Everybody from Prince Charles to Catholic Archbishops has paid tribute to Jonathan Sacks. “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a generally accepted norm, though, so how can his remarkable contribution to the country’s morality be proven by events in his life.
One example occurred when an outbreak of urban violence in August 2011 saw rioting and arson in London. When things had settled down, The Times published an article on what could be learned from these unacceptable events. It was reasonable to ask a religious leader to give his opinion, and you expected the Archbishop of Canterbury to offer his views. The Times instead chose to ask Jonathan Sacks. The Chief Rabbi was chosen to be the moral voice of the country.
Now this really was exceptional. We have spent most of our lives sheltering below the parapet, because we’re a tiny minority in the country and the memory of the Holocaust doesn’t fade. Jonathan Sacks’ predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits, had a relatively high profile as the first Jewish rabbinic peer, but he spoke for the Jewish view and that of Margaret Thatcher, not on behalf of the nation.
I first heard Jonathan Sacks at a conference in the 1980s when he was a very young rabbi. I have had the good fortune to hear some great preachers; Chief Rabbis Hertz, Brodie and Jakobovits, Ephy Levine, Louis Jacobs, Harris Swift and others. They weren’t as good as Jonathan Sacks.
I suppose he had the advantage of looking the part; If Moses came back, he might well have looked like Jonathan Sacks. He also found time, even when there wasn’t any. He wrote the foreward to my biography of Joseph Herman Hertz, and the book is the better for it.
I did upset him once. I wrote an article in our synagogue magazine and I said that the job of Chief Rabbi was a thankless one, because you got all the blame and couldn’t give any orders. He gave me another view; he said that people may not like orders, but if they could be persuaded to a point of view, then they would carry it out with conviction. It was the Chief Rabbi’s opportunity to persuade that made the office so powerful. Of course he was quite right.
We don’t live in a religious age. One result of this is that the various religious leaders work together more because they all face the same problems of declining observance. Jonathan Sacks was the ideal representative of the ancient religion. He knew his Talmud thoroughly but he didn’t appear out of place in multi-religious gatherings.
He did point out the danger the progressive community represented for Orthodoxy and the right wing leaked his letter, to ill effect. He was also criticised for not going to the funeral of the Progressive rabbi, Hugo Gryn, but Orthodox rabbis are not expected to attend Reform services.
There are occasions when the Progressives and the Orthodox fall out. Just as Jonathan Sacks recognised the effect of the Progressives, so it’s easy to find occasions when Progressive rabbis have criticised the Orthodox. At the main Liberal synagogue in New York I was asked to remove my hat before attending the Sabbath service; that’s an Orthodox red line. It’s no use pretending there aren’t differences. Jonathan Sacks represented all Jews in national surroundings better than anybody.
We’re not likely to see his like again for a long time. Will his example be remembered? I’m not sure; the enormous contributions of Chief Rabbis Nathan Marcus Adler and his son, Hermann Adler, to the community are only recalled when the mourning prayers for the chief rabbis are said on Yom Kippur.
The answer, though, is that we’re still here. There may be a great deal of intermarriage but people are still prepared to pay kosher butchers vast sums for kosher meat. Lots of Jews only turn up in shul for Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, but seder nights retain their popularity and the families still gather on Friday evenings.
We have survived the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Inquisition, Fascists and Communists. Leaders like Jonathan Sacks will still appear when we need them, and that’s the name of the game.