"He made everyone feel included." Rabbi Lord Sacks in 2017. Credit: Bret Hartman via TED

November 9, 2020   5 mins

The Prince of Wales spoke at Rabbi Lord Sacks’s retirement dinner back in 2013. The men were good  friends, and both born in 1948, the year of the foundation of the state of Israel. “I realise we have now reached the official age of retirement,” Prince Charles joked and laughter rippled the room. “But I do hope yours is going to be a bit more realistic than mine.” Jonathan Sacks was retiring before Prince Charles had even started the job for which he was born. And now he has died. His retirement — not that he ever really retired — wasn’t long enough. Not nearly long enough.

Rabbi Sacks’s cancer overtook him quickly. It was only a few weeks ago that his office announced he was unwell. And many even in the Jewish community were unaware quite how poorly he was. In many ways, Jonathan Sacks was an intensely shy and private man. A scholar, a man of faith, a family man, with great personal warmth, a twinkle in his eye, and a very gentle yet penetrating sense of humour — but you probably wouldn’t call him emotionally demonstrative.

For a public figure, there was a deep reserve about him, which makes it all the more remarkable that he was able to communicate as directly and passionately as he did. His lush, resonant baritone voice made him a natural broadcaster, but it was his ideas and his way with words that enabled him to talk so directly into many people’s lives, touching things that made a difference to them whether Jewish or not. He was a serious person in the very best sense of that word. He took his responsibilities seriously: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” as the prophet Micah put it. He will be remembered as one of the greatest Chief Rabbis this country has ever known.

The last time I saw him was at Shabbat dinner in Golders Green, just before the first lockdown began. We drank whisky, we chatted about theology, we sang loudly, thumping the table with delight. He was, of course, typically urbane and erudite. But he also danced about and played with my young boys crawling under the table, who are themselves Jews but with a Christian father. Taking the funeral in a chilly north London cemetery yesterday afternoon, Rabbi Harvey Belovski, the senior Rabbi at the Golders Green synagogue (where Rabbi Sacks had made his spiritual home for the last seven years) made reference to that evening, which he had hosted. It was, Rabbi Belovski suggested in his eulogy, evidence of Rabbi Sacks’s remarkable ability to reach out to those on the edge of Jewish life, indeed even to those beyond it, not only to make them feel personally valued but also to make them feel included in the great enterprise of connecting to the divine.

This inclusiveness did not always win him friends within the more conservative parts of the Jewish community. “Chief Rabbi to the gentiles” was how some unkindly put it. Indeed, he went to a Church of England school and he didn’t come from a long line of distinguished Rabbis like many of his predecessors. He was an East End boy and the first in his family to go to university.

Throughout his tenure as Chief Rabbi, he had the unenviable task of providing a point of focus for a very divergent family of communities, some deeply conservative, some liberal. The fact that he didn’t please all of the people all of the time was more an indication of the diverse nature of Anglo-Jewry than of his own failings. He didn’t attend the popular Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s funeral, for which he was attacked. He did attend his memorial service, for which he was also attacked. He couldn’t win.

To many of us outside the Jewish community, he was the familiar voice on Thought for the Day who could read out the telephone directory and make it sound profound. His voice was calming, steady, resonant with purpose. And what he said was so full of hope. We need a new social settlement, he argued in his last book. One based on the priority of the “we” over the “I”. In Jewish theological terms, what we need is a covenantal relationship with each other, not just a legal contract based on our contractual obligations. And he was excoriating towards the anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, that had been allowed to develop in the Labour Party. He also believed that Christian-Jewish relations in Britain are the best in the world.

But despite his willingness to speak into contemporary concerns, all of what he said was grounded in a very intense personal relationship with God. It ran through him like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock. And here, I think, we get to the most remarkable thing about Rabbi Sacks as a religious leader: he was not a man who threw around cheap certainty. He did theology without any of the sort of intellectual defensiveness that lesser religious leaders can sometimes adopt. His wasn’t a brittle faith of dogmatic assertion, it was something that grew out of decades of daily interrogation of the infinite.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Belovski made reference to the troubling story in the Book of Genesis, the Aqedah, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Those who ponder its dark mystery find no easy answers. Indeed, as many of the great rabbis of the past have argued, it is a text that won’t allow a simple resolution. Theology often feels contradictory, at odds with itself. But for men like Jonathan Sacks, this became a source of strength not of weakness; an invitation to “antifragility” — an idea that he was much taken with. Living the contradictions meant refusing cheap understanding, and so became an invitation to a more capacious appreciation of the world in all its profound and disturbing complexity.

From this intellectual base, all his book and sermons, lectures and broadcasts flowed. Rabbi Sacks became a powerful emissary for orthodox Judaism throughout our national life — and internationally too. And no Jewish thinker could avoid being in mental conversation with his ideas. “All modern Jews are students of Rabbi Sacks, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not, or whether they like it or not,” as Rabbi Belovski claimed yesterday.

The ceremony itself was modest, given lockdown — bleak even. The current Chief Rabbi was unable to attend, having received a message to confine himself to home from a test and trace app message received on Friday. In normal times, thousands would have been there. But in the end, it was fittingly simple, with family and senior Rabbis standing in a flat and exposed landscape, saying farewell to the man who had done so much to inspire the Jewish community over the last half a century. Dayan Ivan Binstock, senior Rabbi of the St John’s Wood Synagogue, read out a message from the Prince of Wales. The tone was perfect.

“It was with the most profound personal sorrow that I heard of the death of Rabbi Lord Sacks. With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal. His immense learning spanned the sacred and the secular, and his prophetic voice spoke to our greatest challenges with unfailing insight and boundless compassion. His wise counsel was sought and appreciated by those of all faiths and none, and he will be missed more than words can say.”

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.