Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1991-2013) passed away from cancer in November 2020. Trained in philosophy at Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of London, Sacks was the leading philosophical and theological voice of Modern Orthodoxy for the past generation, certainly for the Jews of the Diaspora. Not only did he defend Orthodoxy in the modern world, but he showed the relevance and value of biblical and Judaic ideas for general and non-Jewish audiences globally. Receptive to contemporary philosophical ideas, he defended Jewish particularism upon the basis of multi-cultural theory and declared that as a result of the Holocaust the Jews had entered the post-modern condition. He asserted that the Holocaust demonstrated that history does not result in the moral progress of humanity.
Affirming that no one religious tradition could claim a monopoly on spiritual truth, he engaged in fruitful interreligious dialogue. While continuously affirming the authority of the Orthodox Halacha, he was able to cooperate with all denominations on matters that concerned the entire Jewish community. His essays on the weekly Torah portion showed the relevance of the parsha for fundamental issues such as human freedom, creativity, and love and human relationships and had global impact. The recipient of many awards and academic honors, he was appointed a Life Peer with a seat in the House of Lords in 2009.
Sacks’ life, thought, and career, illustrate the dual track development characteristic of contemporary Judaism. Sacks’ writing is more “Jewish” and traditional than that of his predecessors – he presents more ideas, rabbinical figures, midrashim, halachic texts etc. than previous chief rabbis. At the same time, Sacks engaged with and utilized contemporary thought including trends, such as post-modernism and multi-culturalism, that at least, initially, were considered more radical and challenging to Orthodoxy (and other mainstream Jewish trends, including Zionism).
Sacks was a good example of the English writer Matthew Arnold’s argument that the state establishment of religion is desirable so that a “bishop can become a statesman.” That is, by being a public and state figure and not solely a religious one, religious leaders have to broaden their horizons and bring broad social and moral considerations into their teaching and decision making. As Chief Rabbi, Sacks was a notable public figure (though not a state official), and he provided a truly broad perspective on religion, ethics, and society.