A Eulogy for Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l

Photo taken by Simon Kisner at the Birmingham Hillel House on March 19, 1995. Other photos taken that day can be seen at
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Samuel Lebens


If you ever had the privilege to sit in a shul, or a classroom, or an auditorium, filled to the brim with people eager to hear the words of Rabbi Sacks, then you know what malchut [majesty] really is.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Dr. Rafi Zarum, paints the picture most eloquently. He writes: “Rabbi Sacks stands up to speak, there is a hush of anticipation, “Friends, let me share with you a little bit of Torah…”” Those words take me back. There could have been a thousand people in the room, but when Rabbi Sacks approached the podium, the anticipation would be thick in the air. You could have heard a pin drop. Rabbi Zarum continues: “And then, as he spoke, the world would become a little brighter, hope became more real, God came closer, and life had more meaning.”

It is often said that Rabbi Sacks wrote and spoke with a prophetic voice. His command of language and the lofty heights of his ethical vision combined with his deep faith to give rise to prose that truly competes with the prophets of Israel. In eulogising my master and teacher, Rabbi Sacks, there is no need for exaggeration. His achievements speak for themselves. He certainly did have a prophetic voice, but – of course – he wasn’t a prophet. And yet, I truly believe that there is no exaggeration in saying that Rabbi Sacks possessed a tangible degree of Ruach Hakodesh (divine inspiration, brought about by God’s holy spirit). I say this based upon my preferred interpretation of what Ruach Hakodesh is.

King David once claimed that, “The spirit of the LORD has spoken through me, and His message is on my tongue” (II Samuel 23:3). Some of the commentators take this to be an indication that King David had attained to the level of prophecy. The Abrabanel, by contrast – citing Maimonides – disagreed. In his commentary on this chapter, he writes:

David was not among the prophets. [Maimonides] explained [that David only said that] “The spirit of the Lord has spoken through me, and His message is on my tongue” in order to make known that he had arrived at the level, not of fully fledged prophecy, but of Ruach Hakodesh.

But what does that mean? The Abarabanel goes on to suggest that Ruach Hakodesh is a Divine influence that:

alights upon a person’s faculty of speech and intellect, to speak awesome words in the manner of poetry and wisdom; not to see [as the Prophet does] wondrous visions, and not to understand [hitherto fore concealed] notions of Divinity, but with regard to the perfection of speech in the manner of wisdom and poetry.

Rabbi Sacks had a tremendous intellect, a profound wisdom, a set of very human and humane sensibilities, and an appreciation for beauty. His searing visions of justice and hope were informed by his rootedness in the Jewish tradition, and thus they came from the Rabbis and the Prophets; but he was not a prophet himself. And yet, he had an ability to express those ideas and those visions in words that wouldn’t merely be accessible to others, but would pierce their hearts, and capture their souls; I find it hard to accept that that was a totally natural phenomenon. To hear Rabbi Sacks speak was sometimes to feel oneself vividly in the presence of something supernatural. This wasn’t merely malchut [majesty]. It was Ruach Hakodesh.

One time, I had the pleasure of seeing him participate on a small panel at a conference organised by President Shimon Peres. The panel had been a rather dull affair, and Rabbi Sacks could tell that the interest of the audience was flagging. And then, all of a sudden, he made an intervention that sent a bolt of electricity through the audience, a sudden burst of eloquence. As the audience filed out at the end of the session, I was lucky enough to be walking with Rabbi Sacks and his wife, Lady Elaine, and another dedicated student of the Rabbi, Jonny Lipczer. The Rabbi turned to us, and with an almost cheeky glint in his eye, but without undermining the genuine humility for which he was known, he said something to the effect of “that session really needed a lift.” His ability to dial up elegance and eloquence on demand like that seemed, to me, supernatural.

His majestic air, and the holy spirit that elevated his language, to speak the message of the Lord, were both, I think, a consequence – a mere side effect – of the fact that Rabbi Sack’s life and work were grounded in a deep and intimate relationship with God Himself.

The Anglican Priest, Giles Fraser, put it better than I could when he wrote, of Rabbi Sacks, that “all of what he said was grounded in a very intense personal relationship with God. It ran through him like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock.” A Blackpool rock is a long stick-shaped, hard boiled candy. It often has a word or phrase written all the way through its centre, always appearing on the surface of its outside edge.

To be in the presence of Rabbi Sacks was to be in the presence of majesty and holiness because Rabbi Sacks, himself, lived always – or so it seemed to me – in the presence of majesty and holiness. He was a Godly man.

