Sacks the Bridge Builder
Dr. Scott Lasensky
As the Jewish world mourns the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former U.K. Chief Rabbi, my thoughts have lingered on his extraordinary legacy of bridge-building.
I cannot claim familiarity with his most cited teachings on Jewish texts, and I do not count myself among his legions of students. Those are precious legacies, no doubt. But for me, I observed Rabbi Sacks from afar and as someone deeply concerned about World Jewry’s place in the world. What I admired most was his unmatched, even uncanny ability to reach across religious, denominational and Diaspora divides.
For me, Rabbi Sacks greatest teaching was the commitment he demonstrated to building bridges across communities.
He devoted enormous time to dialogue and engagement with other faith communities, including Christians and Muslims. Was he driven by a uniquely British context, where the Jewish community there is a small minority, even smaller and less concentrated than Jews here in North America? Yes, there is no doubt this was a factor, but this local context does not minimize the importance of his interfaith efforts for Jews everywhere. Rabbi Sacks did not obsess over civilizational strife, instead he poured his heart and soul into creating cross-civilizational understanding.
Second, Rabbi Sacks sought to build bridges between Jewish communities, between the “streams” and movements that all too often split Jewry in tribes and virtual ghettos. Although formally the leader of a mainline Orthodox denomination, he engaged a variety of Jewish communities and sought out the confidence and respect of all Jews, religious or secular.. Fueled by his faith in Jewish unity and solidarity, Rabbi Sacks also had a realistic understanding that internal divides—if left untended—could prove disastrous to the Jewish people.
Third, Rabbi Sacks built bridges between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. He had a deep appreciation for the two “mountaintops” World Jewry had reached by the late 20th century, the twin achievements of “independence and sovereignty” in Israel and “freedom and equality” in the Diaspora. He always encouraged his students and his audiences not to be satisfied with these achievements, as extraordinary as they are, for there remains much work to be done to steward relations between the various centers of Jewish life and to ensure we do not take these modern-day achievements for granted.
The last time I saw Rabbi Sacks speak, at the December 2018 “Zionism 3.0” conference in California, he left the audience of 1,500 Israelis and American Jews in awe and deeply inspired to surmount the tensions and challenges that do often characterize Israel-Diaspora ties (see 42:00-47:00, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atuCSx1tnzQ)
Beyond his bridge-building, I also admired Rabbi Sacks because he was grounded in history and in the teachings of Jewish texts, yet he was constantly looking toward the future.
What’s also remarkable is how Rabbi Sacks found ways to elevate far above his formal, denominational role as the head of United Synagogue, the U.K. Orthodox movement. He was viewed within and outside Jewish circles as representing something more, as a global Jewish figure. In Sacks’ case, his legitimacy and his high standing, unlike the Pope, has to be earned. It was granted voluntarily by his legions of admirers.
Reaching across communal and social divides, unlike building an actual bridge, is by its nature an on-going project, and in Sacks’ case his work remains incomplete. Even within British Jewry, there remain stark divides based on theology, politics and religious practice—as there are across the Jewish world—and it will be up to those inspired by Rabbi Sacks to carry on the task of promoting a future whereby World Jewry is at peace with itself and with the world around us.
Rabbi Sacks will be sorely missed, though his legacy no doubt will endure for generations.
Dr. Scott Lasensky teaches courses on Israel and American Jewish politics at the University of Maryland, as part of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies and the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. A former American diplomat in Israel, he is author most recently of “Fate, Peoplehood and Alliances,” a short history of American Jewry’s contributions to Israel (Shahar Eilam and Assaf Orion editors, INSS, 2019).
The enduring lessons of Rabbi Sacks
By Maya Greenbaum
When I turned on my phone after the conclusion of Shabbat on Saturday, Nov. 7, I was struck by the very sad news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks was a Torah giant and a moral guide, who inspired both Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and groups from all walks of life, and he is considered to have been a tremendous leader in Modern Orthodoxy. Since the recent announcement of his cancer diagnosis, many have prayed and learned Torah in dedication towards his recovery. His passing has left many within the Jewish community shaken and saddened. However, Rabbi Sacks has left behind a lasting legacy through his character, written works and recorded speeches that can continue to serve as a guide to our communities for generations to come. I want to share a couple of lessons of his that I learned in the recent past that really resonated with me and that I think are especially important and relevant.
In one of his lectures from 2016 on the topic of the holiday of Sukkot, Rabbi Sacks uncovered brilliant connections between several Jewish texts to teach an idea about connecting to God and spirituality through simplicity, and as a remedy to the anxieties of life. He expressed to the audience that life can feel very insecure and transient at times, and that the way that we, as mere human beings, can resolve these overwhelming moments is to rejoice in what we do have. He also conveyed the idea that although we are living without the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple), which was a magnificent and grand complex that served as the center of the Jewish religion, we can still connect to God in profound ways, using only the most basic of things, such as the insecure and temporary structure of the sukkah.
Rabbi Sacks delivered this speech in 2016, but these are great lessons to internalize, especially in 2020, when, for many, life feels exceptionally more unstable and unpredictable than in previous years. We do not know what any given week has in store for us, and we have regularly been limited in our religious routines, with many praying alone even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rabbi Sacks has left us with an incredibly relevant message that particularly during challenging times, and even with simple, instead of grandiose, gestures, connection to God is attainable.
While speaking at a debate on education within the House of Lords in the United Kingdom in 2017, Rabbi Sacks again inspired others by eloquently expressing the importance of education for the future of society. He notes that it is of course important to advance intellectually through the schooling system; however, he points out that it is crucial that schools not only teach facts and academic subjects, but that they also must prioritize the instilling of values and ethics. He articulated this idea by saying, “Schools are about more than what we know and what we can do. They are about who we are and what we must do to help others become what they might be.”
I believe this speech should compel us to evaluate what our communities and societies value, and appreciate that our values are what will be passed on through generations. As college students, we frequently focus on succeeding academically and improving the appearance of our resumes, but Rabbi Sacks reminds us of the importance of developing our morals and bettering our characters.
Kedma, the Orthodox student group at Maryland Hillel, is having a three-part Torah learning series with our previous OU-JLIC Rabbi, Rav Yonaton Hirschhorn, on each of the last three Mondays in November. I am currently serving as the Education Chair for Kedma, so when deciding with Rav Yonaton on a topic for the series, I felt that we had an opportunity to honor the life of Rabbi Sacks by learning his teachings. Rav Yonaton suggested that we learn through part of Rabbi Sacks’ book, The Great Partnership, which deals with the partnership between science and God. This will be an opportunity for students to learn just some of the inspiring and wise ideas from Rabbi Sacks.
By listening to, reading, and learning Rabbi Sacks’ extensive collection of works, it is clear that his depth of knowledge, understanding and sensitivity to the words of the Written and Oral Torah, as well as to the societal realities in the world around him, made him a leader in the Jewish world who was uniquely able to expound impressive and meaningful lessons that can be practiced in our own lives and that will be passed down from generation to generation.