Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and noted Jewish philosopher, orator, author and leader whose extensive works of Torah scholarship and moral philosophy inspired and influenced individuals and communities around the world, passed away on Nov. 7. He was 72 years old.

Born in Lambeth, London, in 1948, the eldest of four brothers, Jonathan Henry (Yaakov Zvi) Sacks grew up in a traditional Jewish home. For the rest of his life, he would cite the example of his father—a textile merchant whose piety and faith compensated for his lack of formal Jewish education—as a guiding inspiration for his inspiring career.

Sacks was educated at leading private schools in Great Britain before enrolling at Cambridge University, where he became leader of the Jewish students’ group during the terrifying run-up to the Six-Day War. Amid the euphoria that followed Israel’s stunning victory, he found himself and his fellow Jewish students with an awakened sense of Jewish identity and pride and a sense of purpose and mission.

In his capacity as a student leader, the young scholar first met Chabad Rabbis Shmuel Lew and Feivish Vogel, who would frequently visit the university, teaching, inspiring and uplifting the Jewish students. Together with the rabbis, Sacks helped organize Chabad’s first Shabbaton on campus in Cambridge in the winter of 1968, the start of what became a lifelong partnership with Chabad-Lubavitch all over the world.

The Chassidic activists opened up a new world to the budding philosopher, who was intrigued by traditional Chassidic contemplative prayer and how a person praying emerged from the experience a visibly changed individual.

While an undergraduate, Sacks traveled to America. Towards the end of his trip, he took a three-day bus ride to New York in order to meet the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to discuss a wide variety of issues related to religion, faith and philosophy. Near the end of their discussion, the Rebbe challenged Sacks to take an even more proactive leadership role in spreading Jewish awareness and observance among his fellow students.

The meeting had a profound influence on the young man’s life, and Sacks became increasingly committed to Jewish study, observance and outreach after returning to university. During his time in Cambridge, he hosted a biweekly Torah class in his room, led by Lew. Before the class began, the two of them studied a Chassidic teaching privately, while Sacks earned a first-class honors degree in philosophy. The following year, he flew to Israel to study in Kfar Chabad, his first immersive yeshivah experience.

‘The Rebbe Challenged Me to Lead’

Following graduation from Cambridge, Sacks again met with the Rebbe and asked in a written note whether he should become an economist, a lawyer or an academic philosopher. The Rebbe crossed out all three alternatives and advised Sacks to become a congregational rabbi and to eventually train other rabbis as well. More than any other mentor, Sacks later wrote, “the Rebbe challenged me to lead,” and referred to the Rebbe as one of the greatest Jewish leaders, “not just of our time, but of all time.”

Sacks (front row, second from right, with his hand on his chin) attending a lecture for students by Rabbi Zalman Posner, celebrating the opening of Lubavitch House in London in March 1968.
Sacks (front row, second from right, with his hand on his chin) attending a lecture for students by Rabbi Zalman Posner, celebrating the opening of Lubavitch House in London in March 1968.

While continuing to work towards a Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford and Kings College, Sacks participated regularly in the classes on Chassidism given by Rabbi Nachman Sudak, late head of Lubavitch UK, and studied at London’s Jews’ College under Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch and at the Eitz Chaim yeshivah, before receiving ordination at both schools in 1976.

Following his marriage to Elaine Taylor in 1970, the Sacks family attended the Kingsley Way (Lubavitch) Beth Hamedrash. On Shabbat mornings, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi I.M. Hertz, would present an advanced class on Chassidism, and the young rabbinical student taught a parallel class with more explanation for those with less background in Chassidic study.

Years later, after he was appointed chief rabbi, it once happened that he found himself free of professional and social obligations one Shabbat, and chose to spend the morning in the familiar Chassidic atmosphere of Kingsley Way. In his typical way, he only did so after discreetly inquiring whether there would be a bar mitzvah that week, since he did not want his presence to overshadow the young celebrant and his milestone.

In response to the Rebbe’s 1971 call to increase Torah study, he began writing a weekly rendering of the Rebbe’s most intricate teachings on the writings of Rashi, rendered into lucid and relatable English. This became the basis of his first book: Torah Studies. He went on to author more than 30 books and thousands of articles, and published lectures on Torah subjects, contemporary Judaism and general issues of morality and ethics, many of which can be studied on Chabad.org.

On a personal level, he had a deep affinity for language, art and music. He once related that he had asked the Rebbe if his growing love for Chabad Chassidism would preclude him from pursuing those passions. The Rebbe responded that, on the contrary, it would only deepen his appreciation to the extent that it would more than compensate for anything he would avoid out of deference to halachah.

Congregational Leader and a ‘Rabbi’s Rabbi’

In 1978, following the Rebbe’s suggestion that he hold a community pulpit, he was appointed rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue in London. Since he was still teaching at the time, the United Synagogues needed to amend their bylaws to allow Sacks to fulfil the Rebbe’s wish that he concurrently teach rabbinical students and lead a congregation.

In 1983, he became rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, a position he held until 1990. Between 1984 and 1990, Sacks also served as Principal of Jews’ College.

Again, following the Rebbe’s counsel, he served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and took his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009.

At his 1991 induction ceremony, he said that he hoped to lead to a revitalization of British Jewry, catalyzed by a “love of every Jew, love of learning [Torah], love of G‑d, a profound contribution to British society and an unequivocal attachment to Israel.”

A careful student of history would note that he echoed nearly verbatim the words said by his mentor, the Rebbe, 40 years earlier when he accepted the mantle of leadership, stating that his leadership would be based on the same three “loves.” Indeed, under his tenure, Jewish education in the United Kingdom shot up, with day-school enrollment booming and new schools opening.

Adapting the Rebbe’s model of Chabad-Lubavitch centers being almost invariably led by a husband-and-wife team, he converted the leadership of each congregation under his stewardship for being rabbi-led to being led by a “rabbinical couple,” who each brought their strengths and abilities to the congregation.

A Universal Voice of Morality

Following his service as chief rabbi, Sacks ratcheted up his activity, both within the Anglo-Jewish community and beyond, comparing himself to a vehicle that had left the city and was now on the highway, unfettered by traffic signals or traffic snarls.

Ever the academic, he was named the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University, and as the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. He was also appointed as Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College London. He won the Templeton Prize—awarded for work affirming life’s spiritual dimension—in 2016 and was a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Heeding the Rebbe’s call to spread awareness of the Seven Noahide Laws and the Torah’s lessons that apply to all people, he took to the BBC, where he was a familiar and beloved voice of morality and reason in an ever-evolving world.

An eloquent and commanding speaker who could address nearly any subject with authority earned by careful study and contemplation, he became a reassuring and galvanizing voice of positivity and hope in a world that experienced the rise of Islamic radicalism, the fracture of the traditional family unit and continued decay of traditional institutions.

His passing was thus mourned by Britain’s Prince Charles as the loss of “a leader whose wisdom, scholarship were without equal ... [whose] prophetic voice spoke to our greatest challenges with unfailing insight and boundless compassion.”

In a similar vein, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute to Sacks, saying that “Jonathan was a wonderful friend, a beloved mentor, a philosopher of extraordinary insight, and of course, a religious leader respected well beyond the Jewish community and well beyond the shores of Britain. His influence was vast and his reach immense.”

Blair was joined in words of condolence from religious and political leaders from around the world, as well as the growing number of students from all walks of life worldwide who he has reached online.

The rabbi is survived by his wife, Elaine Taylor Sacks, and their children, Joshua, Dina and Gila, as well as nine grandchildren. He is also survived by siblings, Brian Sacks, Alan Sacks and Eliot Sacks.