Profile: Jonathan Sacks

Lord Jonathan Sacks Lord Sacks became Chief Rabbi in 1991

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Lord Jonathan Sacks became Chief Rabbi of Britain and the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in 1991.

The Chief Rabbi is the spiritual head of the largest grouping of Orthodox Jewish communities in the UK.

Lord Sacks holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, an MA from the University of Oxford and a PhD from King's College London.

He obtained rabbinic ordination from the London School of Jewish Studies (formerly known as Jews' College) and Yeshiva Etz Chaim, London, in 1981.

He also holds several honorary degrees, including a doctorate of divinity that the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred to him to mark his first 10 years of chief rabbinate.

'Clash of civilizations'

When he became Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks inaugurated A Decade of Jewish Renewal, a project that aimed to enhance many aspects of Anglo-Jewish life, including education, outreach and community development.

In his first address he said: "We have become secularised. There are times when we believe that Jews can survive without beliefs, as an ethnic group sustained on nostalgia. But faith is not a luxury we can live without."

In his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, the chief rabbi talked about the importance of religious difference.

In order to prevent a clash of civilisations, he argued, we should not try to bridge the gap between faiths, but instead appreciate the other in their difference, and try to find God in the face of strangers.

What does a chief rabbi do?

  • Chief Rabbi is a title given to the religious leader of a country's Jewish community
  • In the UK the Chief Rabbi is the leader of the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community and acts like an ambassador between British Jewry and the rest of society
  • He does not officially represent the non-Orthodox strands of Judaism
  • The Chief Rabbi is also the head of the London Beth Din, the religious court that deals with various aspects of Jewish law, including conversion, divorce and questions related to Jewish dietary laws

This led to criticism from some ultra-Orthodox groups in the UK, who accused Lord Sacks of having implied that all faiths have equal status, thus stripping the Jewish people of their privileged relationship with God.

In response, Lord Sacks rephrased some of the more controversial parts of the book and a second edition was issued.

An Orthodox Jew, he has often tried to compromise between conservative and liberal factions of the British Jewish population.

Following a Home Office consultation on same-sex marriage in June 2012, the London Beth Din (the Court of the Chief Rabbi) issued a response stating that Judaism only conceives marriage as the union of a man and a woman and to challenge this fundamental concept "would be to undermine the concept of marriage".

A group of Jewish intellectuals responded to this statement by signing a letter to the Jewish Chronicle, in which they strongly criticised not only his stance, but also the fact that Jewish law was being used to influence the lives of religious and secular individuals alike.

Start Quote

...not just a leader for Jewish people but for all of us”

End Quote David Cameron Prime Minister
'Steadfast friend'

Jonathan Sacks is a prolific writer and regularly contributes to radio and television programmes, including BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day.

He was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 and made a Life Peer. He took his seat in the House of Lords in 2009.

In December 2010 he announced he would be resigning in 2013 after 22 years in office.

At a tribute dinner held in May 2013 for the departing chief rabbi, the Prince of Wales defined Lord Sacks as "a steadfast friend" and "a valued adviser" and praised his "spiritual awareness and [his] comprehensively informed philosophical and historical perceptiveness."

In a message of support, UK Prime Minister David Cameron described him as "not just a leader for Jewish people but for all of us" and thanked him for the "very special contribution" he had made to Britain.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he was "lost for words" as to how to express Lord Sacks's contribution to the country and that he would be missed.

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...as Chief Rabbi I have tried to show that Judaism has a message not just for Jews but for all of us...”

End Quote Lord Sacks

Lord Sacks told BBC Religion and Ethics that to have been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth was an immense honour.

"For me personally," he said, "as Chief Rabbi I have tried to show that Judaism has a message not just for Jews but for all of us, and that the stronger we are in our Judaism, the greater the blessings we bring to the common good.

"I think, in these two-and-something decades we have done just that. Jewish life is stronger. We have more synagogues, more Jewish schools, better welfare facilities and a more exuberant cultural creativity," he added.

"At the same time I hope we have shown, through leadership, voluntary work, and charitable giving, that we feel a sense of responsibility to Britain as a whole, and humanity as a whole."

Lord Sacks said he had set himself the task of trying to "inspire others to do this elsewhere, through teaching, writing, broadcasting and the new media, whose spiritual possibilities have hardly begun to be explored.

"As I begin this new stage of the journey, I take many fond memories with me, and be forever thankful to all those organisations, communities and individuals - from within my community and beyond - who helped make these 22 years so enjoyable and unforgettable."

On Sunday 25 August Lord Sacks spoke to Edward Stourton on the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4. You can hear the interview here.

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