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In Memoriam of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The world lost a genuine beacon of hope and light on November 7, 2020 when Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away. The gaping hole left in the world at his passing will serve as a reminder of the life he lived and the words he so eloquently spoke and wrote. As a Jewish leader in Britain and throughout the world, he was, in a word, remarkable. Ever kind and ever present, Rabbi Sacks worked tirelessly to spread truth and goodness through his many interactions with people. Though much of his work was done in the highest levels of government and religious institutions, it was not without broad scope and penetrating reach into all levels of society.

I first met Rabbi Sacks in 2006 while a student at the Centre for the Study of Jewish – Christian Relations (now the Woolf Institute) in Cambridge, England. I have since had several opportunities to hear from Rabbi Sacks in informal and formal settings. During our first meeting with a group of fellow students, I was struck by the composure, humility, and conviction of Rabbi Sacks. His ability to explain Judaism and its great wisdom with remarkable clarity continues to inspire me over these past fifteen years even more than it overwhelmed me in the moment. Unbeknownst to me at that early meeting, his writing eventually came to serve as a source of truth and place of refuge for me many times since. Though I do not recall the question I asked of Rabbi Sacks that day, I remember perfectly the answer he gave: “You cannot, truly cannot, measure a life by what was recorded on paper – a human life is so, so much more.” I treasure that insight for its simplicity and profundity.

Above all else, I learned from this great intellectual figure the need for courage in the midst of debate coupled with earnest investigation of subjects that demand deep understanding. Rabbi Sacks was willing to see the world through a lens shaped and polished through hours, and even years, of careful examination and study. His graciousness in answering questions and critiques continue to serve as a model for how we, as human beings with deep convictions and commitments, ought to engage with detractors or ideological opponents. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks taught me and thousands of others to bring generosity to the front of our relationships, especially when doing so proves difficult. It was, he argued, antithetical to the work of God for humans to find reason in their theology and sacred texts to carry out harmful acts. In Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (London: Schocken) Rabbi Sacks opined:

Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What he says at such times, is: Not in My Name.

It was his recognition that that the root of the problem rested in human desire to find justification in God’s word for their own hateful actions that seemed to propel Rabbi Sacks to be so active, so attentive, and indeed innovative in searching for solutions. His life in recent decades sought to dry up the roots of anti-Semitism, racism, injustice and intolerance in all forms. Rabbi Sacks sought to bring, as the title of one of his books suggests, us back to a “dignity of difference” where the particular informed the universal without the former abdicating it claims for significance in the world. His writings were shaped heavily by the magisterial figures of philosophy and Judaism and he felt at home in both. His incredible mind allowed the battles between those two traditions to find a harmonious tension that though never reconciled, was unwilling to settle for premature consolation.

This year, the traditional lighting of candles in commemoration of Kristallnacht and the horrific events of November 1938, falling just two days after the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds all of us of the incredible need for individuals to make the world a place where the downtrodden, the oppressed, the abused and the persecuted no longer need to hide. His place in this world, secured by his prodigious writing and his exemplary life and teachings, will forever remain one very bright source of light.

Andrew C. Reed

November 9, 2020