Rabbi Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron Sacks (Hebrew: יעקב צבי זקס, romanized: Ya'akov Tzvi Zaks; 8 March 1948 – 7 November 2020) was a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, and politician.
Rabbi Jonathan Henry Sacks, Baron Sacks (Hebrew: יעקב צבי זקס, romanized: Ya'akov Tzvi Zaks; 8 March 1948 – 7 November 2020) was a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, and politician.
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, but was not recognized as the religious authority for the Haredi Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations or for the progressive movements such as Masorti, Reform, and Liberal Judaism. As Chief Rabbi, Sacks formally carried the title of Av Beit Din (head) of the London Beth Din. At the time of his death, he was the Emeritus Chief Rabbi.
After stepping down as Chief Rabbi, in addition to his international travelling and speaking engagements and prolific writing, Sacks 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 was also 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.
Born in Lambeth, London on 8 March 1948, to textile seller Louis David Sacks (d. 1996) and Louisa ("Libby"; née Frumkin, 1919–2010), of a family of leading Jewish wine merchants, 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 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.
Sacks subsequently continued postgraduate study 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.
Sacks's first rabbinic appointment (1978–1982) was as the Rabbi for the Golders Green synagogue in London. In 1983, he became Rabbi of the prestigious Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, a position he held until 1990. Between 1984 and 1990, Sacks also served as Principal of Jews' College, the United Synagogue's rabbinical seminary. Dr. Sacks was inducted to serve as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth on 1 September 1991, a position he held until 1 September 2013.
Sacks became a Knight Bachelor in the 2005 Birthday Honours "for services to the Community and to Inter-faith Relations". He was made an Honorary Freeman of the London Borough of Barnet in September 2006. On 13 July 2009 the House of Lords Appointments Commission announced that Sacks was recommended for a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords. He took the title "Baron Sacks, of Aldgate in the City of London", and sat as a crossbencher.
A visiting professor at several universities in Britain, the United States, and Israel, 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, Sacks 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.
The author of 25 books, 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. 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.
Sacks' contributions to wider British society have also been recognized. A regular contributor to national media, frequently appearing on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day or writing the Credo column or opinion pieces in The Times, Sacks was awarded The Sanford St Martin's Trust Personal Award for 2013 for "his advocacy of Judaism and religion in general". He was invited to the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton as a representative of the Jewish community.
At a Gala Dinner held in Central London in May 2013 to mark the completion of the Chief Rabbi's time in office, 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".
In his installation address upon succeeding Immanuel, Lord Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in September 1991, Sacks called for a Decade of Renewal which would "revitalize British Jewry's great powers of creativity". He said this renewal should be based on five central values: "love of every Jew, love of learning, love of God, a profound contribution to British society and an unequivocal attachment to Israel." Sacks said he wanted to be "a catalyst for creativity, to encourage leadership in others, and to let in the fresh air of initiative and imagination". This led to a series of innovative communal projects including Jewish Continuity, a national foundation for Jewish educational programmes and outreach; the Association of Jewish Business Ethics; the Chief Rabbinate Awards for Excellence; the Chief Rabbinate Bursaries, and Community Development, a national scheme to enhance Jewish community life. The Chief Rabbi began his second decade of office with a call to 'Jewish Responsibility' and a renewed commitment to the ethical dimension of Judaism.
In addition to serving as Chief Rabbi, Sacks held numerous appointments during his career including:
Professor of Judaic Thought, New York University, New York (announced 29 October 2013).
Professor of Jewish Thought, Yeshiva University, New York (announced 29 October 2013).
Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King's College, London (announced 5 December 2013)
Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth (1 September 1991 – 1 September 2013)
Lecturer in moral philosophy, Middlesex Polytechnic, 1971–1973
Lecturer, Jews' College London, 1973–82; director of its rabbinic facility, 1983–1990; Principal, 1984–1990
Visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Essex, 1989–1990
Sherman lecturer at the University of Manchester, 1989.
Riddell lecturer at Newcastle University, 1993.
Cook lecturer at the University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews, 1996.
Visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1998–2004.
Sacks was also a frequent guest on both television and radio, and regularly contributed to the national press. He delivered the 1990 BBC Reith Lectures on The Persistence of Faith.
