RABBI Lord Jonathan Sacks died from cancer on Saturday at the age of 72. A great loss not only to the Jewish community but to the world, his legacy is his moral teachings.
Rabbi Lord Sacks exuded kindness and compassion. The thousands of people who were lucky enough to meet him, as I did, would have found it to be an unforgettable experience, even for just a few minutes. I am certain he would make them feel, as he did for me, that we were the only two human beings in the world. Such was his ability to make each person he spoke to feel special and important to him. A rare gift, especially for one so renowned.
Rabbi Lord Sacks was born in London in 1948. He studied at Cambridge University, where he obtained a first class degree in philosophy. Ordained as a Rabbi in 1976, he went on, in 1981, to gain his PhD in philosophy and theology at King’s College London. A decade later he was ordained as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, retiring in 2013. In 2009 he was appointed a Life Peer in the House of Lords, unaffiliated to any political party, and one of the few reasoned and intelligent voices in the Chamber.
A Chief Rabbi suitable for the 21st century, Lord Sacks made good use of technology to spread his enlightened and inspirational teachings. He wrote more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, and gave countless lectures on Judaism, philosophy, theology, psychology and ecology. He was the epitome of a polymath.
His teachings, whether in his books, on his website, in a synagogue or his numerous appearances on the BBC Today programme’s ‘Thought For The Day’, are accessible to all. Being Jewish is not a requirement to understanding his work.
In a piece written for the Chabad website, Lord Sacks offers an insight into why people don’t fear failure as much as they do success, and choose restriction over freedom. He uses an example from Deuteronomy to explain why so many find it preferable to retreat from life, cloistered away, learning from religious texts. Engaging in the real world far is harder, with the distractions, challenges and responsibilities that this brings. But true spiritual development comes from the latter. We create a just and moral nation by sharing divine light with each other and not by hiding away, fearful of change.
The writings of Rabbi Lord Sacks often centre on Torah portions, called ‘Parashat’, which are from the Five Books of Moses and divided into 54 sections for weekly learning. He had an outstanding ability to take these ancient teachings and give them a modern twist, making them accessible to anyone interested in morality, philosophy, justice and faith. Using the ‘Parashat Lech Lecha 5781’ he teaches the importance of having the courage not to conform, and to go against conventional wisdom, no matter how difficult the experience. The pressure the majority exerts on us to conform can lead to hiding our truths just to be accepted. The religious doctrine in this ‘Parashat’ is used to show how nation-states, power and influence can be corrupting.
Rabbi Lord Sacks modernised Judaic teachings without diminishing them, showing how this ancient wisdom can be applied to every aspect of our modern lives. His instruction to those in public office to take care on how they use taxpayers’ money, and his insistence on transparency and independent auditing, is acutely relevant to our government’s current practices of deceit and furtiveness.
Perception is everything in politics and public life. As Rabbi Lord Sacks so wisely states, those who have power over us must be seen to be moral and honest. Otherwise they demoralise us all and justice soon falters. When the social contract is ripped apart, and trust is broken, society descends from freedom into anarchy and tyranny.
Despite writing prolifically on political and social philosophy, he rose above contemporary politics and stuck to his principles. This great sage was a visionary whose teachings are eternally applicable, both personally and globally. He used his phenomenal knowledge of Judaism to enlighten us all on the importance of justice and truth.
Even though Rabbi Lord Sacks is no longer with us, his spiritual light, wisdom and intellect will for ever be part of our world.
Photo courtesy of Niall Cooper