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Tue, 26 January 2021

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Remembering a true mensch and spiritual leader, Lord Rabbi Sacks

Remembering a true mensch and spiritual leader, Lord Rabbi Sacks

The late former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking during a memorial for the influential Muslim cleric Dr Zaki Badawi at Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, University of London, Thursday March 16, 2006 | PA Images

4 min read

Baroness Deech pays tribute to the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (8 March 1948 – 7 November 2020), and the immense contribution he made to the national discourse.

Lord (Jonathan) Sacks died on 7 November. He was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991-2013, head of a community of orthodox Jewish congregations (but not of the ultra orthodox or the liberals). A philosophy graduate of Cambridge, Oxford and London, ordained rabbi and Reith Lecturer, he held 16 honorary degrees, wrote 25 books and could as easily have been a distinguished professor as a rabbi. 

There has been a remarkable sense of widespread loss at the passing of Lord Sacks, as if we ourselves, whether part of the Jewish community or not, knew him personally. That in itself is a sign of his greatness. He had the ability to communicate across many divides and to blend his roles such that he became a man of more moral authority than most clerics and of more worldly influence than most peers. An exceptional spiritual leader, educator, orator, author, philosopher, intellectual, broadcaster and mentor. Summed up in one word, a mensch.

This is not to say that he succeeded in maintaining the balancing acts that he set for himself. He famously and successfully brought ancient Jewish traditions to bear on modern secular dilemmas, and was deservedly admired by Prime Ministers and Archbishops. He spoke to and for the entire nation in his broadcasts and writings. Nevertheless there was a disconnect between his written and spoken championship of diversity and inclusivity, and his very limited success in ameliorating the status of women in orthodox Judaism together with his distancing himself from reform Judaism. That said, it is all overshadowed by his immense contribution to national discourse and the legacy he has left.

He had the ability to communicate across many divides and to blend his roles such that he became a man of more moral authority than most clerics and of more worldly influence than most peers

I would like to examine this legacy through his contributions in the House of Lords, to which he was elevated in 2009. Although he was a fund of good jokes, he was not clubbable in that he was not to be found having a drink or dining at the Long Table, and he was hampered by being accompanied by a security detail at all times. But he was one of the most charismatic speakers in the Lords, whose rising to his feet caused colleagues to leave the bars, library and dining rooms and crowd in to hear him. 

 In the course of ten years there he made about 20 speeches, and I include a few quotes from them. They were succinct, eloquent and powerful, sometimes with a touch of sermonising, and he wisely limited himself to subjects in which he was expert. Because he was one of the great wordsmiths of his age, who spoke from the heart and the head, he was able to broach subjects with a frankness and confidence that made them acceptable, which they might not have been coming from others. Some of us took courage from his stance. His maiden speech was on education, a theme to which he often returned. “If there is one insight above all others to be gained from Jewish history it is that freedom depends on education. To defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilisation, you need schools.”

Rooted in his own early and happy marriage, he confronted the sensitive issue of marriage versus cohabitation and proclaimed his unfashionable support for traditional marriage: “Strong families – not always, but mostly – need the institution of marriage, and only political correctness and the desire to be non-judgmental lead us to deny that fact. It is said that marriage is just a piece of paper. It is not... It is children who pay the price.”

When under attack, Lord Sacks defended Israel. It was yet another issue where his beliefs conflicted with current thinking. “No one familiar with the history of the Jewish people through its 4000 years of history can fail to appreciate how deeply Jews within Israel and outside long for peace, pray for peace and long for the ability to live as other people live – without fear, without hate, without being treated as a pariah, without being blamed for the troubles of the world and without being denied the right to exist.” 

In 2018 Lord Sacks made an influential and scathing attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Jews and on Israel. In his final speech he described what was happening: “A society, or for that matter a political party, that tolerates anti-Semitism—that tolerates any hate—has forfeited all moral credibility.” His legacy will endure and the Jewish community stands taller for the pride we shared in his intellect and humanity. 


Baroness Deech is a Crossbench peer and academic


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