Sacks was awarded numerous prizes including:
1995: Jerusalem Prize (Israel)
2000: American National Jewish Book for A Letter in the Scroll
2004: The Grawemeyer Prize for Religion (USA)
2009: American National Jewish Book Award for Covenant & Conversation Genesis: The Book of Beginnings
2010: The Norman Lamm Prize, Yeshiva University (USA)
2010: The Abraham Kuyper Prize, Princeton Theological Seminary (USA)
2011: The Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award, Ben Gurion University (Israel)
2011: Keter Torah Award, Open University (Israel)
2013: The Sanford St Martin's Trust Personal Award for Excellence in Religious Broadcasting
2013: American National Jewish Book Award for The Koren Sacks Pesah Mahzor
2015: American National Jewish Book Award for Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence
2016: Templeton Prize, "has spent decades bringing spiritual insight to the public conversation through mass media, popular lectures and more than two dozen books"
Much has been written about Sacks' philosophical contribution to Judaism and beyond. These include: (1) a volume on his work entitled Universalizing Particularity that forms part of The Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers series, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes; (2) a book entitled Radical Responsibility edited by Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright; and (3) a book entitled Morasha Kehillat Yaakov edited by Rabbi Michael Pollak and Dayan Shmuel Simons.
In a pamphlet written to mark the completion of his time as Chief Rabbi entitled "A Judaism Engaged with the World", Sacks cites three individuals who have had a profound impact on his own philosophical thinking.
The first figure was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who "was fully aware of the problem of the missing Jews... inventing the idea, revolutionary in its time, of Jewish outreach... challenged me to lead.":10 Indeed, Sacks called him "one of the greatest Jewish leaders, not just of our time, but of all time"
The second was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik whom Sacks described as "the greatest Orthodox thinker of the time challenged me to think.":10–11 Sacks argued that for Rav Soloveichik "Jewish philosophy, he said, had to emerge from halakhah, Jewish law. Jewish thought and Jewish practice were not two different things but the same thing seen from different perspectives. Halakhah was a way of living a way of thinking about the world – taking abstract ideas and making them real in everyday life.":11
The third figure was Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, a former principal of the London School of Jewish Studies. Sacks called Rabinovitch "One of the great Maimonidean scholars of our time, taught us, his students, that Torah leadership demands the highest intellectual and moral courage. He did this in the best way possible: by personal example. The following thoughts, which are his, are a small indication of what I learned from him – not least that Torah is, among other things, a refusal to give easy answers to difficult questions."
As a rabbi, social philosopher, proponent of interfaith dialogue and public intellectual, Tirosh-Samuelson and Hughes note that " vision—informed as it is by the concerns of modern Orthodoxy—is paradoxically one of the most universalizing voices within contemporary Judaism. Sacks possesses a rare ability to hold in delicate balance the universal demands of the modern, multicultural world with the particularism associated with Judaism.":1 This is a view supported by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo who wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Sacks' "confidence in the power of Judaism and its infinite wisdom enabled him to enter the lion's den, taking on famous philosophers, scientists, religious thinkers and sociologists and showing them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn't afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of philosophy and science." Harris and Rynhold, in their introduction to Radical Responsibility argued that: "The special contribution made by the thought of Chief Rabbi Sacks is that it not only continues the venerable Jewish philosophical tradition of maintaining traditional faith in the face of external intellectual challenges, but also moves beyond this tradition by showing how core Jewish teachings can address the dilemmas of the secular world itself. What make Lord Sacks' approach so effective is that he is able to do so without any exception of the wider world taking on Judaism's theological beliefs.":xvi
The framework for Sacks' philosophical approach and his interaction between the universal and the particular is not too dissimilar from those positions adopted by other leading Orthodox thinkers of recent times. The favoured phrase of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was Torah im derekh eretz, 'Torah and general culture'; for Rabbi Norman Lamm it was Torah u-mada. 'Torah and Science'. For Sacks, his favoured phrase has been Torah vehokhmah, 'Torah and Wisdom'. As noted in the introduction to Radical Responsibility: "Torah, for Jonathan Sacks represents the particularistic, inherited teachings of Judaism, while hokhmah (wisdom) refers to the universal realm of the sciences and humanities.":xviii Framed in religious terms, as Sacks sets out in his book Future Tense: "Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be."
