It would be an understatement to say that the entire Jewish people have lost one their guiding lights.
As the headlines remain preoccupied with the transfer of presidential power, Jews privately mourn Rabbi Sacks, a brilliant thinker, leader, and theologian, who perhaps more than any other in this generation made the Torah accessible to English-speaking Jewry.
It is cruel irony that just as this fateful election is being decided, we need the rabbi most. We surely would have looked to him in this moment for an answer.
Through his piercing insights, seemingly unlimited knowledge, his deep unwavering faith in our people and grace, he would confidently tell us what it means, contextualize it and then send us off again with newfound optimism.
To understand the gravity of this loss, one must understand the impact of Rabbi Sacks writ large.
He was the voice for a generation of university-educated Jews, thirsty for identity but uncompromisingly intellectual and skeptical.
He showed us that one not need resign oneself to being a Jew in the home and an intellectual on the street, to paraphrase Mendelssohn. One could be an intellectual in the home and a Jew on the street as well.
With grace, wit and wisdom, he unlocked difficult Torah concepts in a way that was easy and accessible to people with all levels of Torah knowledge. He was at once the Thinking Man’s rabbi, the Kollel Man’s rabbi and the Just-Getting-Started Man’s rabbi. His ideas quoted at a multitude of Shabbat tables, from London to Melbourne to Jerusalem.
His writings spoke to those beyond the Jewish world and they resonated in a way unheard since perhaps Philo, 2,000 years prior. Yes, Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular, Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox can live side-by-side — and in mutual tolerance they will thrive.
Rabbi Sacks defended the integrity of the Torah from the dual onslaughts of both the Scientific Method and Liberalism / Universalism. He was one of the few in the Orthodox world who stood up to this task, and one of even fewer that succeeded.
His genius lay in his ability to synthesize both Torah and Science, and Jewish particularism with Liberal Humanism without diminishing either ideology. And he did it in a way that was poetic and profound and without launching into a direct counterattack or ‘strawman-ifying’ the opposing side.
Through his encyclopedic knowledge, he successfully harmonized these concepts to show that they are not mutually exclusive.
Science and Torah are not a zero-sum game – they are in fact partners; the particularism of the Jewish tribe and Jewish ideal can coexist and thrive within the broader message of universalism.
But perhaps more than anything, Rabbi Sacks reminded us what it means to be Jewish again.
Amid the backdrop of today’s overriding narratives of what Judaism is, he recaptured the essence of our faith and distilled it in a way that made us proud to be Jews.
No, we are not commanded to stay Jewish ‘in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory’, to quote Emil Fackenheim. The Jew does not exist simply as a bulwark to anti-Semitism, to paraphrase Sartre. Neither are we simply a ‘Nation just like any Nation’, according to the underlying ethos of Zionism.
We are not outdated, quaint or archaic. In this age of rapid technologic advancement, crumbling social discourse, Progressivism and Identity Politics, we are not irrelevant. We have a story and we have a mission in the world. That story and mission have been misunderstood, not least of all by us.
Rabbi Sacks, with eloquence, told us our story and reminded us of who we are and what our mission is. Li’hiot Or La’Goyim, to be a light unto the nations.
I will miss the warmth of his writings, that seemingly jump off the page and coddle me in an affectionate embrace. I will miss eagerly reading his latest Dvar Torah on the Parshah, which I could then subsequently share with my family. But most of all, I will miss the great treasure that the Jewish people have lost with his passing.
I grieve not only at his loss, but also for all his future works that will forever remain uncompleted and unwritten.
May his family find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
יהי זכרו ברוך