By Paul Shaviv
In Toronto, I arranged for him to spend a memorable Shabbat in the BAYT shul in Thornhill, where he switched from scholar to Rebbe, leading an incredible Seudah Shlishit ‘tisch’ with hundreds of people. On the following day Jon, Elaine, Judy and myself had a day’s ‘r & r’ in and around Niagara Falls. Over the years we met in London and New York.
Prince Charles was the Guest of Honour at Rabbi Sacks’ “Retirement Dinner” in 2013. But Rabbi Sacks had close personal relationships of trust with many leading politicians and statesmen. He gave a Chumash shiur to Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street. He was the ‘go-to’ philosopher, moral and religious guide to leading European Heads of State – not all of them public, by any means.
Jonathan Sacks was a unique – truly unique – Jewish figure and Rav. There will no doubt be biographies and studies in the coming years. At his levaya, which was private, four intensely personal hespedim were given, and they are now online - The remarks of his youngest daughter, Gila, were the most personal (YouTube – The Office of Rabbi Sacks). But I think the hesped by his (and my) longtime friend, Dayan Ivan Binstock of the London Beth Din, was the most personal. He pointed out the genius of Jonathan Sacks; and also, accurately, looked back to his early years in the rabbinate. Jonathan Sacks – and this was part of his genius – had to learn to be the master communicator he became.
But when he retired in 2013, he received high praise from four British prime ministers, three archbishops of Canterbury, and one Roman Catholic archbishop. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked, “How do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know … the greatest philosopher you know … the greatest writer you know… and one of the greatest thinkers in the world?” John Major talked of the “innumerable hours” he had spent reading his books. The speech by guest of honor Prince Charles (also available online) was an equally remarkable tribute.
His career, perhaps, really took off when he retired. He determined to spread his message of Jewish meaning through the media. He believed passionately, not only in reaching every Jew, but on communicating the wisdom of Judaism to a non-Jewish world. Freed of communal responsibility, he spent a large part of every year in the USA, taking academic appointments at YU, NYU and elsewhere. He became a most sought-after speaker at conferences in Israel, the USA and worldwide. He has been described as ‘The Rav of the English-speaking world’.
Paul Shaviv, originally from the UK, is a retired educationalist, who now devotes his time to reading and teaching Jewish History.