Tirosh-Samuelson and Hughes are of the opinion that whilst Torah v'Chokhmah is certainly a valid overarching framework, they note that Sacks' perspective is one rooted in modern orthodoxy: "Although he will try to understand various denominations of Judaism, he is always quick to point out that Orthodoxy cannot recognize the legitimacy of interpretations of Judaism that abandon fundamental beliefs of halakhic (Jewish law) authority. Judaism that departs from the truth and acceptance of the halakha is a departure from authentic Judaism and, he reasons, is tantamount to the accommodation of secularism. So, while Sacks will develop a highly inclusive account of the world's religions, there were times when he was critical of the denominations within Judaism."
"No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth"
After the publication of his book The Dignity of Difference, a group of Haredi rabbis, most notably Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Bezalel Rakow, accused Sacks of heresy against what they consider the traditional Orthodox viewpoint. According to them, some words seemed to imply an endorsement of pure relativism between religions, and that Judaism is not the sole true religion, e.g. "No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth." This led him to rephrase more clearly some sentences in the book for its second edition, though he refused to recall books already in the stores.
In his "Preface to the Second Edition" of the book, Sacks wrote that certain passages in the book had been misconstrued: He had already explicitly criticised cultural and religious relativism in his book, and he did not deny Judaism's uniqueness. He also stressed, however, that mainstream rabbinic teachings teach that wisdom, righteousness, and the possibility of a true relationship with God are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an ongoing heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants, so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth, or to attain salvation. As this diversity of covenantal bonds implies, however, traditional Jewish sources do clearly deny that any one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth. Monopolistic and simplistic claims of universal truth he has characterized as imperialistic, pagan and Platonic, and not Jewish at all. The book received international acclaim, winning the Grawemeyer Award for Religion in 2004.
A book by the British historian and journalist Meir Persoff, Another Way, Another Time, has argued that "Sacks's top priority has been staying in the good graces of the Haredi, or strictly Orthodox, faction, whose high birthrate has made it the fastest-growing component of British Jewry."
Sacks provoked considerable controversy in the Anglo-Jewish community in 1996 when he refused to attend the funeral service of the late Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn and for a private letter he had written in Hebrew, which (in translation) asserted that Auschwitz survivor Gryn was "among those who destroy the faith", was leaked and published. He wrote further that he was an "enemy" of the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements, leading some to reject the notion that he was "Chief Rabbi" for all Jews in Britain. He attended a memorial meeting for Gryn, a move that brought the wrath of some in the ultra-Orthodox community. Rabbi Dow Marmur, a Canada-based progressive Rabbi, argued that after attending the memorial service, Sacks then attempted to placate the ultra-Orthodox community, an attempt which Marmur has described as "neurotic and cowardly."
Later, in a letter to The Jewish Chronicle in May 2013, Jackie Gryn, the widow of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, wrote: "I feel the time has come for me to lay to rest, once and for all , the idea… that there ever was a 'Hugo Gryn Affair', as far as I am concerned, regarding the absence of the Chief Rabbi at the funeral of my late husband, Hugo… From the beginning, relations were cordial and sympathetic and have remained so", she wrote. "There has never been any personal grievance between us concerning his non-attendance at the funeral, which promoted such venomous and divisive comments and regrettably continues to do so."
Sacks responded to the incident by rethinking his relationship with the non-Orthodox movements, eventually developing what he called the "two principles". Responding to an interview shortly before his retirement, he wrote that "You try and make things better in the future. As a result of the turbulence at that time, I was forced to think this whole issue through and I came up with these two principles; on all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences we work together regardless of our religious differences, and on all things that touch our religious differences we agree to differ, but with respect. As a result of those two principles, relations between Reform and Orthodox have got much better and are actually a model for the rest of the Jewish world. Progressive rabbis sit with me on the top table of the Council of Christians and Jews, we stand together for Israel. All of this flowed from those two principles. Until then there had been a view never to do anything with the non-Orthodox movements but once you thought it through you saw that there were all sorts of opportunities."
Rabbi Sacks would later draw some criticism when he and his Beth Din prevented the retired Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who had helped establish the British branch of the Masorti movement, from being called up for the Reading of the Torah on the Saturday before his granddaughter's wedding.
Sacks expressed concern at what he regarded as the negative effects of materialism and secularism in European society, arguing that they undermined the basic values of family life and lead to selfishness. In 2009, Sacks gave an address claiming that Europeans have chosen consumerism over the self-sacrifice of parenting children, and that "the major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians". He argued that Europe is in population decline "because non-believers lack shared values of family and community that religion has".
