Jonathan Sacks
Jonathan Sacks seen as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, circa 2000.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, 1990-2013, the tenth rabbi to hold that position.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Baron Sacks of Aldgate, died Nov. 7, 2020, at age 72. Sacks was chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, 1990-2013, the tenth rabbi to hold that position. He was also a lord of the realm, knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2009.

The passing of Rabbi Sacks was noteworthy. Condolences were offered by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. News media around the world – Jewish and non-Jewish – carried obituaries and personal reminisces regarding Sacks. In the Jewish Telegraphic Agency obituary in the Nov. 12 issue of the JN, former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair declared Sacks “An Intellectual Giant.”

As a highly visible chief rabbi, the Cambridge-educated Sacks was a global voice for Orthodox Judaism. He spoke clearly and loudly against antisemitism, no matter its origins, and decried anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. Some of his positions on women, marriage and rabbinical courts were very controversial. In 2012, for example, Sacks was criticized by prominent British Jews for opposing civil marriage for gay couples.

Overall, Sacks generated more good reviews than bad for his work. As he stated with a bit of tongue-in-cheek: “There are many great Jewish leaders. There are very few great Jewish followers. So, leading the Jewish people turns out to be very difficult.”

I wondered what I would find about Sacks and other chief rabbis of England in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.

The Chief Rabbinate of England was first established in 1704. It initially emanated from the Great Synagogue of London. Some historians find the roots of the concept of a chief rabbi with Oliver Cromwell, who successfully reopened England to Jews in 1656.

The chief rabbi developed as a secular, non-governmental position, and eventually extended its influence over the nations of the British Commonwealth. The position is also a global bully pulpit for Judaism. Sacks was, perhaps, the most influential chief rabbi in history.

The Archive holds a few interesting reports about the chief rabbi. The first mention of a chief rabbi was in the Sept. 23, 1921, issue of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle, that cited Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz. The chief rabbi had arrived in London after raising 60,000 pounds for a Jewish War Memorial Fund. The only visit of a chief rabbit to Detroit was noted in the Nov. 11, 1969, JN when Sacks’ immediate predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits, visited Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

Sacks was introduced to JN readers as chief rabbi in the Jun. 1, 1990 issue: “British Jews’ New Chief Rabbi Not From The Traditional Mold.”

Sacks was a prolific and influential writer. Many references in the JN related to discussions of his work such as a “Lunch and Learn” about his book “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” at Adat Shalom on Sep 27, 2016, or a video lecture by Sacks on Oct 11, 2017, at Congregation Beth Ahm.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Chief Rabbi Sacks was the High Holiday greeting from the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit for 2018 that used his words: “I don’t need you to agree with me; I need you to care about me.”

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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