Jonathan Sacks had titles and honours enough, but the prize that mattered was that intangible one first articulated by Isaiah: to be a light unto the nations

Defender of the faith

Daniel Johnson remembers Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wise and generous friend, guide and mentor

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

With the death last month of Jonathan Sacks, this country has lost its favourite rabbi — a teacher of global stature. I, like countless others, have lost a dear friend. His most teachable moments were impromptu. One such came after an event that I chaired with him in conversation with the Israeli thinker Yoram Hazony at the Natural History Museum in 2013. It was a highbrow discussion about the Bible and philosophy, well worth watching on YouTube. 

Until recently, though, I was oblivious of the fact that at a reception afterwards he came up unbidden to my teenage son, who had been in the audience, and asked him about himself and his ambitions. Leo, it turns out, still treasures that personal encounter, in which the Chief Rabbi “engaged more with me than any Catholic bishop ever did”.

He was a Chief Rabbi who not only towered above contemporary Archbishops of Canterbury but ranked with the greatest ever to hold that office: Augustine and Anselm, Becket and Cranmer. He was a spiritual leader to compare with Wycliffe or Wesley, More or Newman, and a public intellectual of the calibre of Isaiah Berlin, at whose funeral he officiated. 

In the secular world he was an instant success: a guide for the perplexed of this and future ages

Sacks was the first British rabbi to exercise an influence on his compatriots that extended far beyond his community. In his books and his broadcasts, he filled the void that had been left in public discourse by the decline of Anglicanism — a decline that he lamented, incidentally, insisting always that the established Church must be primus inter pares among faiths. 

At 42 he was the youngest ever to hold his office and the only one to have been born in England, but he did not come from a rabbinical family. It took the “boychik” a long time to earn the sometimes grudging admiration of the Orthodox Jewish world as a scholar and commentator. In the secular world he was an instant success: a guide for the perplexed of this and future ages. 

In Paradise Lost, Milton set himself “to justify the ways of God to men”. That task, the theologico-philosophical question of theodicy, was a problem more for Christian rather than Jewish tradition. For Jews, God was not there to be justified, but to be understood, followed and, if necessary, argued with. Yet as part of the unique, almost superhuman, rabbinical vocation to which Jonathan Sacks was called, he did take on those who not only denied God’s existence but the need for religious observance. 

He lived in an age when fame and fortune were to be found, not by joining the defenders of faith, but by denouncing God and all his works. Atheism had become a lucrative profession. Sacks was never afraid to go into the lists with Dawkins et al, fondly remembering how his supervisor at Cambridge, Sir Bernard Williams — “a really great atheist” — had put him to the test.

But for Sacks, the harder task by far was to justify the ways of man to God. He struggled to make sense of humanity’s inhumanity, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel. He grappled with the most intractable conundrums in ethics and politics, in science and theology, his curiosity ranging far and wide to gather insights. 

Hardly anyone else was even trying to do what he accomplished with consummate ease. Almost every year he took a month off to write a book. In The Great Partnership, he reconciled faith and reason. In Not in God’s Name he confronted religious violence. Most recently, in Morality he redefined the common good. In everything he wrote, said or did, there was a distinctive style: the popular touch, most evident in his Thoughts for the Day, that somehow contrived never to be vulgar; the inexhaustible fund of parables and anecdotes with which he made hard truths palatable: the effortless eloquence that eluded his peers — and not only those in the House of Lords. He had titles and honours enough; but the prize that mattered was that intangible one first articulated by Isaiah: to be a light unto the nations.

Sacks’s blunt description of Corbyn as an antisemite had consequences

It was there, in the public square, that Sacks was at his best and made an enduring impact. He reinvented the role of Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, from that of an interlocutor for the secular authorities in its dealings with the Jewish community to that of a distinctively prophetic voice in the national conversation with, on occasion, international resonance. 

The return of antisemitism as a clear and present danger to Jews in Europe took place on his watch and Sacks rose to the challenge. He was careful never to criticise Islam, even when mainstream Muslim politicians and clerics demonised Israel or Judaism. He never questioned the legitimacy of those, especially but not exclusively on the left, who habitually held Israeli governments to a higher standard than any other. He himself could be critical of the Israeli government’s indifference to the way they were perceived abroad and the repercussions for British Jews. But neither did he compromise in identifying and analysing the mutations of antisemitism. Over a quarter of a century he educated the public about what was, and was not, antisemitic. When so-called “anti-Zionism” morphed into a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, Sacks did not mince his words. Nor was he afraid to make enemies in British politics or the

Speaking to the New Statesman in 2018, five years after retiring as Chief Rabbi, Sacks took on Jeremy Corbyn who, he said, had “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map”. Warming to his theme, Sacks uttered perhaps the harshest words this gentle, scholarly man had ever used about another human being: “Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an antisemite as the leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.”

Even his friends, Jews and Gentiles, were startled by the vehemence of this verdict. Sacks had not only burned his bridges with the Labour leadership but broken with the rabbinical tradition, at least in Britain, of avoiding overtly partisan politics. It was a far cry from the Blair era, when Labour cabinet ministers were regular guests at the Chief Rabbi’s table. 

