Remembering Rabbi Jonathon Sacks

by Archbishop George Stack

Many eloquent and moving tributes have been paid to the memory of Rabbi Jonathon Sacks who died on 7 November 2020. He was the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a noted thinker, speaker, philosopher, theologian and broadcaster. He was recognised as a most eloquent proponent of the greatest truths of humanity.

I was privileged to meet him on four occasions. The first was at the funeral of Cardinal Basil Hume on 25 June 1999. Although they were friends and colleagues, Rabbi Sacks strict orthodox Judaism did not allow him to attend the Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral. As an expression of prayer, solidarity and respect, he sat in Archbishop’s House and watched the funeral on the Cardinal’s television!

The second time when he was given an Honorary Doctorate in Theology by heythrop college, London. At that time, I was a Governor of the College and so was on the platform party which welcomed him to that formal gathering. As the ceremony unfolded, I saw him making notes at what was being said and done in celebration of the academic achievements of the young graduates. He then made a most brilliant, profound, humorous and warm speech in gratitude for the honour bestowed on himself and, through him, the Jewish community he served so well.

St. Mary’s University,Twickenham, was the setting for our third meeting. It was at the beginning of the historic occasion of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom. As Chair of Governors, I had already welcomed the Holy Father to a Service of Thanksgiving for Catholic Education in the College Chapel. There followed a meeting with 2000 Catholic schoolchildren on the athletics track of the campus. On then to an interfaith meeting with religious leaders of all backgrounds. Jonathon Sachs made the speech of welcome on behalf of all the religious leaders. During that speech he said:

“What led to secularisation was that people elsewhere lost faith in the ability of people of faith to live peaceably together”.

Speaking of 21stcentury society, he reflected:

“In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community, Against consumerism, we talk about things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism, we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships, We believe in marriage as a commitment, parenthood as a responsibility, and the poetry of everyday life when it is etched in homes and schools with the charism of holiness and grace”.

My final meeting with him was far more informal and warm. Cardinal Murphy O’Connor invited him to dinner at Archbishop’s House, Westminster. As the dinner approached, we were informed Rabbi Sacks would bring his own kosher food, presented on a sealed plastic tray, rather like the aircraft meals of old. Etiquette demanded that we, too, would eat the kosher meal. After the ceremony of braking the rabbinate seal of the meals and the beautiful grace sung in Hebrew and English, we settled down to a convivial evening, full of serious conversation and humorous exchanges between the Cardinal and the Rabbi. Never to be forgotten.

Of his many books and essays, my favourite has always been “Faith in the Future” published in 1995. The final chapter was a talk given on BBC Radio 3 in 1988. He tackled the perennial question of “Where is God in the midst of human suffering”. He reflected on the problem of evil through the eyes of the Holocaust in which the lives so many Jewish people were destroyed. He quote another Jewish writer and philosopher, Eli Wiesel:

“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself”. In conclusion, Sacks wrote:

“But to whom could one speak of these things if not to God Himself? It was a crisis of faith without  precedent in the annals of belief. If God existed, how was Auschwitz possible? But if God did not exist, how was humanity after Auschwitz credible?”

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