Commentary

Rabbi Sacks: From Anglo-Jewry to Chief Rabbi of the World

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Benjamin Elton

 

Rabbi Sacks was probably the most impressive figure that Anglo-Jewry ever produced. He was born, educated, and worked exclusively in Britain until his retirement as Chief Rabbi in 2013. He became one of the most distinguished religious voices in Britain and eventually in the whole world. His speeches and writings engaged and inspired millions, and his death created deep feelings of grief and loss. But his relationship to Anglo-Jewry was complex, and he found its religious scene difficult to negotiate. While the undisputed leader of centrist Orthodoxy, both progressives and traditionalists criticized and opposed him. He even experienced a paradoxical relationship with the Chief Rabbinate. His appointment recognized his unequalled abilities, occupied most of his career, and propelled him to unprecedented prominence. At the same time, it led him into challenging controversies. Only after his term as Chief Rabbi, for seven short years when he made the whole Jewish world his arena, could he make his fullest contribution.[1]

Anglo-Jewry is an unusual community. It has never had its institutions imposed upon it by the state, as was the case in Germany, France, and elsewhere. Orthodoxy remains the single largest denomination, unlike most places outside the Commonwealth. That outcome is due in large part to its unique Chief Rabbinate, which grew organically out of the Rabbinate of the Great Synagogue in London. Other synagogues in the metropolis either could not afford or did not want to support their own rabbi, so they relied on the Great’s incumbent. This arrangement became the norm for other congregations around Britain and across the Empire. Rabbi Solomon Hirschell became Rabbi of the Great in 1802, and by the time he died in 1842 his office had established hegemony over Anglo-Jewry; in 1845, the Great appointed Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler with the explicit title of Chief Rabbi. Yet even from its earliest days, the Chief Rabbinate did not exercise authority over all British Jews. It remained an Ashkenazi institution, while the Sephardi community followed their own spiritual leaders. Furthermore, the Reform congregation West London Synagogue of British Jews also rejected the authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbi.

As the years went by, not only more progressive, but also more traditionalist elements rejected the Chief Rabbi’s authority. The Jews who formed the Federation of Synagogues and the Adath Yisroel were hostile and wary of the Chief Rabbinate. The Federation catered to more traditional immigrant groups from eastern Europe, while the Adath appealed to Hirschians from Germany. They looked down on the Chief Rabbi and those who worked under his aegis as insufficiently learned and excessively anglicized. Although levels of unity differed over time, by the post-War period, the Chief Rabbinate encompassed the United Synagogue, the centrist Orthodox body of London synagogues established in 1870 and other congregations about Britain and the Commonwealth who looked to the Chief Rabbi as their ultimate religious authority. This wider group was known as the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Although he did not claim to represent non-Orthodox Jews or Haredim, as the leader of the largest single group in Anglo-Jewry the Chief Rabbi unofficially served as the primary religious figure in the British Jewish community. Nevertheless, this vague and undefined arrangement caused problems.[2]

Rabbi Sacks grew up in a Federation of Synagogues congregation, Finchley Central, where his father served as president for some time. Although he had family links to the United Synagogue, Rabbi Sacks’ early experiences occurred outside the religious institution he later led. He attended Bnei Akiva and organized Jewish assemblies at his non-Jewish school, but he was not strictly observant. He attended Cambridge University and excelled in philosophy, but the Six Day War turned Rabbi Sacks towards intense engagement with Judaism.

Famously, at this point in his development, Rabbi Sacks met two leading rabbis in America in 1968, to seek their advice on how to give a greater role of Judaism in his life. The first, predictably, was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Both had immersed in the western philosophical tradition, and as Rabbi Sacks sought to work out his relationship with committed Judaism, Rabbi Soloveitchik was the natural person to seek counsel. Importantly, although he was an admirer, Rabbi Sacks did not become a devotee of Rabbi Soloveitchik, as he might have done if he had received the American Modern Orthodox education in the circle of influence of Yeshiva University. For example, Rabbi Sacks once argued with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s positions in his reflections on alienation and faith.[3] The second rabbi was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to whom Rabbi Sacks acknowledged his debt for the rest of his life. The Rebbe remained an important influence and broadened Rabbi Sacks’ approach beyond a philosophical, rational Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sacks’ first book, Torah Studies (1986), was based on the Rebbe’s discourses. Recollections of Rabbi Sacks describe him leading prayers, singing at Shabbat meals, in a way that exercised the charisma of a rebbe.[4] This was not something any of his predecessors did, or what one would expect of a Cambridge-educated philosopher.

