It is a peculiar feeling to experience sadness when losing someone you have never met. It is a completely regular reaction to have grief from the loss of a loved one. While I am aware of no codified mourning rituals for remembering a stranger, writing about that person can alleviate some of the pain. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks represented not only the foremost qualities in humanity, he represented them as a teacher, guide, Rabbi, and Jew. Morality, cultural sensitivity, commitment to helping others, vision to the future, intellectual curiosity, humor, and reason are all characteristics of Rabbi Sacks.
The outpouring of sadness in response to the news of Rabbi Sacks’ death has been expected. I am not here to deliver the most complete eulogy for Rabbi Sacks because I am not capable; I am still a novice regarding Sacks when compared to many Jewish leaders, scholars, Rabbis, and teachers that have written tributes.
It would be a falsehood to say that I found Rabbi Sacks’ teachings or that they were recommended to me. It is my personal belief that Rabbi Sacks’ teachings found me. I stumbled upon them while researching science and religion in the modern world. This was at a moment in my life where I had (naively) concluded that religion was not a useful or helpful tool and that all of progress in the future would originate from science and research, not old and dusty books.
Rabbi Sacks challenged me to analyze religion critically and in a mature manner. His descriptions of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and unique ability to magnify the humanity in their stories paints a different tale than what Biblical accounts posit at first glance. The assertion that Judaism is a faith that believes in “not the idea of power, but the power of ideas” and that these very ideas have altered not only the course of humanity, civilization, and the human condition, but have also heightened humanity’s ethical sensibilities is a monumental accomplishment. Without Rabbi Sacks’ guidance and attention to Judaism’s role in the course of human history, this accomplishment might have remained hidden to me.
Rabbi Sacks taught that living a Jewish life and studying Torah can enhance relationships in a positive manner. He encourages the student of Torah and other Jewish text to visualize the humanity within the stories, to cultivate empathy, and to apply the moral lessons into our everyday lives and our personal relationships. Sacks also roots Jewish Halacha as a workable mental discipline technique, and not a list of restrictions or antiquated laws. He truthfully points out that to succeed in life and especially in the 21st century, one needs to have mental discipline. He tells us that is not easy to be a Jew, but it has and will continue to foster disciplined and ultimately successful human beings. Rabbi Sacks encouraged the compatibility of science and religion, and eloquently debated famous Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. It is reassuring to watch two gentlemen that vehemently disagree, on a topic so paramount to human beings, display a manner of complete respect and humility. This, if anything, is a trait that we should strive to model from Rabbi Sacks. He argues that Religion intends to answer the question of “why” and that Science intends to answer the question of “how.” He likens science and religion to the left and the right brain respectively, and notes that we need them both for a society to function and progress.
There are numerous reasons that Rabbi Sacks was in a league of his own. Perhaps one reason is his capacity to easily explain complicated religious, social, economic, historical, or cultural phenomena and provide solutions to these inter-related issues. His knack for always staying up to date about the happenings of the modern world (not just the Jewish world) and to provide a beautifully detailed Jewish response. Or his relatability and humor would be suitable answers; however I would simply argue that Sacks’ ability to illuminate Judaism’s core principles as answers to various modern, spiritual desires is predominant.
The obvious intellect of Rabbi Sacks combined with his fluidity in Jewish law, history, and philosophy would presume that he was planning to be a Rabbi since his early days. “I had no intention of being a Rabbi. The last thing on my mind.” This quote is from a commencement speech given by Rabbi Sacks in 2017. During this segment, Sacks describes how he looked around and saw that many Jews were walking away from Judaism. He simultaneously analyzed the fact that Judaism is not in a position to have folks simply leave the community, and that he had to act. Rabbi Sacks decided to not be one of those Jews that walked away. This powerful story has resonated with me for years and has sent me on a journey of Jewish soul-searching, study, and contemplation. Rabbi Sacks gave me the soft push I needed and thanks to him, I have discovered a wellspring of knowledge enabling me to lead a better life, a more examined existence that puts others before myself, and a much deeper appreciation for Judaism’s role in the development of essential moral principles.
Judaism is owed a detailed investigation. It is critical to follow the example of Rabbi Sacks and to not walk away.