Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Henry Sacks was born in London on March 8, 1948. His mother worked in her family’s wine business and his father, an immigrant from Poland, worked in the textile business, or as Sacks put it, he “sold shmatters.”
He went to St. Mary’s Primary School and Christ’s College, Finchley. His collegiate background, which greatly influenced and solidified his commitments, began with his philosophical studies at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where he earned first class honors. He then continued with his postgraduate studies at New College in Oxford and King’s College in London. He obtained a doctorate in moral philosophy at London University in 1981 and was ordained from both Jews’ College and Yeshivat Etz Ḥayyim in 1976. He said later he did not consider himself “gifted or qualified to become a rabbi” but did it because he “heard a voice telling me to be one.”
After lecturing in moral philosophy at Middlesex Polytechnic (1971-73), he taught Jewish philosophy and Talmud at Jews’ College (1973-82) and served as the college’s principal (1984-90). Simultaneously he was rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue (1978–82) and Marble Arch Synagogue (1983–90).
Rabbi Sacks served as a visiting professor at the University of Essex (1989-90), where he taught Philosophy, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1998-2004). He was a lecturer at Manchester University (1989), Newcastle University (1993), and the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews (1996). Sacks was a visiting professor at King’s College in London, where he taught theology (2013).
His broadcasts and publications established Sacks as a popular representative of Judaism, although this was not been matched by uniform acceptance among British Jews. He created controversy in 1985, for example, with a pamphlet on Jewish attitudes to wealth and poverty, issued by the rightwing Social Affairs Unit.
Sacks gained a wider audience by delivering the BBC Reith Lectures in 1990. He was appointed the sixth Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth on September 1, 1991 and served until 2013. In his installation Sacks called for a Decade of Renewal which would “revitalize British Jewry’s great powers of creativity.” He said this renewal should be based on five central values: “love of every Jew, love of learning, love of God, a profound contribution to British society and an unequivocal attachment to Israel.” Sacks said he wanted to be “a catalyst for creativity, to encourage leadership in others, and to let in the fresh air of initiative and imagination.”
Sacks earned international acclaim as a scholar and a spiritual leader who worked toward the revival of both Judaic and Anglo-Jewry relations in Britain. He worked on numerous projects, some of which include the Jewish Continuity, which is a foundation that aims to fund projects pertaining to Jewish education and outreach issues, the Association of Jewish Business Ethics, the Chief Rabbinate Bursaries, the Chief Rabbinate Awards of Excellence, and Community Development, which is a national program that is designed to work toward the betterment of the Jewish community at large.
Sacks also had a knack for simplifying concepts. For example, he observed, “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
His work as chief rabbi was limited by a financial crisis in the United Synagogue and the polarization of Anglo-Jewry. He disappointed Progressive Jews by declining to participate in a radio discussion if a Reform rabbi was included. He inaugurated an unprecedented review of the position of women in the United Synagogue, but his decisions disappointed more liberal Jews who saw them as concessions to the conservatives. He said female prayer groups could only meet outside the synagogue, and without use of a Torah Scroll, that women could not become lay leaders of synagogues, and that women could not remarry without a get from their husbands. Popular hostility to the recognition of homosexuals within communal life led him to sanction their exclusion from a fund-raising event, further alienating liberals.
Sacks also provoked anger when he did not attend the funeral of a prominent Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn, in 1996. He subsequently spoke at a memorial meeting attended by the rabbi’s widow. While his warm words for the rabbi partially assuaged liberal Jews it upset some ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the Reform movement. To pacify that faction, he wrote a letter to a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi criticizing Gryn.
Another controversy emerged after the publication of his book, The Dignity of Difference, when a group of Haredi rabbis, most notably Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Bezalel Rakow, accused Sacks of heresy because he seemed to endorse pure relativism between religions rather than accept Judaism as the one true religion by suggesting that “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.”
Sacks subsequently rephrased some sentences in for the book’s second edition and explained in a new preface that certain passages in the book had been misconstrued. He said he had explicitly criticized cultural and religious relativism in his book, and he did not deny Judaism’s uniqueness. He also stressed, however, that mainstream rabbinic teachings teach that wisdom, righteousness, and the possibility of a true relationship with God are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an ongoing heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants, so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth, or to attain salvation. As this diversity of covenantal bonds implies, however, traditional Jewish sources do clearly deny that any one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth. Monopolistic and simplistic claims of universal truth he has characterized as imperialistic, pagan and Platonic, and not Jewish at all.