It is also important to consider two British rabbis whom Rabbi Sacks did not consult in his search for religious meaning, or if he did, he did not refer back to the encounter as a significant moment in his religious journey. The first was Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, the recently appointed Chief Rabbi, who later became Rabbi Sacks’ immediate predecessor. The second was Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a leading figure in Anglo-Jewry and former candidate for the Chief Rabbinate who became negligible due to the controversy over his 1957 book We Have Reason to Believe, which disputed the traditional account of the giving of the Torah. Rabbi Sacks’ decision to seek counsel abroad from Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Rebbe rather than these two British rabbis demonstrates both the breadth of his horizons and his fundamental traditionalism.

Rabbi Sacks returned to Anglo-Jewry intending to take on religious leadership, but he initially concentrated on his philosophical studies. In 1970 he married, which restricted his ability to learn in a yeshiva overseas, so he entered Jews’ College, the centrist Orthodox Anglo-Jewish rabbinical seminary. Rabbi Sacks entered as both a semikhah student and a lecturer in Jewish philosophy. The principal Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, an outstanding Talmudic scholar, became Rabbi Sacks’ primary teacher. Rabbi Sacks also entered the more traditional Etz Chaim Yeshiva in Golders Green in the same period. He received semikhah from both institutions after a relatively short period of study, although he learned individually with Rabbi Rabinovitch for twelve years in total. Rabbi Sacks’ brilliance and the personal attention that he received enabled him to catch up to his peers. However, in the Orthodox communities of Britain there was an awareness that he had not spent ten or fifteen years in a yeshiva environment, and he knew it himself. It seemed to diminish his self-confidence in ways that became evident during his Chief Rabbinate, for example, his desire to defer to traditionalists in the Gryn and Dignity of Difference controversies, as we will see. Yet his personal education by a leading talmid hakham, as opposed to his progression through the usual yeshiva system, probably helped him become a more original thinker, much like Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

After receiving semikhah, Rabbi Sacks rose swiftly. In 1978, he became Rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue, a large and important congregation in the heart of Jewish London; he transferred to the socially elite Marble Arch Synagogue in 1983. He also continued teaching at Jews’ College, which appointed him to a chair in Jewish thought in 1982 and elevated him to the position of principal in 1984. He was impatient with some of the traditions of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy, and he was one of the first United Synagogue rabbis to discard the hat and robe standard uniform of the Anglo-Jewish clergy. Surprisingly, at this stage in his career, he also taught at the cross-denominational Limmud Conference and at the Reform rabbinical seminary Leo Baeck College (albeit at his home rather than on the college campus).

As principal of Jews’ College, Rabbi Sacks looked beyond the narrow confines of Anglo-Jewry. He organized very successful conferences at the college, including the “Traditional Alternatives” conference of 1989, bringing a range of leading Orthodox figures from around the world to London, attracting large attendances, and publishing papers from those conferences. He also contributed to a journal of Jewish thought, L’Eyla. As Dayan Ivan Binstock pointed out in his eulogy, at this point in his career, Rabbi Sacks still spoke and wrote in technical and complex terms.[5] His audiences sensed his brilliance but could not always follow what he meant. Nevertheless, he continued leapfrogging other more experienced rabbis and emerged as the favourite to succeed Rabbi Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi. The patronage of Stanley Kalms, a wealthy philanthropist in the Jewish community and chairman of Jews’ College, provided additional support for Rabbi Sacks. Most remarkably, Rabbi Sacks had already attracted the attention of the intellectual world beyond the Jewish community. In 1990, the BBC invited him to deliver the prestigious Reith Lecture.

