Chief Rabbi Sacks: An Assessment

Chief Rabbi Sacks: An Assessment

In a stunning video shown at his recent official retirement dinner, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks received high praise from four British prime ministers, three archbishops of Canterbury, and one Roman Catholic archbishop.  (You can see it at

Rabbi Sacks is due to step down just before Rosh HaShanah, to be succeeded by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a South African native who served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland. 

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked, “How do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know … the greatest philosopher you know … the greatest writer you know… and one of the greatest thinkers in the world?” John Major talked of the “innumerable hours” he had spent reading his books. The speech by guest of honor Prince Charles (also available online) was an equally remarkable tribute.

No other figure in Britain, Jewish or non-Jewish, could command such praise.

Jonathan Sacks became chief rabbi 22 years ago, at the age of 43.  Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in London, he was termed the “outstanding philosophy student of the decade” at Cambridge University, where he also met his wife, Elaine — his elegant and charming life companion, and mother of their three children. It was as a student at Cambridge — at the time of the Six-Day War — that Jonathan Sacks embarked on his lifelong philosophical and spiritual Jewish journey. He began with a Greyhound bus tour of the U.S., seeking out the “great” Jewish thinkers of the time. It was the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who made the strongest impression on the young philosopher, charging him with a personal mandate of responsibility that was to shape his career. 

When Chief Rabbi (then Sir) Immanuel Jakobovits retired, there was a fierce debate within the community. Rabbi Jakobovits had developed a respected public persona, although not to the commanding heights of his successor. Did the community want an inward-looking or outward-looking chief rabbi? Strong voices insisted that Jonathan Sacks represented the modern voice that could unite and inspire the Jewish community. In retrospect, it is amazing that no one seemed to predict the huge impact he would make outside it.

The 22 years were not always easy. Rabbi Sacks worked hard at the arts of communication, of which he is now a master. The Anglo-Jewish community was a minefield of denominational conflict that the new chief rabbi negotiated with occasional missteps and explosions. To England’s haredi community, he was always an outsider. Despite years of private learning with Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch (now rosh yeshivah at the yeshiva in Maale Adumim), he lacked any power base in the yeshiva world and was regarded with suspicion. (Haredi leaders were, apparently, conspicuously absent from the series of events marking his retirement.)

Some early mistakes also damaged his relationships with non-Orthodox communities. There was a period of deep introspection and silence. He emerged, though, to embrace wider audiences — Jewish and non-Jewish — through print and (later) electronic media. Lord Sacks’ books, addressing Jewish and universal issues of public morality and faith, received huge acclaim. He became the voice of moral conscience to political and national leaders across Europe.

There are differing assessments, though, of his chief rabbinate.

His critics argue that he neglected the “hands-on” pastoral care of his own community, and that within Anglo-Jewry he ignored the principles of tolerance that he preached outside it. They say he was uneasy in navigating the boundary between his formal post as chief rabbi and his role as “faith ambassador” to the world.

Yet his Jewish words and teachings speak to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews. He has a huge following in North America. No other teacher brings such formidable erudition to his divrei Torah, or is able to reference them in such broad historical, literary or philosophical contexts — and is also able to express them in such clear, plain, elegant English. His Koren Siddur translation is a masterpiece. I have seen him, on occasion, act as a chasidic rebbe; and, with astonishing versatility he can address universities, bishops and popes. There are few contemporary religious figures that enjoy such wide admiration — and that in itself is a epochal Kiddush Hashem.

The retirement of a leader like Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks raises questions and challenges about the future of Judaism — especially of the Orthodox Jewish communities. In his farewell address, he described as equally toxic to the Jewish mission those Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.” It was a succinct summary of the two strongest tendencies in today’s Jewish world. 

Rabbi Sacks stands for a belief that embraces both Judaism and the world; a Judaism that believes passionately that it has a positive place in the universal marketplace of ideas, and which believes that Jewish teachings can help make the world a better place. His is a minority position in contemporary Judaism.

But I don’t believe that Lord Sacks is headed to real retirement any time soon. With curiosity and great expectations, seasoned Sacks-watchers await the fruits of the next phase in the life mission of our most distinguished living Jewish thinker.

Paul Shaviv is the head of school at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, writing here in a personal capacity.

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