Two years since death of Lord Jonathan Sacks

Israeli leaders commemorate UK chief rabbi Sacks: ‘He made the world better’

PM Lapid says he still keeps former British chief rabbi’s book close; Herzog hails his writings as a ‘fountain of strength, originality’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An image of former British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from 2013. (Courtesy © Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd.)
An image of former British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from 2013. (Courtesy © Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd.)

Hundreds of people gathered at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon to mark the second anniversary of the death of former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, with eulogies from top Israeli leaders, including President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Chief Justice Esther Hayut.

Sacks’s widow, Lady Elaine Sacks, came in from the United Kingdom for the event, which was hosted by the Rabbi Sacks Legacy. A similar event was held last year in London, which Herzog also attended.

Sacks, who died of cancer on November 7, 2020, at the age of 72, was a highly influential Jewish figure not only in his native England but around the world, having written over two dozen books and lectured on Judaism at top universities in the United States and United Kingdom.

Despite being an ardent and passionate Zionist, Sacks’s influence in Israel was somewhat limited, though this has begun changing in recent years as more of his writings have been translated into Hebrew.

He did, however, maintain close relationships with top Israeli politicians, several of whom contributed to a video tribute shown at the event. Israeli singer Ehud Banai also performed two songs, “Canaanite Blues” and “Into the Light.”

Lapid recalled meeting Sacks after the publication of his book “The Dignity of Difference,” which the premier said he still always keeps at arm’s length.

“I said to him, ‘Rabbi, even though I am a secular Israeli Jew, I have a request: I want you to be my rabbi.’ Rabbi Sacks smiled and said the only people who believe that secular Israeli Jews are actually secular are secular Israeli Jews,” Lapid said in a recorded message.

The prime minister said he and Sacks once argued over which was more important, optimism or hope.

“I thought optimism was better. He looked at me and said optimism is the belief that the world will become better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make the world a better place,” Lapid said.

“Rabbi Sacks made the world a better place, made me a better person. I miss him and the conversations with him.”

President Isaac Herzog, right, speaks with Yeshiva University professor Erica Brown during an event marking the second anniversary of the death of former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 13, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The main event of the evening was a roughly 15-minute on-stage discussion between Herzog and Erica Brown, a former student of Sacks and a Yeshiva University educator.

“The real impact that Rabbi Sacks had on me is with the weekly reading of the Torah portion,” Herzog said. “I say so because I continue reading his books, and they are a fountain of strength, an unbelievable fountain of originality, of ideas, of understanding the content of the Bible, and of course with immense sources of wisdom, knowledge from all facets of humanity.”

The conversation was peppered with anecdotes and memories, including a quote from a letter written by Herzog’s father, former president Chaim Herzog, who wrote to Sacks in the 1980s after meeting and being impressed by him in London.

The two also discussed a crucial area of interest to both Sacks and Herzog: the relationship between the State of Israel and Jews around the world.

“We have to tell world Jewry what Israel is about,” Herzog said. “And we need to teach Israelis about Jewish life abroad. I think Rabbi Sacks managed to cover all facets of Jewish life abroad and understand that Jewish life abroad is different from Jewish life here.”

Herzog said Jews did not need to shy away from conflict with one another but did need to maintain a degree of decorum and respect.

“Rabbi Sacks wrote that Judaism encourages debate and argument… We should keep balance. We should argue but keep to the rules of the game,” he said.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, who had a relationship with Sacks, was clearly felt during the event, with nearly every speaker referring to it, including Herzog, who confirmed that he and his wife Michal would attend her funeral next week.

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