Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Prolific Author and Sage, Dies at 72

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom whose extensive writings and frequent media appearances commanded a global following among Jews and non-Jews alike, has died.

Sir Jonathan Sacks
Sir Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Sacks died Nov. 7 at age 72. He was in the midst of a third bout of cancer, which he had announced in October.

He was among the world’s leading exponents of Orthodox Judaism. In his 22 years as chief rabbi, he emerged as the most visible Jewish leader in the United Kingdom and one of the European continent’s most authoritative Jewish voices, offering Jewish wisdom through a regular segment he produced for the BBC.

He had a close relationship with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called Rabbi Sacks “an intellectual giant” and presented him with a lifetime achievement award in 2018.

In a statement, Prince Charles noted Rabbi Sacks’ death “with profound personal sorrow. With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal.”

The author two dozen books, he addressed pressing social and political issues in a succession of well received books. His popular commentary on the prayer book helped to dethrone the more traditionalist Artscroll Siddur as the preeminent prayer book in many North American Modern Orthodox synagogues.

He spoke out frequently on Israel and antisemitism, especially when it came to Britain’s Labour Party under its previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, who Rabbi Sacks termed an antisemite.

That judgment paved the way for the current British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, to harshly condemn the Labour Party, a precedent-setting event in British Jewish life.

Corbyn was replaced in April by Keir Starmer, who apologized for how antisemitism was allowed to flourish in Labour’s ranks under Corbyn.

Born in London in 1948, Rabbi Sacks studied at Cambridge University. While a student there in the 1960s, he visited Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, then spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubatvitch movement.

Rabbi Sacks credited that meeting with inspiring him to get involved with Jewish studies.

He became rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue in London’s most Orthodox neighborhood in the late 1970s and then rabbi of the Marble Arch synagogue in central London.

Despite his association with it, Rabbi Sacks didn’t use the term “Modern Orthodox.”

In a 2011 address to a capacity crowd at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto, Rabbi Sacks said he was critical of “many of the values of modernity.”

Among the values he took issue with is individualism, which he said had ruined the institution of marriage.

Britain, he noted, had the largest percentage of teen pregnancies and single-parent families in the world, at 46 percent.

He recalled that at a conference on climate change, he spoke about weekly Shabbat observance – including abstention from driving cars and riding in airplanes – as a solution to the world’s energy crisis.

He recognized what he called “the dignity of difference” among religions and cultures. “We each have something unique to contribute.”

As well, he recalled encouraging university students who were experiencing antisemitism to “do the unexpected thing” and lead the fight against Islamophobia on campus.

The result was the Coexistence Trust, formed in 2005 to fight Islamophobia and antisemitism.

“We need friends and allies,” he said.

Rabbi Sacks saw Judaism and Israel as “voices of hope” – Judaism for its ability to outlast civilizations that once seemed invulnerable, and Israel, with its accomplishments in arts, science and humanities, for setting an example for small, young nations.

He urged audience members to “wear [their] Judaism with pride… it will be good for us and it will be good for the world.”

Rabbi Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine, three children and several grandchildren.

– With files from JTA and The CJN.