Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom who emerged as an important and widely heard voice on the role of religion in the modern world, died on Saturday in London. He was 72.
The cause was cancer, according to Dan Sacker, a spokesman. Rabbi Sacks, who wrote extensively and made frequent media appearances, withdrew from public life in mid-October after he announced that he was being treated for the disease.
While his religious home was Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Sacks was one of the most inclusive voices within Judaism. In a 2013 study of his work, “Universalizing Particularity,” the editors wrote: “Sacks possesses a rare ability to hold in delicate balance the universal demands of the modern, multicultural world with the particularism associated with Judaism.”
His universalism sometimes got him in hot water with more fundamentalist elements of the Jewish community. When he was chief rabbi, Rabbi Sacks published “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations” (2002), a book whose central message was that religious communities had parity in their attempts to find God.
“God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims,” he wrote. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”
He added: “God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”
Some in the Orthodox community accused him of heresy. Judaism, they said, is the ultimate truth. Rabbi Sacks later walked back some of his statements, subtly revising them in a later edition.
He served as the chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013. His official title was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, a title that made him the head of a large network of Orthodox congregations but not of congregations at the ends of the Jewish religious spectrum, the liberal and ultra-Orthodox.
Still, the title has always been one of the most prominent Jewish positions in Europe, and he used that pulpit effectively, both during and after his time as chief rabbi, to speak out against anti-Semitism and in favor of the State of Israel.
Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords in 2009. He maintained a close relationship with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said in a statement that the rabbi “had the rarest of gifts — expressing complex ideas in the simplest of terms.” He called him “a man of huge intellectual stature but with the warmest human spirit.”
Rabbi Sacks was a leader in interfaith relations and was close to the former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. Their shared interests went beyond religion: They had a mutual passion for the Arsenal soccer club and occasionally went to games together.
Jonathan Sacks was born on March 8, 1948, to Louis Sacks, a textile trader, and Louisa (Frumkin) Sacks, who had driven ambulances in London during the Blitz. Unlike other future rabbis, he did not attend Jewish schools as a child but rather was educated in Anglican schools. He studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
In a 2011 essay titled “Finding God,” he wrote that he had been drawn both to the universalism of philosophy and to the particularity of his own Judaism. At the time of his studies, he wrote, “the words ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ went together like cricket and thunderstorms: You often found them together, but the latter generally put an end to the former. Philosophers were atheists, or at least agnostics.”
In the mid-1960s, at age 19, he embarked on what he called a “Greyhound tour” of North America looking for academic and spiritual direction. Two encounters in particular were “life changing,” he wrote. He met with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the pre-eminent rabbinic scholar at Yeshiva University in New York, and with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the head of the Lubavitch movement, in Brooklyn.
“Rabbi Soloveitchik had challenged me to think,” Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Rabbi Schneerson had challenged me to lead.”
He decided to devote his life to Jewish study and leadership. He was ordained a rabbi in 1976 and later completed his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of London. He went on to be the spiritual leader of several prominent London synagogues before being named chief rabbi in 1991.
Rabbi Sacks wrote more than 25 books, and the themes became more universal as time went on. His most recent book, published this year, is “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” In 2009, he issued a new commentary on the daily prayer book, published by Koren, which has become a standard in many Orthodox congregations around the world. His TED talk from 2017, “Facing the Future Without Fear,” has had nearly 2 million views.
Rabbi Sacks is survived by his wife, Elaine; their children, Joshua, Dina and Gila; three brothers, Alan, Brian and Eliot; and nine grandchildren.
In 1991, shortly before he became chief rabbi, Rabbi Sacks appeared on a popular BBC program, “Desert Island Discs,” where celebrities are asked to imagine what they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. The host uses those items to shape a discussion about the guest’s life, career and passions.
Rabbi Sacks said that he would take a Talmud, the Jewish library of law and lore, and a pencil to write a commentary on it. As for music, he would take a devotional song from the Lubavitch tradition called “Tzomoh L’cho Nafshi,” which means, “My soul thirsts for you, God.”
“Quite simply,” he said, “I hope that someday something like that would be my epitaph: That his soul thirsted for God.”