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Friday, November 27, 2020

Feeling the Loss of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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When my husband Jeff and I learned that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had passed away on November 6, we could not help but cry. Neither of us had ever met the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, whose towering achievements as a Torah scholar, speaker, and writer made him among the most influential and respected Jewish thinkers of his time. Nonetheless, he was a favorite guest at our Shabbat table every week. Nearly a dozen of his books grace our bookshelves, coffee tables, and nightstands. Each has been read at least once; many have been reread several times.

Jeff is a voracious reader of Rabbi Sacks’ “Covenant & Conversation” series, collections of commentaries on the weekly parsha; he brings the appropriate volume to our Shabbat table to share an insight from one of the essays. With content so rich and written with such brilliant clarity, rereading the same essays year after year only deepens our appreciation and understanding of the Torah’s depth and Rabbi Sacks’ insights.

We have both been changed by Rabbi Sacks’ teachings. Today, there are many outstanding Torah scholars, but Rabbi Sacks stood alone in his combination of erudition and vast knowledge of Torah, history, social sciences, literature, and philosophy. He had been enrolled in a philosophy Ph.D. program, in fact, when a transformative meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe redirected his career toward the rabbinate. Open almost any of Sacks’ books, and you will see as many references to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Piaget, Sartre, Rousseau, and Homer as you will to Rashi, Rambam, and Talmudic citations.

None of this was intellectual showmanship. It was a way of underscoring Torah truths by taking the best of what secular knowledge had to offer and, when appropriate, showing the falseness of many popular theories, including Freudian notions about relationships. His genius at taking sophisticated concepts and translating them with clarity and elegance made him an ambassador of Torah values and ethics to a broad audience, including Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and secular, common man or woman, as well as members of the British Royal Family.

I believe Rabbi Sacks’ influence is so vast because he emphasizes the heart and soul that is foundational to Jewish law. In his book “To Heal a Fractured World,” he writes, “Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort.” These are deeds that emulate God and represent “religion at its most humanizing and humane.”

I believe Rabbi Sacks’ influence is so vast because he emphasizes the heart and soul that is foundational to Jewish law.

As Jeff and I slowly absorbed the shocking news of Rabbi Sacks’ passing, I received a text from a client of mine, Dr. Mark L. Brenner, who is an L.A. based marriage and family counselor and the author of several books. Brenner also felt the pang of loss, having first encountered Rabbi Sacks’ writings many years earlier while working with some individuals in a Chabad community. His favorite among Rabbi Sacks’ books is “Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays.”

“Rabbi Sacks was a man who loved God as much as he loved Man,” Dr. Brenner wrote to me. “He was a true originalist in this thinking and writing. His brilliant commentary in 2016 on Leonard Cohen’s final album song, ‘You Want it Darker,’ about a week after Cohen’s death, will forever live in my heart as how to live with truth and pain.”

Just this past September, Rabbi Sacks published a new book, “Morality,” in which he further develops a recurrent theme — the devastating impact in society from the focus on “we” to the focus on “I.” Our self-absorption erodes the common good in many ways, including our retreat into political echo chambers. This furthers the divide among us while hardening our positions. It leads to dangerous extremism on both sides. Judaism’s mandate to embrace individual andcommunal responsibility helps to shift the balance toward more “we” than “I.” Rabbi Sacks points to studies showing that the more we focus on “I” and less on “we,” the unhappier and more anxious we become — something God taught us thousands of years ago.

Rabbi Sacks frequently refers to the concept of tzimtzum — of making space, an idea that I have found useful in many contexts. God “made room” for human beings when He created the world, and, Sacks teaches, we need to emulate God by making space for others—again, more “we” than “I.”

At his London funeral, attended by only thirty people due to COVID-19 restrictions , his youngest daughter, Gila Sacks, spoke of two gifts her father gave to her and her siblings. The first was his belief that there is no problem too big for people to try to solve, a teaching that was underscored in an essay he wrote on the parsha of Vayeira, (this past Shabbat’s reading), where Abraham asks God to save Sodom if ten righteous people are found in that city. “My father believed that problems are here to be challenged and to be challenged by,” she said.

Second, Ms. Sacks observed that Abraham, whose name means “father of nations,” broke the mold in the ancient world, no longer following his own father’s path and allowing his children to become who they were meant to be. “That is what he gave us overwhelmingly … he never lost any opportunity to tell us how proud he was of us, of what we achieved and of who we were … Because he loved us, we could become the people we are, and no child could wish for more.”

Jeff and I sat quietly that evening talking about Rabbi Sacks, but the loss somehow felt so personal that we soon felt emotionally wrung out. Jeff said, “In today’s world, when you ‘friend’ someone, it’s a verb. Rabbi Sacks was also a friend, an intellectual companion who helped me make sense of the world. So many values we had learned as kids have been turned on their heads through a Torah lens. Reading him every week felt like coming home. Talking about his teachings made it feel like he was right there in our living room or dining table. The finality is very hard to accept. He was my spiritual partner on my spiritual path.”

I write about Rabbi Sacks in the present tense because great Torah scholars remain with us forever, their words feeding spiritual and intellectual sustenance to subsequent generations. The door to Rabbi Sacks’ physical life has closed, but the door to open his treasure trove of teachings will always remain wide open.

This ten-minute commencement speech by Rabbi Sacks, titled The Jewish Algorithm, is a popular and succinct introduction to his thinking. You can watch it here: 


Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.” 

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