By: Rabbi Ian Shaffer  | 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z”l — Personal Reflections

It is with a great sense of sadness and loss that I am writing these few lines about a person who was one of my teachers and mentors when I studied in Jews College in London in the late 1980s. Rabbi Sacks had already achieved a great reputation by then, for his breadth of intellect and knowledge. The course he taught that I attended was called “Comparative Ethics” where we examined some fundamental issues (e.g. abortion, capital punishment, amongst many others) from both a Jewish as well as a secular perspective. The secular sources we looked at were based on a book by Peter Singer, an Australian ethicist, who I had never heard of, but who fitted very well into the style of the course we were studying. Rabbi Sacks was very thorough in his coverage of the Jewish perspective and I was reminded of the written work he had done for a youth movement in the UK at the time, Jewish Youth Study Groups (similar to NCSY in the US) which ran two camps a year as well as regular meetings all over the country. It was not classical kiruv but many young people did become more observant during those years and Jonathan Sacks contributed very positively in this process, with some excellent pamphlets explaining basic Jewish concepts. This later became his trademark, being able to explain the most difficult ideas in an understandable and meaningful way. 

I returned from Israel in 1986 and began my studies at Jews College, (a college similar to YU, but with only approximately 50 students at the time) with the help of a scholarship from an English philanthropist, Sir Stanley Kalms, who eventually became one of the main supporters of Jonathan Sack’s bid for the Chief Rabbi position, which he achieved in 1991. This was a difficult time, as transitions tend to be, and the college was going through some difficulties (eventually the college lost its Victorian name and transitioned to become the London School of Jewish Studies, as it is to this very day). One of the great benefits of being there, in such a small setting, was to experience the close contact with both teachers, such as Rabbi Sacks, and all the academics who came to spend a sabbatical year in London, mainly from Israel. Rabbi Sacks was the principal of the college during these turbulent years, when the future of the college was hanging in the balance. 

As I was beginning my career in the rabbinate, I was very excited when Rabbi Sacks announced a “Traditional Alternatives” conference in 1990. This was a chance to hear from academics and Rabbis from both Israel and the US, who had not been well known in the UK up to that point. I remember being so impressed by the erudition of Rabbi J. Bleich from Cardozo Law School and Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman from Atlanta. Rabbi Sacks had pulled this idea together and my only disappointment was that it was not repeated in subsequent years of his Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Sacks understood the benefit of the exposure in the UK to Rabbis and academics from America, and I was excited when these events happened and were so well attended at the time. 

Another interaction with Rabbi Sacks that I remember well, was when I began teaching at a new high school in London (Yeshiva day school) called Immanuel College, named after the former Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits z”l. I was excited to be one of the pioneers in teaching Talmud to girls as well as boys, and Rabbi Sacks had been one of the educational advisors when the school was set up. I remember asking him where the idea of high level Torah studies for girls was going to lead to, in terms of what we now recognize, as Yoatzot Halacha and Rabbinic attorneys (toanot), which were then beginning to be recognized in Israel. He didn't answer my question fully at the time, but in subsequent years I believe he saw the tremendous advances that were made in girls’ Jewish education in the UK at a high level, and was delighted by the subsequent achievements of many of the graduates of this wonderful school. 

Overall, I believe that I have been privileged to know a very special teacher and I followed his career with great interest. I met him when he came to address the 2014 YU Semicha graduates the evening before the YU Chag Hasmikha. I introduced him to my son, Yechiel, who was receiving his semikha at that time and explained that my son had something in common with Rabbi Sacks which was unique. They both supported the same soccer team in the UK. He took this in good humor and commiserated with Yechiel as their team had lost badly that day. This really typified the very down to earth side of this intellectual giant, and I am glad to have been able to make the introduction at the time. 

I knew Jonathan Sacks in the earlier part of his career, and I have been very excited about his work, especially in the US, where I moved to in 1998. Yeshiva University benefitted from him for a number of years and especially his oratory and erudition have always been deeply admired here. To say that he was a gadol in the conventional sense is not accurate, as he was anything but conventional in so many ways, but that he was a gadol in terms of being a communicator and ambassador for Orthodox Judaism around the world, almost without equal. May his memory be for a blessing. 

Rabbi Ian Shaffer is an adjunct professor of Bible Studies at Stern College for Women.

Photo Caption: Rabbi Sacks speaks at the 2014 Kollel Yom Rishon at the Schottenstein Center.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University