Commentary

A Eulogy for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Teaching us how to take on the world

National Poverty Hearing 2006 at Westminster. A one-day National Poverty Hearing in Central Hall Westminster, held on Wednesday 6 December 2006, for up to 500 senior politicians, high-profile/influential policy makers and opinion formers in the media and public life and national and grassroots anti-poverty/civil society groups from across the United Kingdom.
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Nathan J. Diament

 

To presume to properly eulogize Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is to reach for something clearly beyond grasp. To appropriate an idea that Rabbi Norman Lamm said when Rav Soloveitchik passed away, only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks could possibly deliver a eulogy worthy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.[1]

However, Rabbi Sacks was a teacher and mentor of mine – and I must make the attempt to honor him in appreciation of what I learned from him.[2]

Like many American Jews, I first encountered Rabbi Sacks through his writings.

After graduating law school, I delayed beginning work at a New York City law firm to return to Yeshiva University and study Torah full-time, for the first half of the year at the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem and the second half at YU’s main campus in Washington Heights.

In that second half of the year, I spent a few hours each afternoon on the fifth floor of the YU library. At the time, I was looking for works to read that presented Jewish values in ways that were most relevant to being a Modern Orthodox Jew in the real world — outside the walls of the beit midrash. While I had previously read one of Rabbi Sacks’ early books, in the library’s stacks I discovered the back issues of the L’eyla Journal he edited, and proceeded to read through the many articles he published there. Then I started reading all the books he’d published to date – there were only a handful then. As so many in the Modern Orthodox community experienced, I could hear his voice echo from those compelling pages, and felt as though Rabbi Sacks was speaking to me.

A few years later, in 1997, once I’d begun working at the Orthodox Union, I finally had the zekhut to meet Rabbi Sacks in person as I facilitated his speaking, for the first time, at an OU convention. Since I was making the arrangements, I took the liberty of proposing a topic for Rabbi Sacks to address – one that interested me: An Orthodox Jewish View of Tikkun Olam.

In that lecture, Rabbi Sacks addressed what he said, was “a very difficult subject, a subject in fact that I have not spoken about before: Tikkun Olam — perfecting, preparing or repairing the world…”

He then went on to offer a stunning and compelling approach to the topic that offered a framework to think about Torah as a whole and our mandate in the world as Jews. This framework would implicitly animate so much of his writing in the decades to follow, and was the essence of so much of what Rabbi Sacks embodied.

Rabbi Sacks asked: “Why is there so little in the Shulhan Arukh about this topic?”

To frame his answer, Rabbi Sacks set forth the following:

There are certain questions in Jewish life which in order to answer, what do you do? You open a book; either a Shulkhan Arukh, or Responsa literature or the Talmud and you elicit a ruling from the sources. Why is that so? The reason is that those issues never change. Whether the issues regard shabbat, kashrut, taharat mishpacha, it makes no difference if you asked the question in 1897, 1997 or 2097. The issues never change, and the answers never change. I call this kind of Torah by a very ancient name, and that is “Torat Kohanim” because the kohen, the priest, was the first role model in Jewish history of the enduring structure of kedusha; the eternity in the midst of time. Torah as chayei olam — eternal life– in the midst of chayei sha’ah — finite life. That is one kind of Torah all of us are familiar with. It is for most of us all the Torah that there is.

However, there is another kind of Torah as well. It is much more rare, and the truth is that it is much more rarely needed; I call it “Torat Nivi’im” — Torah not of the priest but of the navi, the prophet. While a kohen represents eternity, a navi represents history. We know that the prophets were the first people in all of civilization and certainly the greatest of all time to see G-d in history. They saw history itself as a coherent narrative; a story with a beginning, middle and end, a journey through time with a destination. Kohanim were sensitive to the things in Judaism which never change; while prophets were sensitive to things which do change – things in which today’s challenge are different then the day before. Why? Because we are on a journey. The destination never changes but we move, and where we are today is not necessarily where we were yesterday so each day has a new challenge. That is Torat Nivi’im; it needs a special kind of sensibility to deal with questions of that kind.

