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When scholars die

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was first and foremost a servant leader. With his death, the world lost a prophetic and courageous voice— and I lost my rabbi
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)

Sometimes the week after shiva is the hardest.

It’s when we begin to think of how to inch slowly beyond grief but find that it seems increasingly difficult.

I did not sit shiva for Rabbi Sacks. I was only his student. But this past week, he has occupied a lot of my conscious and subconscious thought. His death took me back in time to the years I spent in England, during Rabbi Sacks’s meteoric rise to leadership, and all that I learned from him directly and indirectly.

When I learned that he died, I wept. That Saturday night was filled with a roller coaster of emotion: American election results twinned with this global loss. I needed the majestic insight of Rabbi Sacks to figure out the spiritual implications of an American house divided, of a nation filled with gratuitous hate, and a society riven with illness and isolation. And suddenly, at 72, he was gone.

For the Jewish community worldwide, Jonathan Sacks was the closest we got to royalty, a spiritual aristocrat with a regal bearing who inspired with his repeated calls for hope. He stepped down as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in 2013, at which time he became informally the chief rabbi to English-speaking Jewish communities across the globe. People turn to his books, his weekly essays on the Torah portion, and his speeches to experience intellectual transcendence, to feel intimacy with an age-old tradition, to understand a difficult moment within a broad philosophical and historical sweep.

Lord Sacks, as a member of the House of Lords, also brought dignity to faith more generally. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, described Lord Sacks as a friend and “an eloquent proponent of some of the greatest truths of humanity.” In his greetings to Pope Benedict in 2010 at an interfaith gathering, Lord Sacks said, “In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about the things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism, we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships.”

I met Lord Sacks when he was “just” Rabbi Sacks. I taught at a program in the unfortunately named Jews’ College, where Sacks served as principal from 1984-1990 (currently and blessedly the London School of Jewish Studies) and became his masters student in 1989. He was a mesmerizing teacher: demanding, gallant and charismatic. With a front seat during those early and influential years, I observed how he addressed the public with warmth and depth, and then turned inward, churning private input into public output on major world trends.

Once, on the way back from a weekend study retreat, I was stuck for many hours on a crowded English motorway with him and his brother Eliot. The cerebral banter was daunting. My brain was about to explode as I waited for the small car, filled with ideas, to rise and levitate above the traffic. Yet sometimes, when teaching at his synagogue, I saw another side of Rabbi Sacks that perhaps few others saw. I watched him hold the hand of an elderly congregant, rouse the congregation to song at a Shabbat lunch, and listen intently as a high school student posed a question. Already then, I knew I was in the presence of a gentle giant.

On the 16th of July, 1990, he dropped me a note to congratulate me on my thesis. He was a tough reader but commented that “it read much better the second time around,” a thoughtful way to tell me that the first draft was terrible. “I do hope you will go on to write a doctorate” — his urging and belief in me helped launch my academic career. He signed it, “Jonathan,” as if we were the closest of friends.

In those days, he had a large shed in the back garden of his Golders Green home. It was where he would disappear to write. His desk was piled high with books old and new. He described his writing process to me once as entering a trance, which he usually did during the summer months. A friend described Rabbi Sacks’s muse: “an angel sits on his shoulder when he writes.” I learned from him that good teaching and good writing requires quiet focus. It demands broad reading and total immersion. He taught me the importance of reading constantly, comprehensively, and intensely.

Rabbi Sacks’s range and productivity was immense. I was at the college on the morning when the registrar shlepped boxes of Rabbi Sacks’s first book into the office, the first in over 30 books that showcased his capacity to distill complex concepts into every day wisdom. His last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, was published only weeks before his death. A cursory look in the index has Martin Buber’s book, I-Thou, followed by entries for J.P. Morgan, Mick Jagger, and Thomas Jefferson. Morality will be the only one of his books in my library that remains unsigned.

In the Talmud, there is a lengthy passage that details the losses society suffered upon the death of certain sages: “When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, diligent students disappeared…When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness ceased from the world…When Rabbi Akiba died, the glory of the Torah ceased…” (BT Sotah 9:15). Talmudic literature abounds in guzma — exaggeration — but the sentiment is understandable. When a sage dies, some part of the world dies.

I always found the title “Lord” Sacks unsettling. For all of his awards and honorifics, Rabbi Sacks was first and foremost a servant leader, fueled by an expansive and driving sense of purpose to imbue the ordinary with the divine. His lack of cynicism was refreshing. He had genuine spiritual ambition and filled a vacuum of leadership with his brilliance. With his death, the world lost a prophetic and courageous voice — and I lost my rabbi.

How I wish I had properly thanked him for the high bar he set, for all that he gave the world, for what I learned from his example. The last time I saw him, I asked him when he was going to stop working and take a much-deserved rest. He looked me in the eye and said, “God hasn’t finished with me yet.” Sacred work will always be Rabbi Sack’s unfinished legacy. As he wrote, “We achieve greatness by handing our values onto the next generation and empowering them to go and build the future.” The task is now ours.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality. Her newest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren). She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA, and tweeted on one page of Talmud study a day at DrEricaBrown.
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