Judaism.

A happier episode occurred in his post as President of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ). For most of its history, the Chief Rabbi was the only Jewish president, while Christian presidents included the leaders of all the main Christian denominations. As a result of persistent, polite, but determined pressure from the liberal rabbi John Rayner, Jonathan eventually conceded the point, and CCJ pres­idents now include all the Jewish tradi­tions. During his time, there was some pres­­­­­sure to turn CCJ into an Abrahamic forum, but this was resisted strongly by both him and George Carey. They believed, rightly, that there was both a unique bond and a historic tension between the two faiths which needed to be addressed afresh in every generation.

His relationships with all other faiths were also excellent. The foundation for this was laid by his having been educated first at St Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College, Finchley, at both of which he felt that his Jewishness was fully respected. This led him to be a champion of diversity, which he be­­lieved to be part of the Divine Will. An emphasis on the particular unique con­tri­bution of Judaism, together with a recog­nition of a universal wisdom, was a special theme of his in later years.

Jonathan was an unwavering supporter of the State of Israel, a view that he thought was integral to Judaism; in 2002, however, he told The Guardian: “I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic. It is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals.” Jonathan Freed­land noted that “he admitted that in 1967 he was ‘convinced that Israel had to give back all the [newly gained] land for the sake of peace’ — and he does not renounce that view now.”

On the age-old problem how we can recon­cile so much suffering in the world with a good Creator, Jonathan argued that there was no theoretical answer to this question. We have to live with the fact that there is “a cognitive dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. The only way of re­­solving this dissonance is a deed.” Through his words, he contributed many deeds towards that world as it ought to be. We were blessed indeed to have a man of his stature and wisdom in our time.

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