So, asked Rabbi Sacks, why is there no section in the Shulhan Arukh that lays out how Jews are to set about engaging in the task of Tikkun Olam? He explained:

The answer is that for two thousand years what chance did we have? For two thousand years we were dispersed, scattered, exiled, we were powerless, we were what Max Weber called the pariah people, who in the world would think of learning from us? We were the wandering Jew, Old Israel, displaced, superseded, we were the people rejected by G-d. That’s what the nations thought. Who thought of learning from us?

Today for the first time in two thousand years we have a chance to put it into practice. We have a State of Israel, which is our first chance to create a macro-society run on Jewish principles. We never had a chance for two thousand years to create a global society, and in the diaspora today for the first time ever we are part of the mainstream of the democracies of the West. We are able to speak and be heard; we are able to teach and be heeded; we are able to sanctify G-d’s name in public.

I repeat there is no formula, no Shulkhan Arukh, and no responsum governing how to be mitaken ha’olam.

For this the Orthodox community needs not only masters of the law but also ba’alai nivuah – people with historical insight; that is the challenge of our time….what stands before us is the… great, untouched challenge of tikkun olam that we, in a secular age, should become role models for spirituality. That we in a relativistic age should be able to teach people once again to hear the objective “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” In an age in which religion so often brings conflict we should teach once again that Shalom, peace, is the name of G-d and that the mighty is one who turns an enemy into a friend. If we do these things there will surely come to all of us that experience of living a Jewish life and knowing that those around us, those with whom we have dealings are blessed by that life, and they will return to us saying: you have been a prince or princess of G-d in our midst. Do that and we begin to perfect the world.

I have shared these extensive passages from this lecture by Rabbi Sacks[3] – the first one I was privileged to hear from him in person – because I think it sums up his amazing life’s work, his legacy, and, perhaps, why Hashem took him from us in the weeks we read the parshiot about our first navi, Avraham.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) teaches that the lifespan of the world is to be 6,000 years, demarcating three eras in the lifespan of the world as we know it.

The school of Eliyahu taught: The world is destined to exist for six thousand years. For two thousand years Tohu (chaos), two thousand years are the time period of the Torah, two thousand years are the days of the Messiah, but due to our many sins those years that have been taken from them, have been taken.

The Talmud then asks, at what point in world history did the Tohu (chaos) period end and the Torah period commence?

After a bit of discussion in which the Rabbis calculate that Ma’amad Har Sinai is too late in the calendar, the Talmud marks the beginning of the “Torah Era” of the world from the verse in Parshat Lekh Lekha:[4]

[Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed,] and the persons that they had acquired in Haran… (Genesis 12:5)

Why use this verse to mark the start of the Torah Era of civilization? Even if the rabbis calculated that it had to be in the lifetime of Avraham, they could have associated the beginning of the Torah Era with Avraham engaging in something we would recognize as a mitzvah performance, such as prayer or circumcision.

The verse which the Talmud identifies as the starting point of the Torah era is the one upon which Rashi famously explains: “Abraham was converting the men and Sarah was converting the women.”

The Talmud is teaching us that preaching the message of ethical monotheism to the world at large is the paradigmatic act of serving Hashem and thus the mark of the beginning of the Torah era.

Who more than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks engaged in this holy work in our time?

Who more than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brought a sophisticated voice of authentic Jewish teaching and values to the world at large – across the continents of Europe and America, and across the media, from the BBC to books to social media and so much more?

And this last point – that Rabbi Sacks’ presentation and translation of Jewish wisdom to his global audience was authentic and not watered down – is a crucial one. He never sacrificed Jewish tenets that are currently countercultural for the sake of convenience or to avoid controversy.

