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The audacity and humility of my mentor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

His generous guidance of 30 years taught me how to summon my hopes over my fears, my strengths over my weaknesses
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in London, March 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in London, March 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

If you see it, you can be it.

It’s a slogan from the world of mentoring and it encapsulates a fundamental truth: we base our highest aspirations as parents, spouses and professionals on the living models we have seen. Rare is the person who can dream of becoming something that never existed. Rarer, still, is the person who turns such a dream into reality. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was this rarest of individuals.

Consider this: the greatest thinkers of Jewish tradition – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, even Maimonides himself – wrote exclusively for Jewish audiences. No figure has ever transmitted the wisdom of Jewish tradition to the world at large with such success. Indeed, no figure has ever even tried. In a conscious pivot with long term strategic thinking and planning, Rabbi Sacks envisioned a destiny for which there was no model – Jewish or otherwise.

In fact, to find a precursor of leaders who sought to communicate God’s teachings to the world at large, we must go all the way back to the prophets of Israel. And even here we find no parallel to the giant who has just left us. Jeremiah and Ezekiel addressed the nations of the world. But those nations never heeded their words the way the world embraced the teachings of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As one British clergyman observed, Rabbi Sacks was The Times of London’s favorite “Anglican Bishop” because he imparted the messages that most Britians would have liked to have heard from their Anglican bishops, but didn’t. Prince Charles called Rabbi Sacks, “a light unto this nation.”

Outside of the Jewish orbit there was but a single individual in modern times who successfully conveyed the mantle of traditional belief in the wider market of ideals to a broad audience, and that is the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr. But Niebuhr had it easy. He preached a Protestant theology to a largely Protestant country. Rabbi Sacks conveyed the wisdom of Judaism to people of Christian faith and of no faith at all.

His accomplishment is all the more remarkable – and stands as a teaching moment for the rest of us – when we consider the enormous challenges he faced. At Rabbi Sacks’s graveside, a prominent rabbi recalled that at Cambridge he was a stiff and stodgy speaker. In an interview with Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi Sacks revealed that the first shuls to which he applied rejected him, and that he experienced writer’s block for twenty years, until he finally put out his first book at the age of 40.

He told the former Israeli ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub that although “I have a passion for ideas, I’m just not a people person. It’s easier for me to speak to a thousand people than to three.” He could not address an Israeli audience in his stilted Hebrew. The calling card for a rabbinic authority is his mastery of the halachah. When he ascended to the chief rabbinate, many averred that although he was acceptably keen at halachic analysis, he was hardly the equal of his illustrious predecessor, Baron Immanuel Jakobovits, of blessed memory.

But above all, what could well have tempered Rabbi Sacks’s dreams was the very position he held – the chief rabbinate itself. As a prominent business consultant observed to me, institutional leaders generally are not good at taking risk. They are not chosen for that, and they are very much incentivized against it. Even really good institutional leaders will often describe their role as a stewardship, in which they make marginal change and mostly conserve. This is all the more true when you are the public face of British Jewry. Your seat is a trust that must be guarded at all cost and remain above the fray. To speak to the issues of the day on a regular basis inevitably means wading into the public debate and contention. An Orthodox spokesman who so regularly appears on a public pulpit risks tripping through a minefield of combustible topics: Israel, gender, sexual identity, liberal Judaism. And then, were this not all enough to deter one from embracing risk and aspiring to the unknown, we are speaking here of a man who had two midlife bouts with cancer.

My soul thirsts for God

How did he do it?

Most of us suffer from what psychologists call a negativity bias. Criticisms have a greater impact on us than do compliments. Our default thinking, especially when facing the unknown, is to focus on what we’re bad at, our weaknesses, where we’re likely to fail, and what threats we face. Our self-doubt blinds us to reality. We beat ourselves up before we even get out of the gate by talking ourselves out of things that could have turned out well.

Rabbi Sacks once said that the key to his perseverance was “marrying someone who believes in you and you just keep going.” That keep going, allowed a dynamic to ensue. Confidence is linked to doing, which offers proof of success that can shut down our self-doubt.

