Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, called ‘towering intellect,’ dies at 72

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, lost his third battle with cancer last Shabbat, at the age of 72. He was called a ‘towering intellect’ by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and admirers in Jewish communities throughout the world, including St. Louis, which he visited as a speaker at the Jewish Book Festival and other events.

During his St. Louis visit in November 2015 as a visiting scholar for the Jewish Federation and Washington University’s Center for Religion and Politics, Rabbi Sacks was a guest in the home of Jewish community leaders Heschel and Adinah Raskas.

Looking back on their times with the rabbi, Heschel Raskas, former Chair of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis told the Jewish Light that Rabbi Sacks was scholarly, thoughtful, contemplative and considerate.

The visit, he said, was an “exceptional privilege for Adinah and myself: To be together for several days with Rabbi Sacks, who by then was the world’s most impactful living expounder of Torah to our Jewish community and individuals of many faiths.” 

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As part of the visit, Raskas took Rabbi Sacks to meet students of Yeshivat Kadimah High School.

“Since then those students, who are now alumni, often tell me how exceptionally special that was, seeing Rabbi Sacks show great interest in what they were studying, responding to their questions, and sitting together and befriending each student,” Raskas said.

Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Jew who was admired by all streams of Judaism. Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of the Congregation Shaare Emeth, a Reform synagogue, said she has long admired Rabbi Sacks and his many published works.

“I first became aware of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when I read his book, ‘The Dignity of Difference.’ Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the book helped concretize so much of what I had been feeling about a religious response to a world fractured by divisions,” Goldstein said. “I resonated deeply with Rabbi Sacks’ understanding of Judaism as a religion born out of protest with the world ‘as it is’ and in pursuit of the world ‘as it ought to be.’

“As an Orthodox Jew, he found meaning in Jewish tradition and ideals,” Goldstein continued. “He also never failed in urging the Jewish community to take a leadership role when it came to matters of justice. Rabbi Sacks stressed the importance of coalition building between diverse groups of religious-minded communities so that we could help one another battle the forces of anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia together.

“Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was a prophetic voice in the 21st century, and I believe we will be studying, quoting and hopefully emulating his teachings for generations to come.”

Rabbi Sacks died on Shabbat Nov. 7, which our Jewish tradition tells us is a sign that he was a tzaddik, or a righteous person.  Indeed he was. He bravely called out former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, which led to Corbyn’s ouster. 

Rabbi Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, was modest and humble and did not exploit the trappings of his high office.  But he did not shrink from speaking truth to power against injustice and in pursuit of justice.

Rabbi Sacks was buried in a modest cemetery in keeping with his exemplary character.  No doubt he will be welcomed to the World to Come by Hillel, Shammai, the Rambam, Rashi, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and many Jews of all streams to discuss the Torah and Talmud.  His memory will indeed be for a blessing and be sheltered by the shadow of the Wings of the Almighty.