This essay was first published in the Jerusalem Post Online Edition (12 November 2020)
It is impossible to grasp. My friend and teacher is no longer.
I consider Lord Rabbi Sacks’ passing as a world-shattering event. For Jew and non-Jew.
Over the years, most of us rabbis have become irrelevant on a global level. We wanted to be spiritual leaders, teachers, serve our congregants, and become heads of yeshivot. But we shunned the idea of going beyond these tasks and taking on the world.
That religious faith was challenged worldwide as never before did not bother us. It was for others to deal with and we decided to bury our heads in the sand.
By doing so, however, we robbed Judaism of one of its most powerful tasks: to challenge, disturb, rebel and send a strong, passionate message that will help all of humankind to move forward. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that religion has to function like a thunderstorm, but that over the years it invented sundry lightening-conductors and lost its purpose. And so Judaism has become a pleaser and comforter, as opposed to a biting critic of our moral failures and our spiritual and intellectual mediocrity.
The rabbinate was meant to be a test tube in which its own foundations could be challenged and new ideas experimented with. It was supposed to redeem Judaism from the sand bank in which it got stuck and again become a vibrant experience on a global level. Instead it denied its task of being “a light unto the nations” and decided to be a dwindling night-lamp.
That is why Rabbi Sacks became a world-class teacher. Where we rabbis feared to go, he traveled on his own to challenge not only the Jewish community but the world at large. His confidence in the power of Judaism and its infinite wisdom enabled him to enter the lion’s den, taking on famous philosophers, sociologists, scientists, religious and secular thinkers and showing them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn’t afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of religion, philosophy and science. He showed us that science had to justify itself in the eyes of religious belief, and not just the other way around.
Long before Rabbi Sacks left the British chief rabbinate, he already went his own way, and became a lonely man of faith. While we rabbis convinced ourselves that to engage and challenge the academic world was not possible, Rabbi Sacks showed us that we were using this argument to cover up our own limitations. We knew there were Jewish Orthodox institutions that taught how Judaism could exist in a secular world, but to maintain that Judaism could actually challenge the scientific, philosophical and academic communities was unheard of. Instead Rabbi Sacks showed us the reverse to be true. But above everything else, it was his daring moral religious voice which made prime-ministers, world leaders and clergy men and women shake.
Rabbi Sacks was able to do so only because he had to discover Judaism on his own, guided by some great teachers. People can grow into outstanding thinkers only when they encounter doubt, struggle with their own faith, and are constantly challenged. And as he told me, he felt many times in his earlier years that he nearly fell from the cliff of faith, holding on to it with only one hand. But these were also the most exalted and revealing moments in his life. After all, religion in general and Judaism in particular is a protest again religious mediocrity and complacency. Religious contentment is the arch enemy of any genuine faith. And in such an environment no great leaders or thinkers will emerge. Of course, this is not the case for most of us, for whom a conventional education is crucial but for truly great men such an education is often an obstacle. Sure, it means, like in case of Rabbi Sacks, that they will clash with the religious establishment, including one’s own. And learn how to live with it.
Most exceptional thinkers are considered suspicious, are un-appreciated, ignored, condemned and are even boycotted. History teaches us that very often their influence will only become prominent and world-transforming, after their demise. Rabbi Sacks had the great merit to see his influence in his own lifetime. That indeed made him even more exceptional.
What Rabbi Sacks did, and what few have done, is to lead the ship of Torah, in full sail, right into the heart of some of the most gifted and influential people in the world. He took them all by storm.
When faced with the failure of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, one can only admire Rabbi Sacks all the more. One does not have to agree with all of his policies, decisions, or philosophical insights, but nobody can doubt his contribution of many splendid theological ideas to Jewish tradition, ethics and general philosophy. For years the current Israeli Chief Rabbinate, unlike in the days of Rav Kook or Chacham Uziel, has been silent on all these fronts, where Rabbi Sacks was active. Not only have its rabbis made no contribution to the development of religious thought, but they probably do not even understand some of Rabbi Sacks’ writings, since they seem to lack all background in religious and secular philosophy, have never contemplated the issues that Rabbi Sacks struggled with, or learned the art of thinking independently. They are apparently unacquainted with works of other important monotheistic religions, or Hinduism and Buddhism, and with the writings of people such as Avraham Joshua Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, David Hartman, David Weiss Halivni, Arthur Green, Paul Tillich, or Reinold Niebuhr.
With the demise of Rabbi Sacks, world Jewry as never before, has to ask itself how it can produce Rabbis on the level of Rabbi Sacks so that Judaism can continue to be a world player. Until now it has bitterly failed to educate young men who would be able to take over the task that Rabbi Sacks had laid out for himself, and move beyond him, confronting many important matters that Rabbi Sacks couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with. It is crucial that Judaism and Halacha will be viewed as exciting and ennobling experiences, not just as a religion or legal system that got stagnated, becoming irrelevant to most secular Jews, non-Jews, and even some religious Jews. But the most important pursuit is to ensure that a highly intelligent Jewish religious voice will continue to speak to the outside world—especially to the academia, the moralists and to the policy makers in government and high-ranking institutions. Faith, Rabbi Sacks wrote, is at its best when it becomes a counter-cultural force, when it has no power, only influence, no authority except what it earns.
We can only hope that with his demise, Rabbi Sacks’ teachings will become more and more challenging, disturbing, and daring—showing us the way. He had no doubt more up his sleeves than we know, and we pray that now that he is no longer with us, orthodox Judaism will do what it needs to do, including in trying to bring all religious dominations closer together. Oh, yes it will be painful, but the benefit will be priceless.
I will miss him dearly and ask God to help me to survive without his friendship and our marvelous discussions. May his memory be a blessing.
Michael East says
Much of your observation echoes the thoughts and philosophy of Rabbi Soloveitchik, obm. I would have hoped you would reference the Rav’s view of the Judaism and its place in the world; you would notice many similarities.
Shoshi wallis says
It’s hard to read what you write because it’s both so true and sad. How to keep the hope and the faith that there are Rabbis like Rabbi Sacks out there who will continue doing his important work.
Rabbi Sacks is undoubtedly an inspiring thinker, able to hold his own with poise in the public eye against the best that antisemitism can muster, even on live TV.
I share your feelings about the Rabbinate, and remember when Rabbi Dweck spoke out a few years ago, the Israeli Sephardi Bet Din were calling for his dismissal. Were it not for the diplomacy of Rabbi Mervis, things could have gone badly wrong for him.
While professional Rabbis rely on the organisations who employ them for their salary, and often the roof over their family’s head, and their future in the profession, they have to tow the party line, or risk the consequences.
In my opinion, Judaism needs more independent Rabbonim.