Miriam Feldman Kaye wrote this:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks exemplified many things to many people.

For me, he was a mentor, a guide, an old friend of my father, and the father of a close friend. I am distraught at his passing.

For me, a world without his teaching is inconceivable. My sole respite has been, more than writing this about him, learning from him through doing so. I cannot bear to open and read our correspondence over the years. I am not yet ready to look at photos, including those of him with my eldest daughter Odeliya as a baby in England.

The sheva brachot (post-wedding celebratory meal) they held for us after we married. The meeting he held at his home for those making aliya that month. The encouragement, help and support he gave me spanned decades, personally, and intellectually. Opening up one of the books at home, and seeing the words he wrote to us – “beloved friends” makes me long for the world that so recently was.

However, my pain is but a drop in an ocean of tears. I wish to share some memories and thoughts. As teenagers growing up in England, he was most loved for his support of the youth movements. We remember him dancing with the Bnei Akiva youth, and even being carried on their shoulders, at the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut Israel celebrations. We looked on with such glee. He loved being with the young people.

He encouraged those of us who studied at non-Jewish secondary high schools to forge an identity which was as true outside the Jewish community as it was within. In my role at the Jewish Society at the City of London School for Girls, we could rely on him when we invited him to come and speak.He himself, together with my father, had studied at Christ’s College secondary school, and knew the dynamics at play of straddling an open Jewish identity with Christian or non-religious values.

Developing thinking on potential Jewish contributions to Western civilization and culture constituted some of the values upon which he was raised. He continued on with my father (who studied Law) to study Moral Sciences (as philosophy was then called) at Cambridge University, at Gonville and Caius College (which, marking his death, flew its flag at half mast).

They were both members of the Jewish Society there, and my father recalls a conversation they had in 1967 just prior to the Six Day War, about the future. My father asked him what he would like to do in the future, he replied “I haven’t got the faintest idea”.I too went to study at the same college at Cambridge University, and I remember his delight at hearing that I had followed in my father’s and also in his, footsteps.

And too, as co-President of Cambridge University Jewish Society, he and Elaine would happily come to spend time with the students, and spend Shabbat with us, whenever they could. More than anything, he enjoyed conversations with youth and young people. Tributes pouring in from my peers are testament to this phenomenon.

Opening the twenty or so books by Sacks on our shelves – it becomes clear that through his books, one can understand what was going on in the world, rather than the other way around. It also raises the question, as to whether he was responding to the crises around him, or predicting what might come next.

However – as important as the books – were the public dialogues he held with others. He did not only theorise about encountering those with whom he disagreed. Sacks claimed that if one surrounds oneself with those who are similar to oneself, then monolithic ideology will only proliferate.

He lived out this theory, famously engaging in deep, public dialogue with the radical critic of religion Richard Dawkins, as he sought to fully comprehend original theories of evolution. One of his favourite open conversations was with the secular Israeli writer Amos Oz, despite a presumption that a ‘religious’ writer speaking with a ‘secular’ author-poet was anathema. He called for relations based on respect, dignity and understanding, and this was reflected through the conversations he held in the public as well as in the private spheres.

I believe that his seminal work was ‘Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the Future of the Jewish People’ (1989), which essentially laid out the major themes he was to develop over his lifetime: assimilation and future; Jewish and national identity; Halakhah and a moral system; and a philosophical quest for a compelling Judaism which could reflect these themes.

His Reith Lectures publication ‘The Persistence of Faith’ (1990) on religion and morality were followed closely by a lesser known and very important work ‘Tradition in an Untraditional Age’ (1990). He had already unpacked the ideas of pluralism, and of fundamentalism. What was to come were developments that others could not predict. He asked intense internal communal questions, one of which came to fruition in ‘Will we have Jewish Grandchildren?’ (1994).

His development of the role of the family in the modern world, spans at least fifteen years, from ‘Faith in the Future’ (1995) until his most recent book ‘Morality’ (2020). He warned of the grave dangers of the emphasis on the welfare of the individual in Liberal Democracies (To Heal a Fractured World, 2005). He addressed the Other famously in the Dignity of Difference (2002, 2003) but possibly more so in ‘Future Tense’ (2009). Religious fundamentalism was a problem which all religions needed to deal with. In the British community and beyond, antisemitism was and remains a force to be reckoned with, and must be undertaken together with other faith communities.

Indeed all his work on religious fundamentalism addresses monotheisms as a whole, and the facets he viewed which give life to radical and violent elements as an innate part of religion (‘Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence’, 2015). One example for him is the potential violence that can be done by reading texts. Taking texts literally is a violent act. Texts and their messages demand interpretation, and mediation with the issues of the times (‘Letter in the Scroll’ 2000).

The ‘New Atheism’ and the world of science, too, had to be held accountable to nuances in texts, and cultural interpretation (‘The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning’ 2011).In the aftermaths of 9/11 and then of 7/7, he demanded that religion confront radicalisation from within. This was initially reflected through the Dignity of Difference. Despite a debacle over the nature of plurality, or perhaps because of this, it became a leading manifesto calling for religion to embrace the other by recognising difference. Difference, he claims, must not be diluted In the name of a search for common ground, refusing to rest on the laurels of a plurality within the new theory of ‘multiculturalism’ (‘To Heal a Fractured World’ 2007).

Though he also wrote about the joy of everyday life, expressed through love and humour. When his book ‘Celebrating Life’ came out (2002), he noted how much pleasure it gave his mother that this was a book she could finally understand.

In addition, he wrote to the Jewish layperson, publishing numerous collections of writings on Torah portions, and pioneering educational projects for children and young adults around the Shabbat table.What I already call the later days, were defined by four main developments.

