– By Diane Medved –
I never had the privilege of meeting him, though he shared a podium with my husband several times. And yet, like the hundreds of thousands of people who saw his 2017 TED talk, read any of his more than 35 books, learned of his world-edifying initiatives while Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, or his elevation to Lord and Life Peer (2009), I was touched profoundly by the teachings of Rabbi Lord Doctor Jonathan Sacks, who passed away this November at age 72.
He always preferred his honorifics in that order, acknowledging third his Ph.D. in philosophy and theology from King’s College, London and 18 honorary doctorates, then his membership in the House of Lords, bestowed by Queen Elizabeth in 2005. But first and most importantly, he used the title “Rabbi,” which is Hebrew for, simply, “teacher.” And he was an extraordinary teacher, able to weave references to literature, STEM research, poetry and even rap music into messages tethered to the Torah but sharply relevant to our time, and to the human condition.
The order of his titles also conveyed that achievements of education, (doctorates) and recognized accomplishment (Lordship) ultimately mean less than the more essential role of teacher. And while Rabbi Sacks was surely the greatest ambassador for Judaism in the world, speaking in myriad venues and winning awards all over the globe, the London-born professor, gifted with a most powerfully gentle delivery, was a most humble and unassuming person.
His wife of half a century, Lady Elaine Sacks, in moving comments made at the end of the Jewish 30-day intense mourning period, said she envisions telling her husband about the huge impact he has made on so many: “’Look how many people have learnt from you, revere you, love you!” she fantasized. “They are writing such moving things about you! Look what you have achieved!’” She paused with a twinkle. “And he will look up at me deeply and nod, and say, ‘But there is still so much to do!’ and he will get straight back to work.”
Rabbi Sacks specialized in drawing together people of all faiths in a shared set of basic moral principles. His most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, released just a couple months before his death from cancer, recognized the gaping divisions among people (especially during this difficult Covid time, as he discussed in the epilogue), and sought to reframe our perspective from an “I”-based view to a “We” orientation, realizing that individual benefits can add to, rather than compete with the goals of others. Here’s a meaty sample of his thinking, from that book:
“…If we focus on self-esteem and lose our care for others, we will lose much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a culture of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable and alone.” Sound familiar?
Rabbi Sacks alerted us to a cultural crisis he compared to climate change, found “in the realms of politics and economics, the deterioration of public standards of truth and civil debate, and the threat to freedom of speech…” He added that loneliness, depression and drug abuse result from the same deleterious shift. The first step toward reversing this decline, he said, is to stop in our tracks and notice it.
Every country has three institutions, Rabbi Sacks pointed out—economic, to distribute wealth, governmental, to distribute power, and a moral system, “the voice of society within the self; the ‘we’ within the ‘I’; the common good that limits and directs our pursuit of private gain… Some call it conscience. Freud called it the superego. Others speak of it as custom and tradition. Many people in the West speak of it as the will and word of God.”
Since the 60s, Rabbi Sacks explained, we’ve slid away from that last foundation, and, in our modern embrace of technology, now outsource much of what forms our identities. For example, we’ve all outsourced memory to our devices, relying on our address books for even basic facts about our friends. “Smartphones and tablets have developed ever larger memories, while ours and those of our children have become smaller and smaller.”
More importantly, Rabbi Sacks suggests, we’ve also outsourced the consequences of our unwise self-centered, now-oriented choices—sometimes to government agencies, like welfare offices, prisons, hospitals and homeless shelters. As a societal issue, Rabbi Sacks said “A free society is a moral achievement, and it is made by us and our habits of thought, speech and deed. Morality cannot be outsourced, because it depends on each of us.”
Happily, he predicted we can emerge from our divisions to a brighter future, through sharing of intangibles, like friendship, knowledge and love. Rabbi Sacks cites evidence that altruism is on the rebound in Generation Z. And NGram searches, that show word frequencies online, are revealing moral language “has been used increasingly since the turn of the millennium.”
Rabbi Sacks concluded his final book with a strong case for hope. He recalled a physical checkup taking, a treadmill test, and asking the doctor, “What are you measuring? How fast I can go, or how long?”
His physician answered, “Neither. What I want to measure is, when you get off the machine, how long it takes your pulse to return to normal.” He learned “that health is not a matter of never being ill. It is the ability to recover.”
So, after 2020’s pandemic and extremely divisive political race, we can now make an effort to look forward and reconstruct the bridges that connected us. Rabbi Sacks said in a “Talks at Google” interview with Tim Chatwin, available on YouTube (recorded just a few weeks before his passing), ”The second you decide to act in an altruistic way—you help a neighbor who may not be able to get out, and do shopping for her, or you volunteer…–every time you do good in that sense, you discover what’s terribly important. That just like with Coronavirus pandemic bad things are contagious, so good things are contagious. And every single act that we do helps to make contagion of good, of altruism, of human care.”
Rabbi Sacks was such a looming figure in the Jewish world, he earned the respect of leaders in all branches of Judaism and across Christian denominations. His expertise in music, the arts, philosophy and history made his talks, many available on YouTube or through his website, RabbiSacks.org, mesmerizing.
Locally, Island Synagogue’s Rabbi Yechezkel Kornfeld has for more than a year offered classes based on Rabbi Sacks’ insights, like this kernel from a recent Zoom: “Unity—bringing people closer to each other and to God, is the purpose of Judaism.” Just thinking of others first rather than ourselves in minor decisions helps close divisions and affirm, “There exists, within nature and humanity, an astonishing range of powers to heal what has been harmed and mend what has been broken.”
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She and her husband, radio host and author Michael Medved (770 AM, noon-3 pm) can be seen walking (and picking up litter) on Mercer Island, likely with one or more of their three children and three grandchildren, with, God willing, a new grandson arriving in January–the light of a long winter.
Four photos are available free for anyone to download from the website of Rabbi Sacks at this page: