In Memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ז''ל

November 11, 2020 by

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, 2006. Public Domain.

Thousands across the world are mourning the death of Jonathan Sacks, the Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, and leader who passed away last Saturday. Rabbi Sacks captured the world’s moral and spiritual imagination like few before him. His obituaries are only appropriate to praise him for his “towering intellect,” as an “ultimate communicator and original thinker,” with a “courageous moral voice” of “unfailing insight and boundless compassion.”

In his talks and writings, Sacks wove together Jewish wisdom and the best of the Western philosophical tradition to craft a unique message of hope, firmly on the side of moral certainty yet wonderful in its tolerance and openness. He was a man of his own people, yet somehow, he became a voice for everyone. He could speak persuasively on the importance of the state of Israel and the threat of anti-Semitism and publish work in the Islamic Monthly. It is hard to overstate the importance of his life and message for people of all faiths.

I never met Rabbi Sacks. But I feel as though I knew him. In 2014, my grandfather Johann Christoph Arnold spoke with Rabbi Sacks at a conference in Rome. When he came back, he told numerous stories about the beauty of the city and the amazing people he had met. For some reason, Rabbi Sacks deeply impressed him; we heard several times about the few short conversations they had. My grandfather knew of my interest in the Old Testament – I had started studying Hebrew at Goshen College the year before – so he recommended that I find out more about Rabbi Sacks and his work.

Over the next few years, I grew to love Rabbi Sacks’ remarkable way of interpreting the books of Moses, and indeed the entirety of Jewish tradition. I devoured his weekly commentary on the Torah portion. I listened to his shiurim on Spotify. As a Christian, I had my own reasons for doing this beyond just learning the Old Testament: In my studies of theology, while most professors often performed lip service to the idea that Jesus and his followers were Jewish; few tried to teach us anything about what that Judaism looked like. Rabbi Sacks, with his highly accessible way of interweaving the wisdom of Israel’s sages, became my inroad to discovering more about Jesus.

Moreover, I found in Rabbi Sacks an example of how to do good scholarship that can also be lived out. He was relentless in his drive to draw real lessons from the words of the Bible, lessons that I could apply to my life, right here and right now. Every week in his commentary, he combined his encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism, philosophy, and history with a down-to-earth, real life application, extracted from the most complex of ideas.

In the world of academic Biblical study, far too often the best scholars cannot connect their work to real life. In the rest of the world, the airwaves are filled with celebrity pastors who deliver powerfully phrased, moralizing messages that pop like bubbles in the sun as soon as you look closely at what they are actually saying. Every now and then, we are lucky enough to have teachers who give us the best of both worlds: rigorous scholarship, powerfully taught in language that anyone can understand, with application for everyday life. Rabbi Sacks was such a teacher. We would do well to learn from him.

With the death of Rabbi Sacks, the world has lost a powerful voice for good. But his family has lost a husband, father, and grandfather. My deepest condolences to them, and prayers for the weeks, months, and years ahead. He will be missed but not forgotten. May his memory truly be a blessing.

Sometime during the second century, Rabbi Judah Ha’Nasi taught that upon receiving bad news, such as the death of a loved one, it is right to say Baruch Dayan Ha’emet, “Blessed be the true judge.” One of his students taught that in the age to come when everything is set right, we will no longer say “Blessed be the true judge” but simply “Blessed is the One who is good and does good.” Together with the family of Rabbi Sacks, we look forward to that day.

Timothy Keiderling and his wife, Susannah, are members of the Bruderhof. Timothy is currently a student at Princeton Seminary, where he’s busy trying to apply the Bible to everyday life.


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