As a potential Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks faced the challenging task of succeeding someone as prominent as Rabbi Jakobovits, the son of a dayan in the London Beth Din, the recipient of knighthood and peerage, and winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion. Margaret Thatcher reportedly preferred him over the Archbishop of Canterbury.[6] In both Jewish and communal terms, his shoes seemed impossible to fill.

Rabbi Sacks’ keynote address at the 1989 “Traditional Alternatives” conference further elevated his status ahead of the other candidates. He began with a provocative series of questions: “Will Orthodoxy see itself threatened by assimilation and secularisation? Will it retreat yet further into its protected enclaves, while the rest of the Jewish world falls to pieces? …Or will it see itself challenged by this unique moment to lead the Jewish world?” Rabbi Sacks provided a powerful manifesto calling for openness, self-confidence, and leadership:

To make sure that every child has a Jewish education, as intellectually demanding and inspiring as the best secular education. To teach us how to be Jews in our secular involvement as well as our private lives. To teach us what it is to create a society in the golah and especially in Eretz Yisrael, based on compassion, justice and righteousness.[7]

Here, Rabbi Sacks emerged as the man capable of revitalising Anglo-Jewry at the end of the twentieth century. Sacks found himself the object of great expectations, perhaps more than anyone could fulfill. He was seen by Kalms and others as the man to save British Orthodoxy and the United Synagogue. Rabbi Sacks set out his stall as an inclusivist in his book One People? (1993), arguing that while Orthodox Judaism cannot regard other branches as equally valid, it can seek to include all Jews in a warm and open Orthodoxy. This position inevitably caused friction in practice. Rabbi Sacks believed that Orthodoxy was not one denomination among many; it was simply the set of boundaries around authentic Judaism. The weight on Rabbi Sacks’ shoulders was even greater because there was an undefined notion in the community that he was a “moderate.” This was in contrast to Rabbi Jakobovits, who never shirked from a conservative image.[8] When Rabbi Sacks acted in ways that seemed less moderate, that caused disappointment and disquiet.

Rabbi Sacks launched his tenure as Chief Rabbi in his magnificent Installation Address with a call for a decade of Jewish renewal. He asked for a revival of ahavat Yisrael and an end to negativity within the community. He observed that some felt left out: women, the young, intellectuals, the less well-off, and they had to be attended to. He appealed for ahavat Torah, a new emphasis on Jewish learning and education. He discussed the importance of ahavat Hashem and a rejection of secularism. He expressed the need to contribute to British society and support the State of Israel. Here was a manifesto for the period of over two decades that Rabbi Sacks spent as Chief Rabbi.

What were the major themes of Rabbi Sacks’ Chief Rabbinate as it developed? The first is his transition to more accessible writing. In addition to his detailed study One People?, Rabbi Sacks published several challenging theological works in the early 1990s: Crisis and Covenant, The Persistence of Faith, Faith in the Future, and The Politics of Hope. Some of these books dealt with specifically Jewish problems, while others dealt with wider religious issues. As the years went on the tone became lighter and more accessible in Community of Faith, Celebrating Life, and Radical Then, Radical Now. Rabbi Sacks began translating and commenting on liturgical texts: the Haggadah, the Siddur, and Mahzorim. He published a weekly essay on the Parashah, Covenant and Conversation. Beyond the Jewish community, he addressed broader global issues such as multiculturalism in To Heal a Fractured World, The Home We Build Together, and The Dignity of Difference.

