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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught Judaism to the world

You know that whole ‘light to the nations’ thing? That was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. His memory is a blessing.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks holds a news conference at the Vatican on Nov. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — When the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, became Lord Jonathan Sacks, a wag commented: “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”

Oh, he was. He was a knight, different from all other knights — because he was a rabbi, different from all other rabbis.

Sacks died on Shabbat (Nov. 7) at the age of 72 after a brief and heroic struggle with cancer. His official title until he retired in 2013 was chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. But, in reality, his authority only pertained to one polity of British Jewry — the United Synagogue of British Orthodox synagogues. This meant that only slightly more than half of British Jews recognized his rabbinical authority.

No matter. Sacks’ authority was far from formal. It was his moral suasion, his sheer intellectual heft, his broad cultural literacy and his elegance of language and bearing. Sacks was that absolute rarity: a true public intellectual of the Jewish people.

Let me stop here for a moment, and sigh. For this is precisely what we have lost — as a people, and as a civilization.

For the last two centuries, we Jews have proudly intoned the words of the prophets. We have proclaimed ourselves to be a “light to the nations” that has a mission to humanity. Our job description: to spread the message of God’s reality to the world, to be a voice of ethics and spiritual uplift — in the words of the Aleinu, “to repair the world in the image of the Divine Kingdom.”

The truth is: We Jews have been punching below our weight. We have not been delivering our message. Oh, true: We have been more than influential. The arts; high, low and middle brow culture; literature; comedy; the sciences; the whole famous list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners.

Got it. All true.

But, when it comes to proclaiming our religious truths to the world, and calling the world into dialogue with those truths — as God said to Adam: “Where are you?” Where have we been? The Catholic Church has had a notable series of popes whose public faith spoke volumes. The Dalai Lama.

But, the public Jewish voice — a voice that went far beyond the local, and embraced the universal.

As my grandmother would have said: gornisht. Or, almost.

That was what was so stellar about Sacks. He was not a “mere” teacher of Torah (not that there is anything wrong with that). He brought the Torah out of the ark, out of the aisles of the synagogue and into the world. He showed where Judaism could influence the way the world thought, and how its principles could transform the world.

How did he do it? How much time do you have? How much space do I have?

Come with me into my office and take a look at the Sachs section on my bookshelf.

There you would find several volumes of his Torah commentaries and collected sermons — each one an erudite explication of Jewish text and ideas.

You would find “A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion,” one of the finest introductions to Judaism that you will ever read. I know of at least three gentiles who chose to join the Jewish people primarily as a result of that book.

You would find “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” a brutally honest assessment of the inherent dangers in religion. “Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion,” Sacks wrote. “They are about power, territory, and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”

You would find his last book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” It is a rigorous critique of post-modernity, with its rampant individualism, reliance on technology, diminution of the family structure and enthronement of the market economy.

Sacks succeeds in doing what I have only attempted to do — to push back on modern consumerism. “In a world where the market rules and its operation is driven by greed,” he said, “people come to believe that their worth is measured by what you earn or can afford and not by qualities of character like honesty, integrity, and service to others.”

In fact, with those words and others like them, Sacks became the only public Jewish intellectual in the world to offer a moral critique of consumerism — and with it, so much of contemporary cultural trends.

And finally, and most prominently, you would find what some would believe to be his most important (and most controversial) book, “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.”

Here, Sacks makes his plea for genuine pluralism and diversity as the only antidote to intragroup violence:

Globalization is summoning the world’s great faiths to a supreme challenge. Can we find, in the human other, a trace of the Divine Other? Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image? Can I, a Jew, hear the echoes of God’s voice in that of a Hindu or Sikh or Christian or Muslim?

Those words did not win him many admirers among the more right-wing contingents of Anglo Jewry. He was compelled to reedit his book, so as to remove certain “offensive” phrases.

Sacks’ critics believed that he was being relativistic about faith. To which he responded:

There is nothing relativist about the idea of the dignity of difference. It is based on the radical transcendence of God from the created universe, with its astonishing diversity of life forms — all of which, as we now know through genetic research, derive from a single source — and from the multiple languages and cultures through which we, as meaning-seeking beings, have attempted to understand the totality of existence.

In fact, Sacks was quite clear: God wanted the Jews to be different, in order to demonstrate that all peoples have the right and responsibility to be different.

That was, alas, Sacks’ failure, as well. He was adept at according that dignity of difference to other religious groups. To his fellow, less traditional, Jews: not so much. He chose not to go to the annual Limmud conference of Jewish learning, one of Great Britain’s greatest gifts to world Jewry, because there would be non-Orthodox rabbis there (though he had gone before he became chief rabbi). He referred to my colleagues as “those who destroy the faith.” When the nationally beloved Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn died, Sacks refused to attend the funeral — a grievous faux pas for which he paid dearly.

All this is to say: Sacks was a complex man. There was none like him in the Jewish world.

And now that he is gone, who will take his place?

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