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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Towering Intellect Of Judaism, Dies At 72

Religious leader and philosopher Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the U.K. He has died at the age of 72.
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Religious leader and philosopher Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the U.K. He has died at the age of 72.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a celebrated moral thinker and globally renowned intellect of Judaism, died on Saturday after a short bout with cancer. He was 72.

Serving as the chief rabbi in the United Kingdom from 1991 to 2013, Sacks gained fame both in the secular world and in Jewish circles. He was a sought-after voice on issues of war and peace, religious fundamentalism, ethics, and the relationship between science and religion, among other topics. Sacks wrote more than 20 books.

"It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Rabbi Sacks," says Laurie Zoloth, the Margaret E. Burton Professor of Religion and Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "His books were a model of thoughtful, rational, deeply intellectual reflections on the importance, complexity and power of a life as a religious Jew, and in a broader sense, as a person of faith."

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005, he was awarded a life peerage four years later in the House of Lords.

At the same time, Sacks was deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. A rabbi in the Modern Orthodox tradition, Sacks' commentaries on Jewish prayer books were widely read and praised.

"For millions of Jews who were not really educated in the complexities of the Torah, he was able to say, 'Look at your tradition and how interesting and intellectually power and beautiful it is,' " Zoloth says.

Few if any Jewish leaders in the world were more adept at explaining Judaism to the broader world, always emphasizing its promotion of justice and tolerance, a message that on one occasion got him in trouble with some conservative Orthodox rabbis.

In his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference, Sacks wrote, "God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. ... God is the god of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity."

To some, especially in the ultra-Orthodox world, such pronouncements were tantamount to heresy, and in later editions of the book, Sacks softened the language to say, "As Jews, we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures, and faiths finding their own relationship with God."

Sacks downplayed the significance of the revision in a 2015 interview with NPR's Robert Siegel, saying, "When extremists call you a heretic, that's their way of giving you an honorary doctorate."

Sacks told Siegel he wrote the book in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, when the urgency of promoting interfaith understanding was widely recognized.

"I toned down several of the sentences, because the truth is, if you're going to be a leader, lead at a speed that people can follow," Sacks said. "And I just think I was trying to do too much too fast."

The connection of religion to war and violence was one of Sacks' great concerns. His book Not In God's Name was not only a rebuke to all those who misuse religion to promote hatred and war, but also an explanation of how that misuse happens.

"Human beings have both a propensity for altruism and a propensity for violence and evil," Sacks told a group of religion writers in 2015. "They are born at the same time, they derive from the same source, which is that we, in order to survive, both cooperate and compete. We are altruistic towards the members of our group, and that makes us both angels and demons at the same time – angels to the guys like us and demons to the guys not like us."

Sacks' final book, Morality: Restoring The Common Good In Divided Times, was published just as the coronavirus pandemic was breaking out around the world. Though written before COVID-19 emerged, the book proved prescient, with its emphasis on the importance of "Living The We" rather than "Living the I."

In a Zoom presentation in March to Hillel, the Jewish student organization, Sacks said those people who were hoarding food and medicine and refusing to socially distance exemplified the "Living The I" tendency.

"They're only concerned with their own interests," Sacks said. "That's what happens when you put 'the I' ahead of 'the We.' When you emphasize 'the We,' something extraordinary happens. You get the most heroic behavior — from doctors, from nurses, from health care workers, from people who are stacking the shelves in supermarkets. These are people who live 'the We.'"

The pandemic, Sacks said, "showed how terrible 'the I' can be and how elevating and inspiring 'the We' can be. I hope it's the book that charts the way forward for society when all this is over."

Even while writing, Sacks was generous with his time, especially with college students. He traveled almost constantly, speaking to student groups around the world. Part of his appeal was his ability to address tough, profound questions.

In an interview just a few weeks before his death on the podcast From The Inside Out, host Rivkah Krinsky asked Sacks the age-old question, Why does God let bad things happen to good people?

"God does not want us to understand," Sacks said. "Because if we ever understood, we would be forced to accept that bad things happen to good people, and God does not want us to accept those bad things. He wants us not to understand, so that we will fight against the bad and the injustices of this world, and that is why there is no answer to that question. God has arranged that we shall never have an answer to it."

Sacks, who was born in London in 1948, was the first in his family to attend college. His father, who arrived in England from Poland as a child, quit school at the age of 14 to work selling cloth. Sacks chose to become a rabbi late in his education, having initially studied philosophy. He held a Ph.D. in philosophy from King's College London. He is survived by his wife, three children, and several grandchildren.

Sacks' death over the weekend, announced on his personal Twitter account, brought an outpouring of tributes, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charlesand Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, among many others.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.