“True greatness is showing respect to the people, other people don’t notice. The people who show respect win respect.” Lord Jonathan Sacks. I never knew much about Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Let me be more transparent: I knew nothing about Jonathan Sacks until he died. A poor excuse for ignorance on my part. But as I peel more of who he was and what he stood for; I find a man of so many layers that it awes me. As I read more about his life, philosophies, and teachings, I feel intellectually inadequate in his world. His brain held more space than mine.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ bio is rather intimidating. Born in post war London in 1948, this man embodied the best and wisest of humanity with grace and humility. Summing up his life achievements would take volumes. To put it in a nutshell; Jonathan Sacks has been endowed with 18 honorary doctorates, one of which (Doctor of Divinity) was presented to him by no other than the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 2005, he was knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth II, and made a Life Peer in the House of Lords in 2009. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was also Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations at the Commonwealth. But who was Rabbi Sacks?
I got to “know” Rabbi Sacks by listening to several of his speeches, the one I found most poignant he gave in April 2017. Rabbi Sacks was a combination of detailed Torah thought and intellectual pragmatism. He spoke from the heart and delivered from the mind. The 2017 speech was particularly significant because it is beyond relevant today. “We can face any future without fear so long as we know that we won’t face it alone”. These words drew a curiosity that paid off. The world in 2017 was not much different than what it is right now; divided, extreme, anxious, frightened, and uncertain. Not a great combination. In a society moving closer and closer toward secularism and self-importance, the Rabbi asked the $64 million question, what do people worship? Who do they like most above all else?
Myriad of books on “self” improvement, “selfies”, and groupies gathering under one thought, one opinion, and one view; should give us a hint as to what Rabbi Sacks was referring to. A generation more bent on “I” than “we”. Strength in others dissipating into an insidious bubble-like circle of friends laterally united in opinion and thought; narrowing possibilities and causing inadvertent divisions. Extremism generated by excluding all else socially, idealistically, and politically; harbors bias and unsolicited dislike for anything or anyone who is different. Closing the world on others gradually dissipates our legacy and what defines us as nations.
Zachary Sacks was pragmatic within the scope of biblical references, if that is at all possible. He managed to extrapolate the essence of human frailties and strengths, with very little philosophical rhetoric so prevalent in today’s “I” intellectual elitist sphere of partisanship and division. “We stopped telling a story”. A possibly simplistic argument for the rise in extremism but a caveat to the current penchant for changing who we are to suit others. Basically put: if we keep on attempting at changing our identity as nations, we have nothing to give or welcome strangers to. Past immigrants risked everything to go to America because it was the beacon of hope for the hopeless, success for the unsuccessful, prosperity for the poorest, and liberty for the oppressed. They wanted to participate in the story. We tell our story to maintain a strong identity that helps others develop theirs. “We the people” are collectively responsible for our destiny.
What I managed to learn from the intricate mind of Lord Rabbi Zachary Sacks is that it managed to operate on a multi faction thread of thought, idea, and opinion based on logical conclusions and a philosophical framework of humankind. I did not delve into his prolific translations of the Torah or Psalms. I would not have been able to wrap my grey cells around those discussions and Biblical possibilities he was so good at. I tried to understand his opinions and intrinsic aptitude in discerning what was obvious to him and blind to us.
Rabbi Sacks lamented almost discouragingly over far left and far right ideals that are causing division, extremism, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty in current times. He held both sides responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism. The far left still devastated by failure in socialism and communism finds reprieve in assaulting market free economies and vilifying capitalists and libertarians as enemies of social justice and equality. A finger always conveniently pointing at Jews as stereo typical bankers, investors, and political influencers on Wall Street and Washington. On the other hand, low birth rates in Western economies and an unprecedented influx of immigrants, spurs the far right to target Jews as the protagonists in conspiracies and political intrigue. Bias in both social and mainstream media adds to the distrust and angst in a fearful uncertain world.
Rabbi Sacks blamed selective morality on causing calculated divisiveness; socially and politically. Laying most of the blame on social media, identity politics, and an unprecedented focus on “self” rather than “us”. Safe spaces and exclusivity of opinion has rendered this generation unforgiving and unrelentingly intolerant. The “alike” group mentality shuns any hope of acceptance toward those who do not follow same ideals or narrative. A generation of judgmental secular moralists are creating an intolerable monolithic society. The couch moralists who pass judgement from the comfort of their home and their social media accounts.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was apolitical in the sense that he did not subscribe to partisanship; he was a “straight shooter”. On 21st September, 2019, Rabbi Sacks gave a pre-Selichot address to the congregation of the Hampstead Synagogue in London. His scathing theme was “An unforgiving Age”. He told the story of two prominent individuals, one a Nobel Prize winning scientist and the other a reputable psychologist, whose lives and careers were ruined through a hate campaign on social media. The former after making a harmless joke about women in laboratories, and the latter because eons before had posed with an unknown individual wearing an “offensive” t-shirt. Although both apologized for their short sightedness, the gavel of public opinion through a social media jury; accused, judged, and condemned both men. The joke was a joke, and the t-shirt was one on the thousands that had wanted to pose with the famous psychologist. Visceral social media attacks ruined both lives and careers, leaving the world poorer sans a great scientist and a great scholar. “An unforgiving Age”.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cuts through the nebulous pretense of a moral society that does not define righteousness but rather smug elitist superiority. The continual absence of God has rendered us unforgiving and immoral. We look to governments and scientists to save us when we should be looking within ourselves for salvation. Whether we believe in God or not, at the end of the day, it is “we” who must save “us”. A transition from the collective to a single unit of community, nations, and the world.
Johnathan Sacks was not an illusionist or a dreamer; he was a theologian, philosopher, but also a realist. He addressed grass roots nationalism as seeking self-recognition within and without its borders. “…a nation is only strong when it cares for its weak, poor, and the vulnerable”. No slam to either side of the morality platform, but a rebuke to all seeking grandeur and political clout at the expense of others. Within these wise words was a call for common sense politics, legislation, and patriotism.
In these past few weeks, while gathering information and listening to the myriads of podcasts from Rabbi Sacks, I grew to “know” him from the perspective of a non-Jew. His reflections and thoughts cut deep into the current socio-political babble that we have witnessed and endured these many years. His logic followed a pattern of faith in thought and philosophy in living. I listened and read and could have continued to do both had I wanted, but this would never have been written.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will not only be missed as the most influential Jewish leader and scholar, but as a man who dedicated his life, mind, and heart to teaching the world what it really means to be “good”. He epitomized everything we should all be aspiring to. He was a teacher, counselor, and analyst that showed us a viable path through the mire of an insane world. Hope through hopeless times, and guidance through perpetrated bias we so often mistake for journalism. He was that and more. In life I did not know him, but in death he became a friend.