By Rivky Terebelo, Layout Editor
On November 7, 2020, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away at the age of 72. Rabbi Sacks was born March 8, 1948 in Lambeth, London. Growing up, he went to Christian schools due to the limited amount of institutions for Jewish education in his area. By law, there needed to be a religious act of worship every day, and because of its significant percentage of Jewish students, his school let the Jews run their own services. Rabbi Sacks would go on to become a man of many titles, among them philosopher, theologian, world renown author and politician.
He attended university at Cambridge University, where he received a first-class honors degree in philosophy. During his time at Cambridge, he took a trip to New York and met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe), who encouraged him to receive smicha (rabbinical ordination) and become a rabbi. After a few more years of schooling and completing his Ph.D., he eventually got smicha from London School of Jewish Studies and London’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva.
He later became the rabbi of a shul (synagogue) in Golders Green, London in 1978 and thereafter held many other rabbinic positions. In 1991, he became the chief rabbi of Britain, representing the largest group of Orthodox Jews in the world.
In 2005, Queen Elizabeth anointed Rabbi Sacks with the title of “Knight Commander of the British Empire.” This designation acknowledged Rabbi Sacks’ contributions to the Jewish community and his interfaith work, and was a huge honor.
In 2013, Rabbi Sacks was appointed for professorship at Yeshiva University and NYU. “I am excited at the opportunity to teach at Yeshiva University, one of the world’s great institutions of higher Jewish learning and at NYU, a university of global reach and distinction,” said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at the time of his professorship according to a YU News blog post. “This dual intellectual challenge is the perfect context to take forward the project of a Judaism engaged with the world in conversation with students in one of the major centres of Jewish life.”
Rabbi Sacks wrote over 30 books and hundreds of articles on morality, philosophy, faith and religion. Many of his works have received the American National Jewish Book Award. He was a praised scholar, whose depth demonstrated his comprehension of the Torah’s ideas and a unique understanding of human beings — a delicate balance he maintained throughout his career.
Rabbi Sacks was diagnosed with cancer about three weeks before his passing and had taken a step back from his work in order to focus on treatment. Rabbi Sacks had twice been previously treated for cancer twice; he very rarely talked about his battles with cancer and, when asked why, he gave the following explanation in an interview:
“It’s very simple. I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations. This was not cancer, it was hip replacements and those things. And when you have operations in your 80s, they sap your strength. He got weaker and weaker as the decade passed. He was walking on crutches at my induction — he was alive for my induction, and that was very important to me.
“Now, my late father, alav ha-shalom [peace upon him], didn’t have much [of a] Jewish education, but he had enormous emunah…. I used to watch him [while] saying Tehillim [Psalms] in the hospital, and I could see him getting stronger. It seemed to me that his mental attitude was, ‘I’m leaving this to Hashem. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’
“And I adopted exactly that attitude. So on both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if [H]e wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then [H]e is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in [H]im. So there was no test of faith at any point — just these simple moments at which to say, ‘b’yado afkid ruchi’ [‘in his hand, I place my soul’]. That was my thought. And since we say that every day in Adon Olam, I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.
“I had faith, full stop.”
This statement shows the profound wisdom with which Rabbi Sacks lived his life. He reached beyond the Jewish community and touched everyone who met him. His works continue to impact the world and he will forever be remembered. We lost a Torah giant.
He leaves behind his wife and three kids, along with many thousands of students who have learned and gained from his great life.
May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Baruch Dayan Ha’emes (Blessed is the True Judge).