The death of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has provoked a great deal of sadness, that is all the more striking given how much the US election dominated everyone’s attention the weekend that he died. That sadness seems to be widely shared across the British Jewish community. On my social media feeds, it seems that as many progressive Jews of my acquaintance have shared warm recollections, as have my modern orthodox friends.
Given that Sacks’s tenure as Chief Rabbi often saw him becoming ensnared in unpleasant intra-communal disputes, how do we understand the warmth with which he is remembered, even amongst those who sometimes found themselves in the opposite camp to him?
Part of the answer to this question lies in the contradictory nature of British Jewish communal politics. We are not a tiny community, but we are small enough for there to be a certain intimacy, particularly amongst those who are heavily involved in Jewish organisational life and leadership. That intimacy can sometimes exacerbate the bitterness of political disputes, but it can also work the other way too: Those on opposite sides of communal divides can nonetheless be tied together in bonds of friendship and affection. Sacks and his Reform opposite number, Rabbi Tony Bayfield, attended the same school and remained friendly even when their organisations were caught up in the unpleasantness of the ‘Gryn Affair’. Sacks also enjoyed good relations with Hugo Gryn’s widow that were strained, but not broken, by the very public controversy that followed Gryn’s death.
That Sacks was able to maintain relations privately, even when they were publicly strained to breaking point, is also a tribute to the man himself. Anyone who met him (as I did on a few occasions) could attest to his charm, sense of humour and beguiling conviviality. That fundamental civility – a key rabbinic skill – meant that it was very hard not to enjoy his company. Add to that the mellifluous voice and the elegance of his prose as a writer, and we have a person to whom many of us were instinctively drawn.
What those of us who met him privately came to understand was that he was a man who struggled. He struggled to find a balance between his instinctive warmth towards other Jews, regardless of their views, and his commitment to an orthodoxy that inevitably draws hard red lines of exclusion. He struggled to find a balance between his unabashed modern orthodoxy and his respect for insular forms of orthodoxy. He struggled to find a balance between his veneration for inter-communal difference with the restrictiveness of his vision of intra-communal difference.
That this struggle was so evident and so public helped to mitigate the disappointment many of us felt on those occasions when he resolved it in favour of his less liberal inclinations. It meant that we understood that he was not a hypocrite when, for example, he publicly lauded Limmud while feeling himself unable to attend. We knew that he was torn and that, while we couldn’t empathise with his desire to remain in reasonable standing with the right of orthodoxy, we could understand the toll that his irreconcilable commitments took on him.
Ideologically, I cannot hold to the kind of liberalism that Sacks embodied. As with New Labour’s ‘third way’, which emerged during his tenure in office (and Sacks enjoyed warm relationships with a number of key New Labour figures), the attempt to reconcile ideological opposites too often ended up upholding the most belligerent tendency. But in the case of Sacks at least, I know that this attempt at synthesis and reconciliation was entirely genuine and well-meant, even when it was not possible. And I think that this is the Sacks that many of us who were not modern orthodox are mourning now – the Sacks that wanted to knit this world, this Jewish community, together, even in the face of odds he himself knew were insurmountable.
Rabbi Lord Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK. Born 8 March 1948, died 7 November 2020, aged 72.