That exhortation, typical of the lapidary style of his writing, describes his own life and achievement: as the deeply respected leader of a minority religion, he was able to speak truth into British and global society in such a way as to enlighten and enrich many, many people, beyond as well as within the Jewish community. The Prince of Wales described him as ‘a light unto the nation,’ and that estimate was reflected in the many accolades which recognised his influential voice as writer, speaker, broadcaster and parliamentarian.
Sacks was able to address a multi-faith and secular society with conviction and coherence on the basis of core Jewish teachings, and he was particularly committed to Christian-Jewish dialogue and understanding – his speech at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, for example, was the highlight of that gathering. During his time as chief rabbi, Sacks served as one of the presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, and was instrumental in ensuring that leaders of traditions of Judaism other than his own United Synagogue were included on the same footing. In fact, the area of intra-Jewish relations was one in which his understanding and practice developed over the years.
Jonathan Sacks’ contributions to public life and thought were based on his dual background as a philosopher and as a religious scholar – though in fact language of duality is inappropriate, as for him, following here his mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Jewish philosophy emerged from halakhah: ‘Jewish thought and Jewish practice were not two different things but the same thing seen from different perspectives’ (A Judaism Engaged with the World, 2013). Yet Sacks went further than any other Jewish thinker in drawing out the consequences of this for wider society, balancing yet distinguishing Chokmah [wisdom] and Torah[instruction] as, respectively, ‘the truth we discover … [and] … the truth we inherit’ (Future Tense, 2009). While the practice of Torah was for the Jewish community, and he was adamant on orthodoxy in halakhic practice, Chokmah was available for all, and none was more effective than him in sharing this wisdom with a wider world.
As a result of this differentiated viewpoint, Christians hearing Lord Sacks were always aware that they were listening to an authentically Jewish voice, yet were also able to hear wisdom which spoke to their own situation. In fact, his universality was based on a healthy respect for the particularity of each religious tradition, a point emphasised in The Dignity of Difference(2002), where the generosity of his esteem for other faiths generated some controversy in his own community. Inter faith relations were for him not at all to do with the amalgamation of differing viewpoints into a negotiated compromise, but rather the recognition of wisdom in many and varied religions, and its pressing into service in the quest for the common good. As the title of this, probably the best-known of his books, indicates, such an approach rested on a deep respect for human dignity, founded for Sacks on the status of each human being as created in the image and likeness of God.
That fundamental ethical datum meant, of course, that his wisdom was not expressed in the formulations of an abstracted intellectualism, but in the practical commitments of one deeply committed to justice, the protection of the vulnerable, and a struggle against the disparagement of others; his persistent and courageous witness against antisemitism came across not as special pleading for his own people, but as the core of a wider fight for human dignity.
That witness was all the more convincing because as a person Jonathan Sacks wore his huge knowledge so lightly, deployed his deep wisdom so adroitly, and extended his warm generosity so liberally. His friendship and example enriched countless lives, Jewish and others; many Christians and people of other faiths have good reason to bless God for the memory of this great rabbi.