The first when his position as Chief Rabbi came to an end in 2013. He transformed this from an end to a great new beginning. The second was when his books began to be translated into Hebrew. The third was when the partnership with Maggid-Koren begun to flourish, which saw brand new editions of siddurim, machzorim (daily and festival prayer books) and chumashim (Pentateuchs) published. To those who use these prayer books, Sacks offers literal guidance during the prayer experience. This had seen something of a precedent close to twenty years ago, when he began to accompany many at their ‘seder night’ of the Passover festival, by way of the ‘Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah’ (2003).The fourth phase was his engagement with many more thousands through his digital media projects.

All these four stages exposed Israeli and North American Jews to Sacks. In a sense, from this point onwards, the rest is history – as it was through this stage that he became an international Jewish leader and his reach was palpable.Once this phase had begun, and his leadership reached Israel (numerous works have yet to be translated to Hebrew) and then throughout the diaspora (having chosen to spend considerable time in New York), he gained great acclaim, and one might have thought he would become more distant as his audience broadened. But no, he continued to value above all, a connection with his home community.

Even whilst he concerned himself with globalization, radical fundamentalism, global warming, and the nature of Western society, he never distanced himself from the plight of those closer to him.

And even as began to meet with great luminaries, politicians and leaders, be it Prince Charles, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama, he was always in touch with the young people, their issues, and their questions about identity, faith and their potential role in the world.Rabbi Sacks wove a new tapestry of Jewish philosophy with lived religion.

For him, lived religion goes beyond spiritual experience. It is not primarily existentialist, or transcendent. It was not for an elite of believers, it was available for all to behold. He advocated for a Jewish identity of engagement, of improving our fractured world. He strove to identify and succeeded in designing a broad Jewish philosophy. Here is one astounding aspect of this philosophy, based on a personal conversation, in the aftermath of a fatal bus accident I was involved in, in which he shared with me the following. He told the story of a Midrash (from the literature of rabbinic commentary), which describes the image of a traveller who witnesses a palace lit up in flames (Bereshit Rabba 39:1).

The traveller wonders “Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?”. At that minute it becomes apparent that the very owner of the palace remains inside, and he looks out and states his claim as owner of the palace. According to the metaphor presented in this midrash, God is the owner inside the burning palace, and Abraham, the traveller, the onlooker, is bearing witness to this scene, at which point, Abraham exclaims:“Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” The Holy One, Blessed be He, looked out, and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the Universe”.

Sacks, seeking an explanation, finds interpretations of others, including those of Abraham Joshua Heschel, as a metaphor for a “palace full of light” (‘God in Search of Man’) and of Louis Jacobs as an early case in point for one of the proofs for the existence of God – the “argument from design” (‘We Have Reason to Believe’), to be “beautiful” but ultimately unconvincing.

His interpretation of this midrash was one of his main philosophical claims;The palace is in flames. The world is full of disorder, of evil, violence and injustice. Now, no-one builds a building and then deserts it. If there is a fire, there must be someone to put it out… If so, where is he? That is the question, and it gives Abraham no peace. Faith is born not in the answer but in the question, not in harmony but in dissonance… why then does He allow man to destroy the world? …He then describes an atheist position on the existence of God in light of this midrash – wherein “ the evolution of the universe is inexorable and blind: there is no justice and no judge, and therefore there is no question” – there is only fire and no owner.

He contrasts this with a theist position which posits that “All that happens, transpires because He willed it. Therefore all injustice is an illusion. Perhaps the world itself is an illusion… there is a palace. Therefore there are no flames” . There is only an owner and no flames. He claims that actually, each of these positions has its own truth. Neither answer on its own suffices. Why so? Because there exists both palace and flames. Abraham, Sacks continues, “refuses to accept either answer”.“only man can put out the fire… Four thousand years later, this is still a revolutionary idea. And still an unfinished task”.

This, he explains, is a reason why Jewish people must contribute to the mending of the world. However, he does not stop short here, for this message has global implications;“The flames of injustice, violence and oppression are not inevitable… Judaism is the revolutionary moment at which humanity refuses to accept the world that is”.This viewpoint sees the world as a palace, and flames as those of injustice and violence. A religious position must not apologise for the damage it causes for the sake of justifying its existence. Those who spark flames, must seek to extinguish them.

They must take responsibility for the evil and violence, seeking to root it out, even if it seems to be distant. Bearing witness is part of the responsibility thrust upon the so-called onlooker, who, not incidentally, becomes the father of the world’s monotheistic religions.This message resonates from the most intimate levels, to those of global significance.

A few months after my conversation with Sacks, he asked me to look over a manuscript of his book, which detailed this position, taking it to a global level. Though at root, the message is deeply philosophical – a refusal to accept absolutism, an everlasting engagement with the question, throughout which, he taught me, encouraged me, to stake my own claim to this midrash.

This manuscript became: ‘A Letter in the Scroll’ ( in America published as ‘Radical Then Radical Now’ and again later in its Hebrew translation) in 2001.How can one sum up an intellectual contribution of such philosophical and religious acumen? I believe that this is a process, which has run all the way through the trajectory of his life since beginning Chief Rabbi in Britain and the Commonwealth in 1991, and until last Shabbat.He had already received two collaborative festschrifts: ‘Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ (2012), and ‘Morasha Kehillat Ya’akov’ (2014).

However, the collaboration of us, his students, to improve this world will serve as a living festschrift – one which will forever continue to be written, re-written, and most importantly, it will be lived. Sending love to Elaine, as well as to his children Josh, Dina, Gila and their families, and to his three brothers.

ברוך דיין האמת

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