Before I share some of the ways in which he touched my life, personally, as a mentor, I’d like to share some of his teachings which have moved and shaped me most.

The first is his notion that Judaism is, what he often called, a future-oriented faith. In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, he wrote that hope, in Judaism, is:

a refusal to give up on your deepest ideals, but a refusal likewise to say, in a world still disfigured by evil, that the Messiah has yet come, and the world is saved. There is work still to be done, the journey is not yet complete, and it depends on us: we who now all too briefly stride upon the stage of time.[1]

One of the defining elements of Judaism itself, according to Rabbi Sacks, is its dogged refusal to believe that the messiah has come already; its refusal to look at the world as somehow already saved. Our faith is pinned upon the future, not the present. This conviction has many ramifications. It demands a sort of intellectual humility. If you believe that the story isn’t complete, you must be willing to accept that its full meaning cannot yet be grasped.

Much the same idea was vividly formulated by Michael Wyschogrod, who wanted to distinguish between Jewish theology and Jewish thought. Jewish thinking about God was well and good; but Jews are in no place to make a science – a logos or an ology – about God. He argued that Jews don’t do theology. He wrote:

To think is to shed light, to create a limited clearing. But the clearing is always surrounded by darkness and it is easy to forget the darkness and to see only the light. But Jewish thought cannot lose sight of the darkness. This is so because Jewish thought is on the way. The Jewish story is incomplete. We do not see the outcome… It is not a question of uncertainty. The redemption has been promised by God and therefore will come. But because it has not yet come, the story of Israel is still happening and cannot therefore be laid before us as an object of contemplation. Before faith lies the darkness of the future and therefore no logos of God is possible. At least not to man. And not now.[2]

Of course, Rabbi Sacks and Michael Wyschogrod were both rightly described as theologians. But the point is that their theology was in principle incomplete; and thus, by Wyschogrod’s somewhat idiosyncratic definition, they were thinkers rather than theologians.

Theologians too often talk as if they know God’s thoughts and character traits better than God does Himself. But Jewish thought, for Rabbi Sacks, is rooted in the Biblical notion that God’s thoughts and ways are not like our thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:8); in the medieval doctrine of apophaticism, according to which God’s nature somehow defies the limits of language; and in the Hassidic notion that the ephemeral heavenly Torah can only come into the world clothed in human language, and that it therefore has to submit to some degree of dilution.

When it comes to matters of theology, the full truth lies beyond comprehension, just as it lies beyond the present moment. It waits for us in the eschaton.

Rabbi Sacks had a profound belief in the reality of God, but he recognised that this was a reality that can only be partially grasped in the unsaved here and now. Bertrand Russell once said of philosophical analysis that it “gives us the truth, and nothing but the truth, yet it can never give us the whole truth.”[3] Rabbi Sacks, I’m sure, would say the same thing about theological analysis. This explains, in part, how he could believe that Judaism, whilst true, and whilst imposing real obligations and duties upon the Jew, could have no monopoly on religious truth, thus making room for the Dignity of Difference.

This was an echo of the great teaching of Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, who said:

“If you walk in the path of my statutes…” (Leviticus 26:3): “If” indicates uncertainty. That is to say that even one who walks in the path of the Torah must also be in a state of uncertainty, since perhaps he is not fulfilling the will of God completely. The will of God is exceedingly profound.

On this view, Jewish law is only an approximation of God’s infinite will. It is the best we have. We have no authority to jettison any of its details. We must cleave to it fastidiously. But it is, perforce, an approximation. Human thought can only create a clearing in the darkness. The whole truth awaits us only in the eschaton. And, in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, adopted as the official motto of Rabbi Sacks’s Chief Rabbinate: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the job” – even in Jewish thought, we shouldn’t expect to achieve a complete understanding of the Divine – “but nor are you free to desist from it” – because we can, at least, shed some light.[4] These sound like controversial ideas. In actual fact, they’re deeply rooted in almost every stratum of the rockface of Jewish texts. They’re rooted in the fact that Judaism has always been a future-oriented faith.

The next, and more important, principle that shapes me personally and which, I think, Rabbi Sacks was most eager to emphasise, is the centrality and pervasiveness of ethics throughout the woof and warp of Jewish life and thought.

