in memoriam

Only tears: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l

On the impact of this educator, philosopher, rabbi, teacher, who conversed with world-class leaders and thinkers, yet managed to stir the hearts, souls, and minds of regular folks

This is written through tears about a man who will be eulogised by many far greater and more eloquent than I…. but through words I find some comfort in this unfathomable loss.

My story is, I’m sure, one in thousands.

Of the impact this great leader, educator, philosopher, thinker, rabbi, teacher had.

Of the personal advice he gave me twice that forever changed the trajectory of my life (the first in 2003, when, after a meeting, he advised me to look at the writing of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in whom I found a dialectical faith that spoke to me existentially, culminating in choosing his thought as the subject of my doctoral studies.

The second in 2011, when I sought his advice on starting my doctorate at this stage of life — his advice: a doctorate will expand your horizons and engender personal growth, but shouldn’t be at the expense of your teaching.

One person, two short meetings, two pieces of life-changing wisdom.

Of the way he took intensely complex and complicated philosophical ideas (ideas that the more I become versed in philosophy, the more I realize how utterly BRILLIANT he was) and somehow made them accessible to the lay person, without loss of depth, and all the while speaking to the individual in personal and existential ways.

Of the way he took obscure thought and applied it to contemporary society and real issues on the ground.

Of the way the way he managed to seamlessly interweave Torah with secular wisdom moving it from abstract thought to soul reaching ideas.

Of the way he spoke to great political and religious leaders, world class thinkers, and philosophers, and yet still managed to stir the heart, soul, and mind of the person on the street.

Of the way he brought Aristotle, Spinoza, Hobbes, Desecrate, Avraham, Moshe Sadia Gaon, and Rambam together — composing a narrative of ancient wisdom and modern sensibilities, that encouraged us to be better Jews. Better humans.

Of the way he brought to our chaotic world moments of redemption, hope, family values and religious commitment.

Of the way he made “politics into hope,” religion into “radical responsibility,” postmodernity into “morality,” “tradition in an untraditional age,” “healing into a fractured world.” Gave “dignity to difference” and welcomed “covenant into conversation,” weaving together a “great partnership” of “faith for the future.”

Of the way he left this world better through his unrivaled knowledge that spoke to every person.

Of his courage to say things that were not always comfortable to hear, or acceptable to voice, but imperative to articulate.

We will not be the same.

Jewry will not be the same.

The world has lost an iconic voice, a guiding moral light, a beacon of hope amongst the chaos.

I cannot believe I will not read another Rabbi Sacks book, in which every page had a sticky note or underlined section; in which I not only came away after reading it enlightened, but also transformed.

I’m not sure how we will all move forwards.

But we, his students, will take the radiating torch of his wisdom and do our best to continue down the path that this great giant strode. For on his shoulders, there are surely hundreds of thousands that stand.

How grateful we must be that he did not remain in the ivory tower of intellectual pursuit and took on the mantle of leadership.

How grateful we must be that we had Rabbi Sacks to guide us through these tumultuous times in both world and Jewish history.

I finish with his own words that I read just this morning from his weekly parsha sheet — words that could have been written as a hesped (eulogy) to this great leader and fitting summary of what he has taught so many over his incredible life:

“Abraham was not a conventional leader. He did not rule a nation. There was as yet no nation for him to lead. But he was the role model of leadership as Judaism understands it. He took responsibility. He acted; he didn’t wait for others to act. Of Noah, the Torah says, “he walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). But to Abraham, God says, “Walk before Me,” (Gen. 17:1), meaning: be a leader. Walk ahead. Take personal responsibility. Take moral responsibility. Take collective responsibility.

Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.”

יהי זכרו ברוך

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at
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