Hail to the Chief


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of Great Britain for 22 years, between 1991 and 2013. He died Saturday morning at age 72. This piece was originally published on April 20, 2010.

Listening to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks deliver a positive message of Jewish survival and triumph at Lincoln Square Synagogue on Shabbat, and observing the enthusiastic, attentive overflow crowds at each of his three presentations, helped strengthen the impression for me that he has emerged as the leading voice of Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism in the world.

As the chief rabbi, 62, marks his 19th year in his post, he has become an increasingly influential presence in this country through his books, videos, weekly Torah portions and other writings, and, most noticeably, his stepped-up appearances in the U.S.

He was in New York just before Passover to receive the inaugural Norman Lamm Prize at Yeshiva University, was here this past week to receive an academic award at Princeton University and speak at Lincoln Square, and will be back next month for additional lectures.

A remarkably elegant writer and eloquent speaker, Rabbi Sacks displayed a good deal of charm, wit and warmth in impressing the crowds at Lincoln Square, where he was introduced by a protégé, Rabbi Shaul Robinson, a native of Glasgow who served as a spiritual leader in England before assuming the pulpit at Lincoln Square in 2005.

The chief rabbi’s overall message (without the benefit of direct quotes, since I was not taking notes on Shabbat) was that despite the frightening times we live in, amid the threat of a nuclear Iran and a rise of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, the Jewish people will continue to thrive if we maintain our pride and develop a sense of optimism.

He emphasized the positive aspects of Jewish life in England, noting that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair, are sensitive to and supportive of Jewish causes, and that the percentage of Jewish children attending day schools in the United Kingdom increased over the last two decades from 8 to 65 percent. But he also acknowledged that the default position of Christian churches in Europe is anti-Israel (as opposed to those in America, he said), and that anti-Israel sentiment is strong on British campuses and among young Muslims.

He said Jews should be doing more to enlist allies from other faiths and religions to denounce such behavior, and cautioned that while anti-Semitism should be fought by Jews, it should not be internalized. “Hate exists in the minds of the hater,” he said, “not in the person of the hated.”

The rabbi asserted that anti-Semitism never ends with Jews, and that it is, at its root, an assault against humanity.

In general, he sought to avoid controversial issues and questions, though on the subject of dealing with Iran he noted that after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the Jewish state was condemned by the entire world — “but the entire world slept more securely” as a result of the attack.

In his Shabbat morning sermon, the chief rabbi noted that while the Torah describes a leprosy-like condition that is a divine punishment for lashon hara (speaking badly about others), there is no reference in biblical texts to the opposite, or lashon hatov (speaking positively about others). Still, he said, it is implicit throughout Jewish tradition, and he related how he helped a London educator transform her school from one of failure to one of success by encouraging her to “celebrate” any and all achievements among the students as a means of inspiring them.

Many who attended the chief rabbi’s talks at Lincoln Square were inspired in turn, and marveled not only at the substance of his remarks, but at the drawing power he had, and wondered aloud who else among leading Jewish religious figures could produce such excitement and large crowds for three lectures in a day.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose monumental translations of the Talmud into English and Hebrew (from Aramaic) have been hailed as a work of genius, comes to mind. But he is better known for his prolific writing than public speaking.

The Modern Orthodox world has been keenly aware of a vacuum in leadership in its midst since the passing of the man referred to simply as The Rav, the founder of the movement, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who died in 1993 and had been ill for many years prior to his death.

His son-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, bears the mantle of halachic leadership for many. But while highly respected for his intellect and integrity, particularly at a time when many prominent rabbis have been brought down by scandal, Rav Lichtenstein by nature and temperament eschews the spotlight and media.

Chief Rabbi Sacks, in contrast, seems to be everywhere these days. His Koren Siddur and Passover Haggadah, with their graceful essays and notes, are being used increasingly here, and his weekly Torah portion writings can be found in the tallit bags of shulgoers each Shabbat. That is not to say, of course, that the chief rabbi does not have his critics.

He has been labeled a heretic by some haredi rabbis, particularly for suggesting in his writings that Judaism is not the world’s only true religion, and from liberals for writing critically of Reform Judaism. He is also viewed by some as unwilling to speak out on controversial issues. As in Israel, the position of chief rabbi in Britain is viewed widely as having weight primarily, if not only, among the segment of Jews who see themselves as Modern Orthodox. But through the depth of his writings in dozens of books and the reach he has among world political and religious leaders, Rabbi Sacks has broadened his audience.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005, and appointed to the House of Lords last year, he is a respected national presence in the UK, with easy and frequent access to the media, whether it is speaking on the BBC or writing articles for The Times of London.

Indeed, Rabbi Sacks indicated only half-jokingly last Shabbat that he is far more respected by those of other faiths than he is among his fellow Jews.

His voice, with its blend of authority and inspiration, needs to be not only heard but listened to, especially his call for Jews to engage the world with confidence and courage, grounded in faith and tradition. As he notes at the conclusion of his latest book, “Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century”: “Jews are a small people. Every one of them counts. And the Jewish task remains: to be the voice of hope in an age of fear, the countervoice in the conversation of humankind.”

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.