In his Covenant and Conversation series, on parshat Bereshit [the first reading of the book of Genesis], Rabbi Sacks writes about the genre of the Torah. This is a question that has deep philosophical significance and plays a central role in some of my own work on the philosophy of Judaism. To which genre is the Torah a contribution? He writes:

Torah is not a book of history, even though it includes history. It is not a book of science, even though the first chapter of Genesis … is the necessary prelude to science. It represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will, and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious…[5]

Having ruled these options out, Rabbi Sacks continues. The Torah is not history nor science:

Rather, it is, first and last, a book about how to live. Everything it contains – not only mitzvot [commandments] but also narratives, including the narrative of creation itself – is there solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction.[6]

I don’t think Rabbi Sacks was overstating his position. I think he truly believed that every single detail of the Torah has to be mined for “ethical and spiritual instruction.” This is a quite remarkable claim. Even the genealogies: “so-and-so begot so-and-so…”; until we have figured out how a verse is supposed to shape our lives and our deeds, then we haven’t plumbed its depths. Ethics is the beating heart of Judaism.

In his To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks develops a crucially important account of the Rabbinic notion of darkei shalom [the ways of peace]. One place in which this notion is most radically articulated is the Tosefta in Tractate Gittin (3:18), which teaches:

If a city has both Jewish and idol worshipping residents, then the charity collectors should collect from Jews and idolaters because of darkei shalom, and they should sustain [with those funds] the poor idolaters alongside the poor Jews because of darkei shalom, and they should euologise and bury the dead idolaters because of darkei shalom, and they should comfort the mourners among the idolaters because of darkei shalom.

There’s no doubt that the Bible itself only imposes an obligation upon Jews towards Gentiles if those Gentiles renounce idolatry. Moreover, the vision of eschatological peace expressed by the prophets of Israel tends to be predicated upon the universally shared monotheism that shall emerge at that time – “And the LORD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the LORD be One, and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9) But, in these days, before the coming of the messiah; in these non-Biblical days in which open miracles are not the norm, and God’s face is painfully hidden; in the here and now, the Rabbis tell us to love the Gentile without any preconditions.

Even if the Gentile is an idolater, we are to support their poor, visit their sick, bury their dead, and comfort their mourners, just as we would to the Jewish poor, the Jewish sick, the Jewish dead, and to Jewish mourners.

Why? Is it perhaps because we are in exile, and often subject to the rule of Gentiles, such that we don’t want to provoke hatred? Rabbi Sacks forcefully argued that this is the wrong explanation. There is a category of Jewish law directed towards the prevention of enmity – enmity within the Jewish community, and enmity between Jews and Gentiles. Those laws have the form: don’t do such and such because it will provoke enmity. That is to say, those laws are all framed in negative terms, in terms of what we shouldn’t do – unlike the laws of darkei shalom which are all positive, framed in terms of what we should do. Moreover, those laws are always explicitly justified in terms of the prevention of enmity (mipnei eiva), and not in terms of promoting the ways of peace (mipnei darkei shalom). In other words: the Rabbinic obligations upon Jews to care for Gentiles, irrespective of their beliefs – the duties motivated by darkei shalom – are not some two-faced political compromise.

According to Rabbi Sacks, the obligations of darkei shalom emerge because nobody can be held particularly culpable today for their failure to see the truth of monotheism. We should try to spread the truth of monotheism by peaceful persuasion, where possible, but, until the coming of the Messiah, and the overwhelming evidence of God’s presence that will emerge in those days, the love of peace and justice, which stand at the heart of the Jewish religion, are not to be conditioned upon the belief of its beneficiaries. Why? Because God’s face, right now, is hidden.

Indeed, Rabbi Sacks points out, these laws of darkei shalom (ways of peace) take their name from the verse in Proverbs (3:17), traditionally understood as a description of the Torah itself: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peaceful.” In other words, the Rabbinic obligation to extend kindness, even to idolaters, is actually the very essence of the Torah itself.[7]

The amazing thing about his book, To Heal a Fractured World, is that Rabbi Sacks equally challenges the people to his left and to his right. To his left, he addresses the many Jews in this world for whom the Jewish identity boils down to nothing much more than a fervent love for social justice. Social justice is certainly important, but, according to Rabbi Sacks, it is far from enough. A human cannot truly flourish, he thought, without a life of ritual lived in the presence of God.

