Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom whose extensive writings and frequent media appearances commanded a global following among Jews and non-Jews alike, died Saturday morning.
Sacks, 72, was in the midst of a third bout of cancer, which he had announced in October.
Sacks was among the world’s leading exponents of Orthodox Judaism for a global audience. In his 22 years as chief rabbi, he emerged as the most visible Jewish leader in the United Kingdom and one of the European continent’s leading Jewish voices, offering Jewish wisdom to the masses through a regular segment he produced for the BBC. He had a close relationship with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called Sacks “an intellectual giant” and presented him with a lifetime achievement award in 2018.
Sacks was also an immensely prolific author, addressing pressing social and political issues in a succession of well received books. His popular commentary on the prayer book, published by Koren, helped to dethrone the more traditionalist Artscroll Siddur as the preeminent prayer book in American Modern Orthodox synagogues.
His most recent book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” was published in September.
Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet. It with the deepest sadness that we regret to inform you that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z’’l) passed away early this morning, Saturday 7th November 2020 (Shabbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781).
— The Office of Rabbi Sacks (@rabbisacks) November 7, 2020
Sacks’ office had not specified what type of cancer he had, saying in October that “he remains positive and upbeat and will now spend a period of time focused on the treatment he is receiving from his excellent medical team,” the statement said.
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Sacks had been treated for cancer twice before, in his 30s and again in his 50s, a fact that wasn’t widely known until it was disclosed in a 2012 book.
Sacks taught at Yeshiva University and New York University as well as at King’s College London and several other top schools. He was a Senior Fellow at Canada’s Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 and awarded a Life Peerage in the British House of Lords in 2009, was an outspoken advocate of religious and social tolerance throughout his career.
He was also an advocate for the compatibility of science and religion, which some people see as mutually exclusive.
Sacks was normally averse to mixing religion and politics. But he did take public stances on two topics that were often ensnared with European politics: Israel and anti-Semitism.
He spoke out publicly as Britain’s Labour Party was engulfed in an anti-Semitism scandal under its previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, calling Corbyn an anti-Semite.
“We have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr. Corbyn and those who support him,” Sacks said in 2018 during an interview with the New Statesman.
That judgment paved the way for the current British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to harshly condemn the Labour Party, a precedent-setting event in British Jewish life.
Corbyn was replaced in April by centrist Keir Starmer, who has apologized for how anti-Semitism was allowed to flourish in Labour’s ranks under Corbyn. Starmer, who is married to a Jewish woman, expressed his condolences to “the entire Jewish world” in a tweet on Saturday.
“He was a towering intellect whose eloquence, insights and kindness reached well beyond the Jewish community. I have no doubt that his legacy will live on for many generations,” Starmer wrote.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin mourned Sacks’s passing, who he called “a man of words… and of creativity, a man of truth, whose generosity and compassion built bridges between people.”
He said Sacks “bravely faced difficult questions and always found the right words to illuminate the Torah and explain its paths. We will always remember his warnings against violence in the name of God, and his belief that we have the power to heal a fractured world.”
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said Sacks was “a giant of both the Jewish community and wider society. His astounding intellect and courageous moral voice were a blessing to all who encountered him in person, in writing or in broadcast.”
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, also called Sacks “a giant of world Jewry” who “will be truly missed.”
Israel’s chief rabbis also eulogized Sacks.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said: “The people of Israel have lost a unique voice that will be sorely missed.”
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said Sacks was “a man of spirit who championed the word of Torah-keeping Judaism and was a staunch guardian of tradition from generation to generation.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said the WJC “and the entire Jewish world are profoundly saddened by the passing of former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks,” who he called “a theologian of extraordinary intellectual depth and moral conviction.
“He was also a pillar of integrity who inspired Jews and non-Jews alike… We extend our deepest condolences to Lord Sacks’s wife Elaine and their family.”
In 2017, in a widely circulated YouTube video, Sacks called anti-Zionism a new form of anti-Semitism, arguing that it denies Jews the “right to exist collectively with the same rights as everyone else.”
The video was based on a 2016 speech Sacks delivered in Brussels, which is widely seen as having paved the way to Britain’s adoption later that year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
But the video went far beyond political and academic circles, and became symbolic of Sacks’ ability to reach mainstream audiences. Rachel Riley, a famous British Jewish game show television host, last year shared the video, telling her over 600,000 Twitter followers that it is “the best explanation of antisemitism I’ve seen.”
Sacks branched out beyond religious and Jewish cultural thought as well. In 2017 he delivered a Ted Talk about “facing the future without fear” and what he called a “fateful moment” in Western history after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, citing Thomas Paine and anthropologists to make an argument about returning a culture of togetherness.
Born in London in 1948, Sacks studied at Cambridge University. While a student there in the 60s, he visited Rabbi Menachem Schneerson — the spiritual leader who is credited with turning the Hasidic Chabad-Lubatvitch movement into a powerful organizing force of Jewry around the world — in New York City. Sacks credits that meeting with inspiring him to get involved with Jewish studies, as he detailed in a series of videos for Chabad.org in 2011.
He became the rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue in London’s most Orthodox neighborhood in the late 70s and then rabbi of the Marble Arch synagogue in central London, before becoming the UK’s chief rabbi in 1991, a position he held until 2013.
Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine, three children and several grandchildren.