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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who brought Judaism to a global audience, dies

The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom won a large audience for his ability to reconcile the particularities of Judaism with universal concerns.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks at the European Union on Sept. 27, 2016. Photo courtesy of European Union 2016 - European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

(RNS) — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, a widely admired teacher and prolific writer who connected Jewish thought with a larger concern for universal human values, died on Saturday (Nov. 7).

He was 72 and had undergone treatment for several bouts with cancer, which was first diagnosed in his 30s.

A proponent of interfaith understanding, Sacks was a Modern Orthodox rabbi with wide crossover appeal to other Jewish groups and to non-Jews.

“No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his 2002 book, called “The Dignity of Difference,” which ignited controversy in inwardly focused Orthodox groups. Sacks toned down his language in subsequent editions.

He was easily the best-known and most recognizable European rabbinic authority and traveled widely. He was a frequent visitor to the United States, where he taught courses at New York University and Yeshiva University, and to Israel, where he led classes at the Hebrew University.

“He believed in the diversity of humanity and that that was part of God’s intent,” said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, a friend and the leader of Congregation K.I.N.S. of Chicago’s West Rogers Park. “We were created to bring our unique gifts. He was able to engage people in this way.”

Born in London in 1948, Sacks studied at Cambridge University and London’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva. He received a Ph.D. from the University of London. His first rabbinic appointment was as the rabbi for the Golders Green Synagogue in London. In 1983, he became Rabbi of the prestigious Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, a position he held until 1990.

At 43, Sacks was appointed chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth — a position he held from 1991 to 2013.

He was widely sought out by the British media on crucial issues of the day, penned a regular column in The Times newspaper and was frequently interviewed on the BBC. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 and awarded a life peerage in the House of Lords in 2009.

He won a large audience for his ability to reconcile the particularities of Judaism with the world at large. His most recent book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” was published in September. He championed the compatibility of science and religion.

Matanky said Sacks was both unassuming and shy, yet could command an audience, as he did five years ago at Matanky’s Chicago synagogue, which seats 1,200.

“He was a noble figure who ennobled others and brought pride to others through his language, his ability to communicate and to create those bridges across the world,” Matanky said. 

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But while Sacks spoke eloquently about his responsibility to engage with other faith traditions — and had longstanding friendships with Christians and Buddhists — he did not seek out Muslims. Imam Abudullah Antepli, an associate professor of the practice of interfaith relations at Duke Divinity School, challenged him on this during a three-day visit to Duke in 2017.

“He took his religion very seriously and developed this incredible generosity toward others — informed by his deeply rooted Jewish understanding,” said Antepli. But for whatever reason, he never really engaged Muslims, Antepli added.

Sacks did speak out forcefully about anti-Semitism and was very critical of Britain’s former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who he said “defiles our politics and demeans the country we love.”

He was most popular among his fellow Jewish clergy. His commentaries on the Jewish prayer book became widely used in American Modern Orthodox synagogues.

His death drew condolences from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Prince Charles.

“With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the entire world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal,” Prince Charles said.

He received numerous honors, including the Templeton Prize in 2016, the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion and the Abraham Kuyper Prize from Princeton Theological Seminary.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said Sacks was “a pillar of integrity who inspired Jews and non-Jews alike.”

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