Excerpt from Sacks’s ‘Torah Studies’ taught in six languages as part of worldwide project
By: Tzemach Feller
The world suffered a devastating blow this past November when Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and a brilliant scholar and teacher, tragically passed away at the age of 72. In the time since his untimely death, there has been an outpouring from Jews and non-Jews from all walks of life, men and women, remembering and celebrating an individual who not only guided British Jewry, but whose written and spoken words have inspired millions.
Now, six of the former chief rabbi’s peers—chief rabbis in countries around the world—are paying tribute to his life of leadership. Sacks’ first published work was Torah Studies, eloquent adaptations of the legendary scholarly essays by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—which span the breadth of the Torah, the Talmud, Jewish law and Chassidut rooted in the weekly parshah—Torah portion. The book was published by Kehot Publication Society in 1986. For the Torah-portion of Vayechi, the week of Dec. 27-Jan. 2, the six rabbis have recorded classes using Sacks’s beautiful rendition as their source text.
Rabbi Max Godet, chief rabbi in Uruguay, teaches his class in Spanish; Rabbi Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa, in English; Rabbi Michel Guggenheim, chief rabbi of Paris, gives a class in French; Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, chief rabbi in the Netherlands, in Dutch; Rabbi David Lau, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, teaches in Hebrew; and Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, in Russian.
The memorial lesson is organized by Project Likkutei Sichos, a learning initiative that will ultimately see its thousands of participants complete the 39 volumes of the Rebbe’s edited talks in their entirety. With dozens of scholarly talks on each Torah portion, each with dozens if not hundreds of footnotes and references, it will take eight years for the weekly learning schedule to come to its conclusion.
It Started at a Campus Torah Class
Sacks’s Torah Studies book came about after a series of life-altering encounters with the Rebbe. The first meeting came in the summer of 1968 upon the prompting of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and not too long after Sacks had formed a close relationship with Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Lew—who led Jewish student outreach efforts on English university campuses including Cambridge University, where Sacks was a Jewish student group leader—and senior Chabad emissary Rabbi Faivish Vogel.
“Rabbi Sacks’s first visit with the Rebbe had a profound effect on him,” Rabbi Shmuel Lew, today a senior Chabad emissary in London and the director of the Lubavitch Senior Girls School, tells Chabad.org. That summer of ’68 the Rebbe suggested Sacks remain in New York for a bit longer, until after Rosh Hashanah. “Much to the young philosophy student’s amazement, the Rebbe knew that the term in Cambridge began weeks later than most of the other college terms did,” says Lew.
With Cambridge’s early October start date that year falling out after Rosh Hashanah, Sacks indeed stayed. “The experience moved him so profoundly that on Rosh Hashanah in 2019, he expressed that for the past 50 years, the sounding of the shofar to him has meant the inspiration, depth and joy he experienced at the Rebbe’s shofar sounding that year,” recalls Lew.
During that initial meeting, the Rebbe pressed Sacks on what he was doing for Jewish life on campus, and so when Sacks returned to Cambridge, he began hosting a Torah class in his dormitory room. That class continued—albeit hosted in different venues—through Chabad on Campus’ arrival at Cambridge in 2003, to this very day.
“Very often before the class began, I would share with Sacks a sichah—talk—that the Rebbe had recently taught,” says Lew. “He was fascinated, and his interest only grew.”
In response to the Rebbe’s 1971 call to increase in Torah study, Vogel suggested that Sacks—with whom by then he enjoyed a long and deep relationship—begin rendering the Rebbe’s most intricate weekly teachings into English. “Studying the Rebbe’s talks weekly together with him was one of the highlights of my life,” says Vogel.
These pamphlets were published weekly by the Lubavitch Foundation of Great Britain and distributed to Jewish community members, and Sacks’s lucid and contemporary style proved popular. In 1986, these pamphlets were collected and, with the Rebbe’s blessing, published as Torah Studies.
In the Rebbe’s teachings of Torah and Chassidut, and particularly in Likkutei Sichot, which eloquently melds the esoteric and the practical aspects of Torah, the future chief rabbi of the United Kingdom found a mindset that would shape his life’s work. “To hear or read a sichah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is to undertake a journey. We are challenged and forced to move: where we stand at the end is not where we were at the beginning.” Time and again throughout Sacks’s career, he would challenge those in his sphere of influence to make such journeys of discovery and learning.
“That was his very first publication and was followed by some 30 books that have received universal acclaim and adulation among religious leaders, political leaders, academics and the populace of wide and varying nations,” says Vogel. But “the underpinning of all his moral philosophy lies within his very first book.”
Sacks found in the Rebbe’s teachings, and especially in Likkutei Sichot—described as the heart and soul of those teachings—a philosophy that “challenges secularity at every point. It invites us to “see through” the sensory universe of the secular mind, to the mystic reality beneath and beyond.”
A better description of Sacks’s own efforts to revive the faith of British Jews could hardly have been written than those very words, written five years before he ascended to the position of chief rabbi.