I am both a halakhically observant Jew and a steadfast Anglophile, so it should come as no surprise that I had a tremendous amount of admiration for Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth for more than two decades until his retirement in 2013. Lord Sacks, who died last week at the age of 72 shortly after he had been diagnosed with cancer, was elevated to the House of Lords in 2009. He was not only a giant of Jewish scholarship but also one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals. His death is a tremendous loss to the Jewish people and, indeed, to people of faith throughout the world.
While I have viewed many YouTube clips featuring Lord Sacks, and though I regularly use the siddur that he edited, only once did I have the privilege of hearing him speak in person. Shortly after his retirement as Chief Rabbi, he was invited to New York by First Things, the interfaith journal founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, to deliver the annual Erasmus Lecture. As a long-time First Things subscriber, I was able to obtain tickets to the lecture, and it was an impressive experience, one that exemplified why he was so influential. Lord Sacks was addressing an audience that was at least half non-Jewish on the subject of Creative Minorities, but his lecture was received with great enthusiasm by his audience, which was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge. He traced the notion of being a creative minority to Jer. 29:7, in which the Prophet enjoined the Jewish exiles in Babylon to:
“seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf for in its prosperity you shall prosper
The role of a creative minority, Lord Sacks said, is to use its unique culture to contribute to the welfare of the larger society of which it is part while at the same time integrating itself into the life of that larger society.
That mission describes not only Lord Sack’s lecture but also his life. In his role as Chief Rabbi, he did a great deal to strengthen Jewish life in the United Kingdom, particularly in the area of education. But that was only one part of his legacy. His elevation to the House of Lords was not an ex officio appointment, but a token of the widespread esteem in which he was held as an individual, not only in the Jewish community, but in the larger society of which he was a part. A further demonstration of that esteem (which I stumbled into on YouTube) was the dinner honoring him on his retirement. The principal speaker was HRH the Prince of Wales, and there were video greetings from the Prime Minister, every living former Prime Minister, the present and former Archbishops of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster (the Roman Catholic Primate of England).
Through his public lectures — of which the Erasmus Lecture discussed above was only one example — through his work with the BBC and through his many published books, he encouraged people of faith, Jews and non-Jews alike, to bring their faith into the public square and use it, as the Prophet Jeremiah instructed, to contribute to the welfare of the larger society. I remember watching a YouTube clip of a dialogue he had with prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, and I was impressed by the ease with which he countered Dawkins, who is a biologist by training and could not come close to matching Lord Sacks’ knowledge of philosophy, history and related fields.
During the Erasmus Lecture that I attended, Lord Sacks at one point suggested that being a creative minority was somewhat easier in the US than in the more secularized societies of Europe (in which category he included Britain). Looking at developments in this country in the intervening seven years, I wonder if he felt the same way just before he died. I take some comfort, though, from one other point he made during that lecture, a point that has remained with me. After warning us not to confuse optimism with hope, he explained the difference:
Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work together, we can make things better
No mortal is indispensable, but some are irreplaceable, and Lord Sacks was clearly one of those. His insights are a challenge not only to Jews but to all people of faith who seek sources of hope in our increasingly secular world. May we all work together to ensure that the seeds he planted bear fruit so that the hope to which he clung will prevail. May his memory be a blessing to all who were touched by his wisdom, and may his family find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.