Rabbi Sacks made remarks at an inter-faith reception attended by the Queen, in November 2011, in which he criticised what he believed to be the selfish consumer culture that has only brought unhappiness. "The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'I', you don’t do terribly well." In a later statement, the Chief Rabbi's office said "The Chief Rabbi meant no criticism of either Steve Jobs personally or the contribution Apple has made to the development of technology in the 21st century."
In July 2012 a group of prominent British Jews criticised Sacks for opposing plans to allow civil marriage for gays and lesbians. He said that he understands "the fear that gays have of prejudice and persecution" and went on to say, in a lecture on the institution of marriage, that a world that persecutes homosexuals is one "to which we should never return."
I fully understood... that gays, not just Jews, were sent to the concentration camps, and I did not want to become a voice that would be caught up in a very polarised debate and be seen to be heartless towards the gays in our own community. I am not heartless towards them, I really seek to understand them and they seek to understand where I am coming from. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
In a June 2019 debate on anti-Semitism in the House of Lords, Sacks stated that "there is hardly a country in the world, certainly not a single country in Europe, where Jews feel safe" and that societies tolerating anti-Semitism had "forfeited all moral credibility".
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020) ISBN 9781473617315
Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Koren, 2015) ISBN 9781592644322
Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015) ISBN 9781473616516
Covenant & Conversation: Leviticus, the Book of Holiness (Koren, 2015) ISBN 9781592640225
The Koren Sacks Pesach Mahzor (Koren, 2013) ISBN 9789653013179
The Koren Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor (Koren, 2012) ISBN 9789653013469
The Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor (Koren, 2011) ISBN 9789653013421
The Great Partnership: God Science and the Search for Meaning (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) ISBN 9780340995259
Covenant and Conversation: Exodus (Koren, Jerusalem, 2010) ISBN 9781592640218
Future Tense (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009) ISBN 9780340979853
Covenant and Conversation: Genesis (Koren, 2009) ISBN 9781592640201
The Koren (Sacks) Siddur (Koren, 2009) ISBN 9789653012172
The Home We Build Together (Continuum, 2007) ISBN 9780826423498
Authorised Daily Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 2006)ISBN 9780007200917
To Heal a Fractured World (Continuum, 2005) ISBN 9780826480392
From Optimism to Hope (Continuum, 2004) ISBN 9780826474810
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Haggadah (Harper Collins, 2003) ISBN 9789653013421
The Dignity of Difference (Continuum, 2002) ISBN 9780826468505
Radical Then, Radical Now (published in the US as A Letter in the Scroll) (Continuum, 2001) ISBN 9780826473363
Celebrating Life (Continuum, 2006) ISBN 9780826473370
Morals and Markets (Occasional Paper 108) (Institute of Economic Affairs, 1998) ISBN 0255364245
The Politics of Hope (Vintage, 2000) ISBN 9780224043298
The Persistence of Faith (Continuum, 2005) - based on his BBC Reith Lectures series ISBN 9780297820857
One People: Tradition, Modernity and Jewish Unity (The Littman Library, 1993) ISBN 9781874774013
Community of Faith (Peter Halban, 1995) ISBN 9781870015592
Faith in the Future (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995) ISBN 9780232520989
Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? (Vallentine Mitchell, 1994) ISBN 9780853032823
Crisis and Covenant (Manchester University Press, 1992)ISBN 0719033004
Arguments for the Sake of Heaven (Jason Aronson, 1991)ISBN 0876687834
Tradition in an Untraditional Age (Vallentine Mitchell, 1990) ISBN 0853032394
Torah Studies: Discourses by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson (Kehot, New York, 1996) ISBN 0826604935
Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity (Ktav, New York, 1991) ISBN 0881253634
Tradition and Transition (Jews College Publications, 1986) ISBN 095121490X
Sacks married Elaine Taylor in 1970 and together they had three children: Joshua, Dina and Gila. Sacks was a vegetarian.
Sacks died on 7 November 2020, at age 72. He had been diagnosed with cancer in October 2020, having been twice previously treated for the disease. Sending tribute to Sacks, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that his leadership had a "profound impact on our whole country and across the world".
May the merit of Rabbi Jonathan Henry Sacks, protect us all. Amen