Last Shabbat one of the giants of our generation, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi, passed away. His erudition, wit, unrivalled eloquence, deep insights and humanity made him one of the major figures of Jewish life in our times.
My own relationship with him goes back more than 50 years, to when we were both Chaverim in Bnei Akivah, the religious Zionist youth movement. We subsequently met again when I went up as an undergraduate to Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. He, at that time was a scholar at the college, and president of the Cambridge University Jewish Society.
Cambridge is, and was, full of intelligent people but, even then, as an undergraduate, he was outstanding both for his wide ranging erudition and his deep understanding. Discussions with him were an eye opener whatever issues were raised he had been there before. He was a man too of rich culture, bringing insights from literature, art and particularly music into his conversation. Subsequently he brought them into his works, which have been so deservedly popular, both inside and outside the Jewish community.
Being immersed in Western culture was, in a sense his Achilles heel. The Charedi world is now led by figures many of whom have never seen the inside of a university or even a proper high school. Their total ignorance of the secular world is not seen, as it should be, as a handicap in their dealings with it but as a positive advantage.
Conversely Rabbi Sacks’ profound erudition was not seen as worthy of respect but simply another reason for their cavalier treatment of him. He responded by treating them with a deference and respect , which one only wishes they deserved.
In part this was the reaction of a peaceable and kindly man, who strove to live his life in accordance of the highest ethical principles of his faith. But there was deeper factor at work. People, like the late Chaim Bermant and myself, who urged him to be more aggressive with haredi leaders missed the point. He was the spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the mainstream Orthodox body in the UK. The last thing he wanted was to have a rift in the orthodox community, so that marriages and divorces taking place under the auspices of the US would not be recognised throughout the orthodox world. To avoid that scenario, and to protect so many of us, who went through life cycle events through the medium of the US, he endured considerable personal distress.
It is for these qualities of character and for his countless acts of kindness that he should be remembered as well for his huge gifts as a scholar and spiritual leader. My nephew in law an Israeli graduate studying medieval Jewish philosophy came to the UK as part of his research. My niece’s grandmother was an old school friend of Elaine’s mother. He did not mention this or his connection to me or his father in law but approached the Chief Rabbi, as he then was, for help, as a totally unknown Israeli graduate. The Chief Rabbi gave him several hours of his time, imparting unique insights on the way ,and only discovering the connections when they parted.
To put this in context, as Chief Rabbi he was hugely busy having a punishing schedule. When I was at the Board of Deputies I had regular meetings with him. These invariably took place at 8;45 AM. His meeting were book ended, so when I arrived he was seeing someone and when I left there were further guests ready to see him. Frequently these visitors were famous people both from inside and outside the community. His conscientiousness was amazing.
Last week purely by coincidence I mentioned, in a blog, his response to a cocksure Manchester United fan. His wit was legendary and, in private, his humour was as evident as it was in public. He had of course a hugely supportive family above all in his wife Elaine who virtually defines the yiddish term edelkeit- refinement.
When he was appointed I recall writing to him hoping that he would increase attachment to Judaism inside the community raise its prestige outside. He can truly claim to have delivered both these objectives in spades. May his memory be for a blessing.