Every religion has its difficult texts, he assured me. The solution was not to bowdlerise them

Sacks’s blunt description of Corbyn as an antisemite had consequences. By breaking with convention, he made it much easier for his successor, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to speak out. Without the precedent set by Sacks, however, it is unlikely that the cautious and unworldly Rabbi Mirvis would have broken such a strict taboo. 

My earliest encounters with Jonathan Sacks some 25 years ago came about because he had read me in The Times, to which he was a regular contributor. He was then at work on his breakthrough book, The Politics of Hope, which introduced his big idea: that modern society would only work for all its members if it were based, not on social contract, but on social covenant. This was, like all his insights, ultimately biblical in origin, but as in all his books he deployed not only his formidable erudition but sought out individuals whose ideas he valued. Among them were several thinkers whom I also knew and admired: conservatives such as the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and the Catholic theologian Michael Novak, liberals like the constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor and ethical socialists such as Frank (now Lord) Field. Sacks inscribed that book warmly, as he did all his books, “in deeply cherished friendship and deep admiration”. Unlike some Jewish acquaintances who saw me primarily as the son of Paul Johnson, author of A History of the Jews, Jonathan always valued me for myself. 

Often, we participated together in debates, joining in the transatlantic Judaeo-Christian dialogue that flourished during the decades of his Chief Rabbinate. Always I was struck by his kindness. On one occasion I ran into him early in the morning in the passengers’ lounge at Luton airport. We were both en route to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. He was busy, as always, but he listened as I explained that I was nervous about a lecture that I was due to give in Jerusalem. Was it too hard-hitting, too audacious for my audience? “Email it to me,” he said. 

I did, little thinking that I would hear from him in time. By the time we were seated on the plane, he had already digested all 3,000 words and formulated his response. “I agree with almost every word,” he said. “But even if I didn’t, you should have the courage of your convictions. Just say what you believe. They’ll love you for it.” And, of course, he was right.

On another occasion, however, Jonathan came to my rescue in a far more fundamental way. In 2002 the controversial American historian Daniel Goldhagen published A Moral Reckoning; I was asked to review it in an essay on “The Catholic Crisis” for the New York magazine Commentary. I had met Goldhagen in 1996 when he made his name with Hitler’s Willing Executioners; despite the vilification he endured for his critique of “ordinary Germans”, he impressed me as a serious historian and his warning that “eliminationist” antisemitism had not been eradicated in Europe has largely been vindicated. So when he turned his guns on the Catholic Church’s record of antisemitic persecution, it presented me with a very personal dilemma. 

He was as close to the Renaissance ideal of the uomo universale as anyone I have ever met

Goldhagen argued that the ultimate source of Christian anti-Judaism was the New Testament itself. So poisonous were the libels against Jews contained in the Gospels and other scriptures, he claimed, that these passages should be excised or at least annotated with health warnings for the unwary reader. I rebelled against the idea that the Gospels were too dangerous to be published without censorship or textual deconstruction; yet there was no denying the fact that these words had been used to justify discrimination, ethnic cleansing and even what we would now call genocide. 

Tormented by this conflict between allegiance and conscience, I asked Jonathan Sacks whether I could unburden myself to him. He invited me to his official residence and we talked for more than an hour. The effect of his luminous intellect and profound wisdom lifted my spirits. Every religion has its difficult texts, he assured me. The solution was not to bowdlerise them, but to delve deeper into their mysteries. Scholarship could solve some problems, but not all. 

Nobody in the Jewish community was calling for the churches to abandon their scriptures or traditions. Christians merely had to respect the Jewish way of life, building on the progress that had been made since Nostra Aetate, the Catholic document that had buried the Church’s “teaching of contempt” once and for all more than half a century ago. I went away heartened by the generosity of spirit that could forgive two millennia of ignorance and hostility. 

It was mutual respect between faiths for which he had called in The Dignity of Difference. That book had caused offence in ultra-Orthodox circles and Sacks felt obliged to modify a few passages in the second edition — modifications that brought him ridicule from more liberal Jewish critics, as did his mishandling of the Hugo Gryn affair. Tensions between identity and integrity come with the territory of a Chief Rabbi whom many British Jews do not recognise as such. Modern Orthodoxy was too orthodox for them and not always as modern as he might sometimes have wished. In his books, especially The Home We Build Together and Future Tense, he made the case for all Jews, religious or secular, not only to endure but to engage with the wider world: “Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.”

Jonathan Sacks wasn’t perfect — nobody is — but now that he is gone, it is fair to ask: who has ever done what he did? “In our uniqueness lies our universality,” he wrote. He was as close to the Renaissance ideal of the uomo universale as anyone I have ever met. No corpus of work deserves to be collected, studied and disseminated as much as his does. 

For those who knew him, though, what made the deepest impression was the way in which his love of his own family and his people overflowed to embrace anyone and everyone. Knowing Jonathan Sacks was a privilege. May his memory be for a blessing. It certainly is one for us.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover