RABBI LORD SACKS had a rare if not unique combination of gifts. He had a finely honed philosophical mind, wide learning, a fund of good stories, and a fine literary style, with a gift for the telling aphorism. Above all, he was deeply immersed in the moral foundation of Western civilisation provided by the Hebrew Scriptures, which he had made his own by personal conviction. These gifts gave him a respected place in all the main forms of communication in our day.
Sadly, aged only 72, he died of cancer just over a year ago (Gazette, 13 November 2020), when he still had so much to contribute. This rich collection consists of some of his Thought for the Day contributions during the BBC’s Today programme; articles from his Credo columns in The Times; speeches in the House of Lords; articles in specialist journals; and prestigious lectures.
Some of his Thought for the Day talks were on significant occasions, such as the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, and the funeral of Lady Thatcher, his local MP, whom he visited when he was 16. When he mentioned an essay that he was writing, and he told her that it was on proportional representation, “she glared at me as if I had committed a cardinal sin. ‘You’re not a liberal are you?’” So he had to assure her that it was only an essay.
More satisfying in the long term are the articles from his Credo columns, in which he had a bit more space. The one on marriage is particularly strong. “I find it hard to say how hard it is that marriage is in decline. It was and is the single greatest source of beauty in ordinary lives — moral beauty, a song scored for two voices in complex harmony,” which may be a little too elevated for those who are finding their marriage difficult.
A familiar element with Lord Sacks was the use of a good Jewish story or joke. For example, his Credo column on prayer begins by describing how a learned rabbi and a taxi driver arrive in heaven at the same time. The rabbi cannot understand this, not least because the taxi driver used to drive so fast. Well, the angel says, when you spoke, people slept; when he drove, they prayed. The serious point that he makes is that “Prayer changes the world because it changes us.” He also talks movingly about the importance of prayer for his devout father.
Lord Sacks covered all the important subjects of our time, political and intellectual. These come to the forefront in his articles and lectures. One of his main themes is that politics, which orders our political life, and economics, which orders our economic life, are only two of the three essential features of any society. The third is made up of families and other communities to which we belong and which are an essential bond in society.
Another theme is the limit of markets, and how markets cannot operate without a strong moral foundation, as Adam Smith saw clearly. Another, particularly dear to his heart, was religious freedom, based on the conviction, which he drew from John Locke, that, if a religion is of supreme importance to me, it will also be for those who have a different religion from ours.
This is closely linked with the teaching of the Oxford historian of philosophical ideas, his friend Isaiah Berlin, that different values cannot always be weighed one against the other, and different cultures and religions really are different. We should recognise, allow for, and celebrate this difference.
I used to tease Jonathan that he was The Times’s favourite bishop, because he said what they thought bishops ought to say but rarely seemed to in a way of which that paper approved. He fervently believed that society would fall apart without a strong moral foundation, and was able to convey the crucial importance of this theme without moralism or a sense of moral superiority.
And this points up the continuing importance of his legacy for our times. On Thought for the Day on 5 October 2008, he said: “The age of greed is over. Will the age of responsibility now begin?” Sadly, it is not over. How desperately our society still needs his message: that virtues such as truthfulness, integrity, faithfulness, and care for others are fundamental to life in both its private and public spheres.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter (November 2021).
The Power of Ideas: Words of faith and wisdom
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