Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is the orthodox rabbi to about 700 families in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and lectures widely as a motivational speaker to various audiences in and around the City of London and at secondary schools.
I was acutely shocked and saddened when I heard the news that former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was aged 72, and only about a month had passed subsequent to a cancer diagnosis.
As a young rabbi serving in his rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks was a personal mentor and role model to me. I can still hear his warm address to me from the synagogue pulpit in Hendon as I was about to embark on a new rabbinic role elsewhere. He was all about empowering those around him, challenging them to fulfil their calling and potential.
Even more memorable was the time when, profoundly disappointed by the actions of someone close to me, I burst into Rabbi Sacks’ home in St Johns Wood where he was addressing a group of youth leaders.
I gave him the details and, instead of indulging my abject despair, he warned me: “never give up on people.” His words have been a game-changer in the way I approach my rabbinic work, and I was particularly proud to have contributed to a book of essays on Jewish law and philosophy presented to Lord Sacks marking his retirement as Chief Rabbi.
Sacks, an orthodox Jew, was born in London in 1948 and, in 1991, became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – the spiritual leader of the largest grouping of orthodox Jewish communities in the UK. It was a position he held with distinction for 22 years.
A prolific writer of over 30 books and regular contributor to radio, television and social media, Sacks was knighted in 2005, and made a crossbench life peer in 2009. In 2016, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He had been described by the Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation”.
Sacks has been universally lauded as an extraordinarily gifted orator, writer and social commentator. Although his inspiration was keenly felt within the worldwide Jewish community, his impact was never limited to his co-religionists. Lord Sacks’ intellect, eloquence and charisma made an indelible impression in the hearts and minds of people from every type of background and belief system.
His was a voice of reason in a tempestuous world of chaos and division, a voice that transcended faction and tribal loyalties. His unwavering moral philosophy was one that revered community, heritage and moderation. He was outspoken in his condemnation of those who committed acts of violence in the name of religion.
His cerebral prowess belied his humble piety. One example ought to be shared to exemplify the simplicity of his faith, clothed as it was in the elaborate raiment of philosophy and scholarship. During his lifetime, Lord Sacks seldom mentioned that he had battled cancer twice before – once in his 30s, and later in his 50s.
When asked why he eschewed publicly reflecting on these ordeals, he responded that he had witnessed his father undergoing many operations and heath problems in old age, and that these had sapped his strength until he was forced to walk on crutches.
Sacks added that his father had not been the beneficiary of much in the way of Jewish education, but did possess enormous faith. He said he used to watch his father in hospital reciting psalms and could see him getting stronger as a result. It seemed that his mental attitude had been: “I’m leaving this to God. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”
Sacks said that he had adopted exactly this attitude. During both bouts of cancer he said, “I felt, if this is the time God needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the healing and I put my trust in Him. I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”
Lord Sacks was a fearless critic of antisemitism and piercingly diagnosed all of its menacing metastases, including obsessive antipathy towards Israel and Zionism. He had a warm relationship with Gordon Brown during the latter’s premiership. However, as Labour moved further towards the radical Left, Lord Sacks felt the duty to speak out. Indeed, recently he had been critical of Jeremy Corbyn, amidst the row over antisemitism in the party.
Sacks’ vision for a more harmonious British society included dignity in difference, and recognising the need for meaning at the heart of the human condition. He was often prescient in identifying the ethical gaps in a secular society that often focused on ephemeral pleasure over spirituality and responsibility. His was a message of selflessness over individualism, and he took pride in his religious Jewish identity without ever sounding dogmatic or arrogant.
Above all, Sacks’ legacy will live on in his many students, congregations and followers, who include leading figures in divergent fields. He has left an historic impression upon religion in the UK and many thousands will feel bereft at the loss of his towering presence and courage. He was taken from us far too early, and is survived by Elaine Taylor, his wife of 50 years, along with their three children and many grandchildren.