Just as important as Rabbi Sacks’ authenticity and sophistication in his teaching was, in my view, his framing so much of it positively. Scanning my shelf of his many books the day after he passed, I was struck by the titles:

Faith in the Future
Celebrating Life
The Persistence of Faith
The Dignity of Difference
To Heal a Fractured World
The Politics of Hope

I should not have been surprised. In my personal encounters with him over the years, whether in Washington or New York or London or Jerusalem, he always greeted me (and everyone else) with a hale and hearty greeting.

When he spent Shabbat in our community in Silver Spring, on each occasion there happened to be a bar or bat mitzvah in our shul the same Shabbat he was the scholar-in-residence. He made a point to enthusiastically speak to those boys and girls and to work into his remarks praise of their divrei Torah.

When he had Shabbat lunch in our home, he enthusiastically enjoyed desserts (contrary to the dietary instructions his Office gave us) and appreciated a good joke in addition to an incisive devar Torah.

In fact, Rabbi Sacks’ penchant for jokes was regularly on display in the opening of his lectures – even the most serious ones – and many of his books. In his 2000 book Celebrating Life, he even explained why he liked jokes: “I like jokes because they are an unserious way of saying serious things. They get past our defences. What we can laugh at, we can face.”

One joke I heard Rabbi Sacks tell on a few occasions is particularly poignant shortly after his passing. With appropriate gusto, Rabbi Sacks spoke of a Mr. Finkelstein going to Massachusetts General – one of the nation’s best hospitals – where he was treated for a week. Then, without explanation, he had himself transferred to a run-down hospital on the Lower East Side of New York. The doctor there, intrigued, asked Finkelstein, “What was wrong with Mass General? Was it the doctors?” Finkelstein replied, “The doctors were great, I can’t complain.”’ “Was it the nurses?” Finkelstein replied, “The nurses were attentive, I can’t complain.” The doctor asked, “Was it the food?” Finkelstein replied, “The food was amazing.” “So why did you leave and come here?” Finkelstein replied: “Because here I can complain.”

Rabbi Sacks, as noted, explained what we can laugh at we can face. I cannot laugh at his joke today because I cannot yet face his passing. I want to complain to the Ribbono Shel Olam that he took Rabbi Jonathan Sacks away from our world far too soon. He had more to teach us, and we had more to learn.

My only means of overcoming this state is to reflect on what Rabbis Sacks’ daughter Gila shared in her eulogy for her father. Gila said that her father imbued in her the mindset that no problem is too big for people to solve. Some problems are easier and some are harder, but we are charged to strive to change the world and make it better. Indeed, her father surely used the joke about Finkelstein to make the point — there is no purpose to complaining about problems.

We cannot overcome the reality of Rabbi Sacks having passed away. But we can keep his Torah alive by taking up the mantle of bringing authentic Jewish wisdom to the world at large.

We can hone our sensibility to utilize Torat Nevi’im and apply Torah wisdom to our modern challenges.

In doing so, we can embrace the attitude of Avraham Avinu, and of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and see no problem as unsolvable, as we strive to make the world better for us all.


[1] Lamm, “A Eulogy for the Rav: ‘A Great Prince in Israel Has Fallen Today’,” Tradition 28:1 (Fall 1993): 4

[2] See Masekhet Kallah Rabbati (6): “Our rabbis taught: when a hakham dies everyone is obligated to eulogize him.

[3]  For the complete transcript of this lecture, see: https://advocacy.ou.org/tikkun-olam-orthodoxys-responsibility-to-perfect-g-ds-world/.

[4] Genesis 12:5.

Nathan Diament
Nathan J. Diament is the Executive Director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, where he develops and coordinates public policy research and initiatives on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. Nathan has testified before congressional committees and works closely with members of both political parties to craft legislation addressing religious liberty issues, education reform, support for Israel and more. In 2009, Nathan was appointed by President Obama to serve as one of 25 members of the President’s Faith Advisory Council. In 2019, he served on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Subcommittee to Prevent Faith-Targeted Violence. He is the author of articles and essays on issues including religion and state, constitutional law, social policy and international affairs. His writing has been featured in law journals as well as many national publications as well as major broadcast media. He is an honors graduate of Yeshiva University and the Harvard Law School.