But above all, as I saw it, Rabbi Sacks’s audacity was rooted in his utter passion for the Almighty. Like the patriarch Abraham, he had come to God on his own. He once told an interviewer that he could envision his epitaph to read, tsamah nafshi le-Hashem, “my soul thirsts for God.” Every meeting I had with him left me struck and infected by the ecstasy and fervor with which he sought to serve the Almighty. I am reminded of a passage in Jeremiah 20 where the prophet rues the challenges he faces in conveying God’s word. Jeremiah considers the taunting he will suffer, and says “I thought to myself, I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name.” But in the very next verse, he concludes that no matter the risks, disseminating the word of God is at the very core of his being: “But His word was like a raging fire in my heart, shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah looks round himself and hears his detractors anew, but stands forth unafraid: “But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior.”

For Rabbi Sacks, failure was indeed an option. Failing to try was not. As he once wrote, “to feel fear is fine. To give way to it, is not. For God has faith in us even if, at times, even the best lack faith in themselves.” And so with uncommon audacity he could stand down the setbacks and self-doubt. Do a search of his archived online writings, and search the name “Churchill.” It’s not a wonder that you come up with more than fifty results.

Several years ago I embarked on a project to write the first full-length book seeking to address the intractable issues raised for Orthodoxy by biblical criticism. I was overwhelmed by the awareness that great scholars and even greater Torah sages had never dared to address this issue head on and in the open. And even if I did write this book, would I be branded a heretic? A fundamentalist? Perhaps both? Many encouraged me to push forth, Rabbi Sacks included. But far more important to me than the words he wrote me, was the very composition of his courageous life. From his actions I found a permit – in halachic terms a hetter – to strive to accomplish something never done before. If you see it, you can be it.

‘Let me tell you how you deal with this’

Three years ago I endured a particularly dark period. I penned an essay online calling out a range of biases and agendas that taint the academic study of Bible. I knew that I would have detractors, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught that ensued. On Facebook I saw colleagues engage in a verbal, mocking roast, with me in the starring role of the pig. Another colleague penned a counter-essay ascribing to me opinions I’ve never stated and motivations I’ve never harbored. Although I had the sympathy of many, I had the empathy of none. I knew of no one who had endured this type of public scrutiny – except for Rabbi Sacks.

“Ah, you’ve drawn fire,” he said with glee. “That’s wonderful – it’ll make you stronger!” Never has a child savored his peas from the simple promise they would make him stronger. But Rabbi Sacks’s words were no mere bromide. “Let me tell you how you deal with this. You go through four stages.” I was amazed. It was as if he had a guide to public scorn on the ready even before we spoke. “First, you have to know that every time this happens, it will hurt.” That rang true and I appreciated his humanity. “Second, you’re going to see that they’re just words. You’re going to get up and move on and you’ll see that these words have no long term impact, and that in turn will make you stronger.”

“Third, you have to internalize that this is not about you. It’s about what you stand for. And once you realize that you’re fighting for this because it’s right no matter who you are, it allows you to get some distance, and the distance, too, makes you stronger, because the critiques are not really about you personally.

“Fourth, you’re going to see that while you’ve made some enemies, many more others are going to be so grateful to you for speaking up, for being the voice they never had. And once you see you’ve made an impact then you become invulnerable. And then buoyed by the impact you’re making and the strength you derive from it, you will suddenly be able to look at your detractors in a different light. They will no longer seem threatening to you, and you will look at them charitably and magnanimously.”

And to my amazement he was right. I was shocked that the criticism had no long term effect and that surely I had taken the harsh words to heart more deeply than had anyone else. Knowing that I was fighting not for myself, but for what I deemed was right, indeed provided distance. The strength and satisfaction of speaking on behalf of others who felt disenfranchised was as buoying as the liftoff of an airplane, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and I could see that my detractors’ barbs were partly a reflection of their insecurity in their own positions. Now, as for looking charitably and magnanimously toward them… alas, let’s just say that I’m a work in progress.

***

I was studying for ordination at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the late 1980s when the Brits in yeshiva introduced me to Rabbi Sacks’s work. Electrified, I wanted to meet this man, whose voice I had never heard, and whose video image I had never seen. It took a letter and a postage stamp to set up the meeting with the man recently chosen to become the new chief rabbi. I realize now in reflection that I may have been the first Connecticut Yankee in Lord Sacks’s court. What stands out to me about our many meetings over many years was that his wife Elaine sat in on most of them. I never once heard her voice. I understood from this that she was an integral part of how he processed things – not only the big, but apparently also the small – and felt so lifted and embraced by their joint presence. Each of those meetings left me draped with a feeling I have carried my entire career, of the dignity I have felt as a foot soldier in this great man’s army.

About the Author
Joshua Berman is a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and is the author most recently of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).
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