The rhythm and discipline of ritual is not some sort of optional add-on to the ethical life, but an essential feature of it. With his inimitable turn of phrase and facility with analogy, he wrote, “ritual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy. That requires daily discipline, a ritual – and religion is the matrix of ritual.”[8]

Equally, he turned to those on the religious right, for whom Judaism was all about halakhic obedience, ritual, and social conformity. How can a person take pride in their care never to mix wool and linen, and only to eat the most strictly supervised kosher food, if they don’t care about the plight of refugees and climate change? Have they forgotten that darkei shalom is the very beating heart of the Torah? Have they forgotten that every single detail of the Torah is included “solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction”?

Two of my beloved mentors once spoke about my own work, without me in the room. Maureen Kendler of blessed memory was telling Rabbi Sacks about a project I was working on, a great big book of Jewish metaphysics. She told me what he told her: metaphysics is of great importance, but only if it has something to say about how we should live our lives. Everything, for Rabbi Sacks, came back to ethics. And so, I tried my hardest to conclude that book (The Principles of Judaism) in that same spirit; if it doesn’t make us better people, it’s unlikely to be worthwhile.

This brings me to one last message that Rabbi Sacks had for all of us, which begins to reveal how important he was in my own life. He taught us that God has faith in us. This thought appears in various places in Rabbi Sacks’s writings. It also permeated his life.

I find this teaching in the verse of Deuteronomy (32:4): “The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false, True and upright is He.” God is a faithful God. Sometimes, this is understood as God being a trustworthy God. When we wake up in the morning, we thank God for his “great faithfulness” in restoring our souls to us. The Midrashic sources for that prayer make clear that God’s trustworthiness is the issue. We hand him our souls each night, and he can be trusted to return them to us in the morning, or in the end of days, as he resurrects the dead. But the Sifri (§307) offers us a different understanding of our verse. God is a faithful God, it says, “because he had faith in the world and created it.” The creation itself was God’s expression of faith in us.

When you wake up in the morning, God expresses faith in you. Surely, many wicked people will wake up tomorrow morning. But if they do wake up, then God is telling them that he still has faith in them to turn everything around; to make the most of the rest of his or her days.

Rabbi Sacks wasn’t afraid of doubt and uncertainty. But it seems to me that his doubt was never focused upon the existence of God. He knew God too intimately for doubt like that. The locus of his doubt, when it appeared, was centered upon humanity. When he was asked where God was during the holocaust, his stock response was to ask not “where was God”, but “where was humanity?” And sometimes it can be hard, as a Jew; not hard to believe in God, per se, but to believe in Jews! We Jews so often fall so far short of the light that we’re supposed to be. I’m not sure that Rabbi Sacks had a philosophical response to that problem. Instead, I think, he simply took comfort from the faith that God has in us, even when we lack faith in ourselves!

Just as God has faith in us, Rabbi Sacks would invest tremendous faith in his students, and followers. I think he believed that putting faith in people could help them to live up to their potential. This I know from personal experience.

In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the first edition of The Dignity of Difference, I was in Yeshiva in Israel. I was blessed to be studying Talmud with a tremendous thinker and educator, Rabbi Shmuel Nacham. But the wider environment in the Yeshiva was toxic. I was being bullied by certain Rabbis. Moreover, those Rabbis were publicly defaming Rabbis Sacks. One of them threw his books onto the floor of the study hall and stood on them. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so crushed and victimised, but I knew I would be unlikely ever to have another opportunity to learn Talmud from a teacher like Rabbi Nacham, and to concentrate all of my time, before the responsibilities of marriage, fatherhood, and career, to the study of Torah. So, I wrote to Rabbi Sacks. I told him the whole story. I didn’t hide from him what people were saying about him and his work. I laid everything on the table. This is part of his response:

Do not come home at this stage, please. It would be the wrong decision.
Please feel free to email me whenever you feel the need. One day the Jewish people will be very proud to have one such as you; and Hashem will surely give you, in the fullness of time, the right rebbeim [teachers] and chaverim [friends and colleagues], as well as the opportunities to use all those facilities to the full which you now feel are, in Milton’s words “lodged with me useless.”

In another e-mail, he told me:

[Y]ou have my full encouragement. May you be guided by one simple (or perhaps not so simple) principle: may all you do be a Kiddush ha-Shem [a sanctification of God’s name]. Let’s continue the conversation. You are destined for great things, and Hashem surely wishes you to use your gifts to bring people close to Him.

Rabbis Sacks said that his life was shaped by a handful of people who believed in him more than he believed in himself. Rabbi Sacks certainly believed in me more than I believe in myself, and that faith he had in me continues to inspire me to strive to be better. Moreover, his faith in me was just an expression of the faith that he knew God to have in every person.