Criticism of Sacks’ attitude toward non-Orthodox movements eventually led to an evolution in his thinking and the adoption of two principles that improved his relations with them: “on all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences we work together regardless of our religious differences, and on all things that touch our religious differences we agree to differ, but with respect.”
At one point Sacks explained the reality that he had little influence over Jews with different views and it was sometimes impossible to bridge the gap. “If you look through Jewish history Jews are great individualists,” he said. “There are great Jewish leaders and there are very few great Jewish followers, so leading the Jewish people turns out to be very difficult.”
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said of him in 2003, “The Chief Rabbi is not just a distinguished scholar but a distinguished spiritual leader and a globally respected ambassador for the Jewish community here in Britain. He is respected in every continent because he has done more than anyone in Britain today to focus our attention on the needs and challenges of community in the global world.”
After stepping down as Chief Rabbi, Sacks was appointed in 2013 as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University, the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University, and Professor of Law, Ethics, and the Bible at King’s College London.
At a Gala Dinner in May 2013 to mark the completion of the Chief Rabbi's time in office, the Prince of Wales called Sacks a “light unto this nation,” “a steadfast friend” and “a valued adviser” whose “guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by.”
In a 2013 column, Sacks eloquently explained his theology:
In 2016, Sacks said, “religion, or more precisely, religions, should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies of the West, as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honor human live, and indeed protect life as a whole.” He added, Each religion, and each strand within each religion, will have to undertake this work, because if religion is not part of the solution it will assuredly be a large part of the problem as voices become ever more strident, and religious extremists ever more violent.”
Sacks published a variety books pertaining to Judaism and broader national issues. He edited Tradition and Transition (1986) and Traditional Alternatives (1989), which stemmed from a major conference on contemporary Judaism that he convened in 1989. It was followed in 1990 by a gathering focused on women in Judaism and his first book Tradition in an Untraditional Age (1990). That was followed by many more books:
- Arguments for the Sake of Heaven (1991)
- Crisis and Covenant (1992)
- One People: Tradition, Modernity and Jewish Unity (1993)
- Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? (1994)
- Faith in the Future (1995)
- Community of Faith (1995)
- Morals and Markets, Celebrating Life (1998)
- The Politics of Hope (2000)
- Radical Then Radical Now (2001)
- The Dignity of Difference (2002)
- The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah (2003)
- From Optimism to Hope (2004),
- Persistence of Faith (2005)
- To Heal a Fractured World (2005)
- Celebrating Life (2006)
- Authorized Daily Prayer Book (2006)
- The Home We Build Together (2007)
- The Koren (Sacks) Siddur (2009)
- Covenant and Conversation: Genesis (2009)
- Future Tense (2009)
- The Great Partnership: God Science and the Search for Meaning (2011)
- The Koren Sacks Rosh Hashana Mahzor (2011)
- The Koren Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor (2012)
- The Koren Sacks Pesach (2013)
- Covenant & Conversation: Leviticus, the Book of Holiness (2015)
- Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015)
- Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (2015)
- Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020)
He won the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for The Dignity of Difference, and a National Jewish Book Award in 2000 for A Letter in the Scroll. Covenant & Conversation: Genesis was also awarded a National Jewish Book Award in 2009, and his commentary on the Pesach festival prayer book won the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience Dorot Foundation Award in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards.
He received honorary degrees from the Universities of Cambridge, Haifa, Middlesex, Glasgow, Liverpool, Yeshiva University in New York, and St. Andrews University. He was an honorary fellow at Gonville and Caius College, King’s College and Cambridge College. Sacks received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the Archbishop of Canterbury in acknowledgment of his service as the Chief Rabbi.
He received the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contributions to enhancing Diaspora Jewish life. Sacks was awarded The Sanford St Martin's Trust Personal Award for 2013 for “his advocacy of Judaism and religion in general” and the Templeton Prize (awarded for work affirming life’s spiritual dimension) in 2016.
Sacks became a Knight Bachelor in the 2005 Birthday Honors “for services to the Community and to Inter-faith Relations.” He was made an Honorary Freeman of the London Borough of Barnet in September 2006. In 2009, Sacks was recommended for a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords. He took the title “Baron Sacks, of Aldgate in the City of London.”
The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labor Party provoked Sacks to become more politically outspoken in the final years of his life as the party and its leader seemed to incite and tolerate anti-Semitism. Sacks called Corbyn an anti-Semite and said he had “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map.”
Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, 2020. He was survived by his wife Elaine and three children.