This large body of work achieved two connected benefits. Firstly, it made Jews think more highly of Judaism and Torah. Secondly, it brought the Jewish voice to a wider societal conversation. Rabbi Sacks became a revered teacher to three Prime Ministers–John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown–as well as to the Prince of Wales. Although Rabbi Sacks wrote in 1986 that Rabbi Jakobovits’ “public stances…have commanded national attention, taking Jewish values to prominence in the widest arena,”[9] Rabbi Sacks far outshone his predecessor in this regard. His knighthood, elevation to the House of Lords, and award of the Templeton Prize equaled Rabbi Jakobovits’ formal achievements, but Rabbi Sacks became an even more prominent figure around the world. Although this global prominence was a source of pride for British Jews, some traditionalists disparaged Rabbi Sacks’ outward focus, calling him the Chief Rabbi for the gentiles.[10]

The suspicion, or lack of respect, from traditionalists stemmed from Rabbi Sack’s university background and his wide use of non-Jewish sources in his writings, but it belied his actual positions. Rabbi Sacks was a social conservative. His early writings defend faith, tradition, and the family in the face of contemporary mores. In practice, he was sometimes more cautious than Rabbi Jakobovits, who, for example, permitted women’s prayer groups to read from a Sefer Torah (albeit without a berakhah); Rabbi Sacks, on the other hand, did not even allow women to become Trustees of the United Synagogue.[11] Some felt that Rabbi Sacks did not push hard enough to solve the problems of agunot.[12] It is unclear to what extent these positions reflected his personal positions rather than merely the halakhic view of the London Beth Din, which Rabbi Sacks felt unable to oppose.

When it came to skepticism about pluralism, Rabbi Sacks kept to his word. As Chief Rabbi, he stopped attending the interdenominational Limmud Conference, though he did allow United Synagogue rabbis to attend. He also attacked the nascent Masorti Movement in Britain in intemperate tones, calling them “intellectual thieves.”[13] The most dramatic encounter with the problems of pluralism was Rabbi Sacks’ decision to not attend the funeral of Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a prominent Holocaust survivor and the most senior Reform rabbi in Anglo-Jewry. Following an outcry of criticism, Rabbi Sacks attended the memorial service sometime later. When the Haredi community protested that, Rabbi Sacks sent a letter in Hebrew to Dayan Chanoch Padwa, the leader of the Adath Yisroel community, claiming that he only attended the memorial service in order to prevent the Reform movement from appointing its own Chief Rabbi. He described Rabbi Gryn as one of those who “destroy the faith.”[14] When it leaked to the press, the letter caused an unprecedented furor that dogged Rabbi Sacks for many years afterward. The Jewish Chronicle revisited the story repeatedly. Meir Persoff, a senior journalist at the Chronicle, and Geoffrey Alderman, an academic and columnist, pursued Rabbi Sacks further, with several books and articles, which amounted to a full-scale character assassination.[15]

The next and final controversy of Rabbi Sacks’ time as Chief Rabbi also concerned pluralism, but on a grander scale. His book The Dignity of Difference contained the following passage: “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims…God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity.”[16] This statement prompted accusations of heresy from leaders of the British Haredi community, including Rabbi Joseph Dunner in London and Rabbi Bezalel Rakow, the Rav of the Haredi enclave in Gateshead in the North East of England. Rabbi Sacks claimed that his critics had misunderstood him, and he published rabbinic sources that supported his position, but he nevertheless revised his language. This concession disappointed some of his supporters.[17] Rabbi Sacks’ transition from precise philosophical language toward a more ambiguous literary style may have partially caused the controversy by not precluding a variety of interpretations. Rabbi Sacks’ political problem reflected deeper tensions between centrist Orthodoxy and Haredim, as rabbis from both worlds served under his aegis. Rabbi Sacks revised his words not primarily under pressure from the Adath or Gateshead, but from a section within his own constituency allied with those groups, which inevitably meant letting down another faction.

After The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks shifted the presentation of his ideas. He moved away from controversial Jewish topics, and his publications often appeared with the assurance that the London Beth Din had approved the contents. One can also discern a more fundamental shift in Rabbi Sacks’ focus. The Dignity of Difference in part responded to a Jewish problem, how Judaism should view other religions. Rabbi Sacks’ answer, or at least the way he expressed it, proved unbearably controversial. Therefore, for the rest of his life, Rabbi Sacks moved in two different directions. He either focused on classical Jewish texts, making them meaningful and relevant, or he tackled general human problems like multiculturalism, or general religious problems like the relationship between faith and science, to which he brought a Jewish voice. But he stopped trying to write Jewish answers to Jewish problems.

