Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt’l Succumbs to Cancer on Shabbat at 72 

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Photo Caption -  Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt’l passed away on Shabbat morning at the age of 72. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Edited by: Fern Sidman

Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt’l passed away on Shabbat morning at the age of 72. 

His death was confirmed in a statement by his Twitter account at 6pm.

It said: “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet. It with the deepest sadness that we regret to inform you that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z”l) passed away early this morning, Saturday 7th November 2020 (Shabbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781).”

JTA reported that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt’l, had been treated for cancer twice before, in his 30s and again in his 50s, a fact that wasn’t widely known until it was disclosed in a 2012 book.

He served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. As the spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK, he was the Chief Rabbi of those Orthodox synagogues. Rabbi Sacks formally carried the title of Av Beit Din (head) of the London Beth Din. He was known as the Emeritus Chief Rabbi.

Rabbi Sacks’ successor as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said, “Rabbi Lord Sacks was an extraordinary ambassador for Judaism, helping many to understand and be proud of their heritage. He will be deeply missed, not just within the Jewish world, which benefited immeasurably from his teachings, but far more widely, by all those whose lives he enlightened with his wisdom, profundity and inspiration.”

Since stepping down as Chief Rabbi, in addition to his international travelling and speaking engagements and prolific writing, Rabbi Sacks had served as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and as the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. He had also been appointed as Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College London. He won the Templeton Prize (awarded for work affirming life’s spiritual dimension) in 2016. He was also a Senior Fellow to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

A visiting professor at several universities in Britain, the United States and Israel, Rabbi Sacks held 16 honorary degrees, including a doctorate of divinity conferred on him in September 2001 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi. In recognition of his work, Rabbi Sacks has won several international awards, including the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contribution to diaspora Jewish life and The Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award from Ben Gurion University in Israel in 2011.

JTA reported that Rabbi Sacks was among the most prominent expositors of Orthodox Judaism in the world, having authored dozens of books addressing contemporary spiritual and moral issues. A translation and commentary on a Jewish prayer book that he wrote has become enormously popular worldwide. 

Sacks spoke out publicly as Britain’s Labour Party was engulfed in an anti-Semitism scandal under its previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, calling Corbyn an anti-Semite, as was reported by JTA. 

“We have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr. Corbyn and those who support him,” Sacks said in 2018 during an interview with the New Statesman.

That judgment paved the way for the current British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to harshly condemn the Labour Party, a precedent-setting event in British Jewish life, according to the JTA report.

In a JTA op-ed piece published in January of this year, Rabbi Sacks wrote: “Anti-Semitism has little to do with Jews — they are its object, not its cause — and everything to do with dysfunction in the communities that harbor it.”

At the AIPAC policy conference held in Washington, DC in March of 2019, Rabbi Sacks said: “In medieval times, the Jew was attacked because of his religion; in the 19th and 20th centuries the Jew was attacked because of his race, and in contemporary times, the Jew is attacked because of his state. The reason may change, but not the hate.”

Rabbi Sacks recalled that he had never experienced anti-Semitism until his youngest daughter, (who was attending a British university) came home in tears after attending an anti-globalization rally. She said that the organizer first began attacking America, then Israel, then the Jews. She told him that, “They hate us.”

Referencing the Passover Haggadah, Rabbi Sacks said that he never understood the part of the Haggadah that speaks of Jew hatred rearing its ugly head in every generation. “I had only thought this to be applicable to our parents’ generation; those who had experienced the Holocaust but not for us who were born and raised after the Holocaust, but now I see things quite differently.”

He added, the phrase “Never Again” has come to mean “Ever Again”   

Vois Es Nais reported that Rabbi Sacks was a towering intellectual and prolific author who was probably the most eloquent champion of orthodox Judaism to the secular public of his generation. Rabbi Sacks was chosen on many occasions to present the viewpoint of Judaism to the uninitiated, such as when he spoke on the BBC’s “Thought for the Day” and wrote opinion pieces in the British Times. In 1990 he delivered the BBC Reith Lectures, a series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of the day, on The Persistence of Faith, according to the VIN report.

Born in in Lambeth, London on March 8, 1948, Rabbi Sacks commenced his formal education at St Mary’s Primary School and at Christ’s College, Finchley. He completed his higher education at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class honours degree (Master of Arts (Cambridge)) in Philosophy. While a student at Cambridge, Sacks travelled to New York to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson to discuss a variety of issues relating to religion, faith and philosophy. Schneerson urged Sacks to seek rabbinic ordination and to enter the rabbinate, as was reported by VIN.  

VIN reported that this meeting profoundly shaped Rabbi Sack’s life. In later years he wrote of it that “here was one of the leaders of the Jewish world taking time—considerable time—to listen to an unknown undergraduate student from thousands of miles away and speak to him as if he mattered, as if he could make a difference. He was, powerfully and passionately, urging me to get involved. Years later, looking back on that encounter, I summed it up by saying that good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.”

Rabbi Sacks decided to continue his academic studies but at the same time embarked on a career in the rabbinate, according to the VIN report.  Subsequently he continued postgraduate studies at New College, Oxford and at King’s College London, completing a PhD which the University of London awarded in 1982. Sacks received his rabbinic ordination from Jews’ College and London’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva. VIN reported that after a tenure as rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue in Northwest London and Rabbi of the prestigious Marble Arch community, Rabbi Sacks was inducted as Chief Rabbi of the  United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, a position he served in from 1991 until his retirement in 2013. Rabbi Sacks also served as principal of Jews College in London from 1984 until 1990 and as a visiting professor at various universities in Britain.

VIN reported that Rabbi Sacks was knighted by the queen in 2005 for his “services to the Community and to Inter-faith Relations” and in 2009 was recommended for a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords, taking the title “Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London.” 

The Prince of Wales called Sacks a “light unto this nation”, “a steadfast friend” and “a valued adviser” whose “guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by.”

Rabbi Sacks published commentaries on the daily Jewish prayer book (siddur) and completed commentaries to the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach festival prayer-books (machzorim) as of 2017. His other books include, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning. 

VIN reported that his books won literary awards, including the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for The Dignity of Difference, and a National Jewish Book Award in 2000 for A Letter in the Scroll. Covenant & Conversation: Genesis was also awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 2009, and his commentary to the Pesach festival prayer book won the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience Dorot Foundation Award in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards in the United States. His Covenant & Conversation commentaries on the weekly Torah portion are read by thousands of people in Jewish communities around the world.

In his most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good In Divided Times, published in 2020 , Sacks traced today’s social crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and our elevation of self-interest over the common good, as was reported by the VIN web site. He argued that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility and stressed that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.