Let me add to these reflections a couple of things that have come up in the days immediately subsequent to his passing.

Rabbi Sacks was the first person for whom I tore kriya [the ritualistic tearing of clothing as an act of mourning for a relative or Rabbi]. My children have seen how grief stricken I’ve been by his passing. So, one night, I was putting our 9-year-old daughter, Hadassa, to bed and we decided to read some of his book, Celebrating Life, instead of a bed-time story. Celebrating Life is a collection of little snippets and thoughts, and so, unlike his other books, I was able to make it accessible to her, with some slight doctoring.

One of the chapters I read to her spoke of the empirical evidence that correlates religious devotion and longevity. Hadassa looked up at me and said that Rabbi Sacks didn’t have a particularly long life. She worried. Wasn’t that a powerful counterexample to what we were reading?

I didn’t know what to say. I carried on reading, and Rabbi Sacks went on to answer us both. He said that longevity isn’t really what matters. It’s very nice if religious devotion provides it, but it’s not the point. “Whether or not [religious faith] makes us live longer, it lets us live each day to the full. Faith is about how we live, not how long.”[9]

As I read those words, I felt that he was wiping tears from my face and telling me that he was fine. He had lived his life well. He had packed each day with meaning, significance, and achievement. He was the very epitome of the Zohar’s understanding of the Biblical phrase, ba bayaim, comely of days.

“And Abraham was old, comely of days…” (Genesis 24:1). According to the Zohar (I.224a), it means that Abraham came before God dressed in each and every day that he had lived. Each and every day of Abraham’s life was a testimony to his righteousness. He wore each day as a badge of honour. Rabbi Sacks, as an energetic and passionate 72-year-old, was far from being an old man, but he was certainly ba bayamim. He didn’t live long, but few people live so well.

The other moment in which Rabbi Sacks spoke to me, in the week of his passing, was when I turned to Psalm 40, which just happened to be the reading of the day, in the 929 cycle of Biblical chapters. To use Rabbi Sacks’s translation, it said:

To do Your will, God, is my desire;
Your teachings course through my insides.
I proclaimed Your righteousness before the great assembly;
see – I have not sealed my lips, Lord, as You know.
I have not kept Your justice secret in my heart;
I proclaim Your devotion and salvation;
I have not denied Your loyalty and truth before the great assembly.

God’s teachings coursed through the insides of Rabbi Sacks like the writing on a piece of Blackpool rock. Few Rabbinic figures in the history of Judaism, from Abraham and Sarah until today, have taught words of Torah to such great assemblies: from Windsor Palace to Lambeth Palace; from the Pope to the Dalai Lama; from Presidents and Prime Ministers, and from Kings and Queens; the Torah of Rabbi Sacks was in high demand. He proclaimed God’s righteousness before them all.

The Talmud predicts that, in messianic times, Torah will be taught by the princes of Judah in the amphitheatres of the Western world (Tractate Megillah 6a). It might not be an amphitheatre, but Rabbi Sacks’s Ted Talk has been seen by over 2 million people; and he was certainly a prince of Judah.

It would be traditional to end this eulogy by praying that his memory should be a blessing. And yet, I think he would rather we pray for his memory to be a challenge. His memory should challenge us always to strive to be better; to embrace a life of ritual, “exercise for the soul”, and to ensure that an ethic of responsibility, kindness, and love, permeate everything that we do. I’m sure he would look kindly at us all and say, in his mellifluous tones, “may all you do be a Kiddush ha-Shem”; and he would have faith in us to live up to that hope.

[1] Sacks, J., 2005. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. London and New York, NY: Continuum, pp. 12-13

[2] Wyschogrod, M., 1996. The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p. 174

[3] The Principles of Mathematics, §138

[4] Avot 2:16

[5] Rabbi Sacks, 2009, Covenant and Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible volume 1, Jersualem: Koren Publishers, p. 16

[6] Ibid.

[7] This presentation of darkei shalom appears in chapter 8 of To Heal a Fractured World.

[8] To Heal a Fractured World, p. 171

[9] Rabbi Sacks, 2000, Celebrating Life, London: Font, p. 12

Samuel Lebens is a research fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa, and a dynamic Jewish educator. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Birkbeck College (University of London), and held post-doctoral positions at the University of Notre Dame and Rutgers. His thesis was a defense of Bertrand Russell's theory of assertion. He is also an ordained Orthodox Rabbi, having studied at various Israeli Rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Hakotel, Yeshivat Hamivtar, and Yeshivat Har Etzion).