Rabbi Sacks’ rehabilitation from The Dignity of Difference crisis was complete when he stepped down as Chief Rabbi in 2013 and began visiting professorships at Yeshiva University and New York University. These appointments arguably marked the beginning of Rabbi Sacks’ greatest period. Unfettered by the political pitfalls of the Chief Rabbinate, he moved beyond Anglo-Jewish centrist Orthodoxy to become Chief Rabbi of the world. He used his seat in the House of Lords to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and became the primary spokesman for the Jewish community on those troubling subjects.

He spoke all over the Jewish world, and continued to produce his weekly Covenant and Conversation essays on the Parashah and new books. He was translated into Modern Hebrew and became a major figure in Israel for the first time.[18] He started to make very popular videos for YouTube and used social media extremely effectively. His translations of and commentaries on the liturgy, published by Koren, emerged as the new standard Modern Orthodox series of siddurim and mahzorim.[19] His voice became the dominant English expression of Judaism, to both Jews and non-Jews. His last project, a new commentary on the Humash, will hopefully be published in the near future. Beyond merely an or la-goyim (“light to the nations”), as some eulogies have described him, he transcended that label by becoming a teacher to his own people as well.[20]

Although Anglo-Jewry was sometimes a difficult environment, and the Chief Rabbinate sharply challenging, that context and role gave Rabbi Sacks unparalleled opportunities to develop into the spokesman for Judaism. He became so compelling on the world stage because of his grounding in Britain, but it was only when he transcended a particular place and a specific office that he manifested his full greatness. We were fortunate to experience the last seven years of his post-rabbinate career, but the sadness remains that it did not last longer.


[1] For general background on Rabbi Sacks, see Meir Persoff, Hats in the Ring (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2013), 219-259.

[2] For more on the development of the British Chief Rabbinate, see Benjamin J. Elton, Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).

[3] Jonathan Sacks, “Alienation and Faith,” Tradition 13.4/14.1 (Spring-Summer 1973): 137-162.

[4] See this account, for example.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYdUrQipCVk.

[6] https://www.thejc.com/news/features/margaret-thatcher-s-special-relationship-with-chief-rabbi-jakobovits-1.483706.

[7] Quoted in Persoff, Hats in the Ring, 226-227.

[8] For one example of this impression of moderation, see here.

[9] Introduction to Tradition and Transition, ed. Jonathan Sacks (London: Jews’ College Publications, 1986), 1.

[10] https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-1948-2020-the-contradictions-of-rabbi-jonathan-sacks-1.9296650.

[11] https://www.thejc.com/community/community-news/pioneer-orthodox-women-s-learning-group-looks-back-on-25-years-1.467572; https://www.thejc.com/news/uk/new-role-for-women-in-synagogues-1.470872.

[12] https://www.thejc.com/comment/opinion/when-it-came-to-agunot-rabbi-lord-sacks-could-have-pushed-harder-1.508647.

[13] https://www.jta.org/1995/01/19/archive/britains-chief-rabbi-stirs-controversy-with-recent-remarks.

[14] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/jonathan-sacks-defender-faith-9222878.html.

[15] Meir Persoff, Another Way, Another Time (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010).

[16] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum, 2002), 55.

[17] https://www.jta.org/2003/03/16/lifestyle/british-chief-rabbi-revises-controversial-book.

[18] See the end of this article.

[19] For (just one) example, see here.

[20] For example, Chief Rabbi Mirvis called him an “outstanding ambassador for Judaism.”

Benjamin Elton
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Elton is the Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue in Sydney. Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Elton earned an MA in History at Queens’ College, Cambridge and a PhD in Jewish History at Birkbeck, University of London. For seven years he worked in the Ministry of Justice in London and then studied for four years at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York and has semikha from there, and from London and Israel. He is the author of Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970 (Manchester University Press, 2009) and other articles on Anglo-Jewish and Australian Jewish history.