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Straus Center Course Spotlight: The Thought of Rabbi Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

For the Fall 2022 semester, Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner, a clinical assistant professor at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, is teaching The Thought of Rabbi Sacks, which offers a cohesive appraisal of the former English chief rabbi’s intellectual legacy.

YU News sat down with Rabbi Dr. Lerner to discuss the course, which is being offered at Stern College for Women.

Can you give us a little background on Rabbi Sacks? How did he rise up to become the chief rabbi of England? 

Rabbi Sacks’ biography is a tale of great personal ascent. He was raised in a traditional Jewish home by parents who shaped him to outgrow any formal education that they could offer. He spent years training as a philosopher under the tutelage of secular scholars such as Bernard Williams, Philippa Foot and Roger Scruton—but ultimately it was meetings with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that inspired him to pursue the life of a public intellectual and communal leader.

Having first attended London’s Jews College, now known as the London School of Jewish Studies, as a student, he was tapped by its principal to teach, and, in time, went on to succeed that principal, while simultaneously serving as a pulpit rabbi in a succession of central synagogues.

By his early forties, Rabbi Sacks had established himself as the major intellectual figure of Anglo-Jewry—known for his eloquence, erudition, gentility and scholarship, and was seen as the favorite to succeed Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits as chief rabbi.

What do you think made Rabbi Sacks so appealing and essential to twenty-first-century Jews? 

One of the hallmarks of Rabbi Sacks' thought is its profound timeliness. Though his larger bodies of writing are often seen as too dense for the less philosophically fluent, they are all deeply rooted in the problems of our time. They are not abstract screeds or hifalutin theoretical treatises but attempts to resolve a whole series of pressing contemporary crises—the apparent conflict between religion and science, the apparent confluence of religion and violence, the role that an ancient faith can play in an age of acute post-modern alienation.

More than any other modern rabbinic figure, Rabbi Sacks was fluent in the most recent studies in almost every field—and found ways to lend his rhetorical gifts to the project of healing apparent rifts between Jewish tradition and the human condition. His theology responds to the blind spots of both atheists and fundamentalists; his ethics showcases the wisdom of the biblical vision and the sages' ability to keep Jewish tradition alive; and his politics speaks directly to an age that blends decadence with apathy and radicalism with fantasy—insisting that freedom and dignity require the commitment of an engaged citizenry to survive.

How does this course exemplify the creed of Torah UMadda?

Not only does this course showcase Rabbi Sacks' deep proficiency in almost all fields of Torah and Western thought, but we dedicate time to assessing precisely what the creed of Torah UMadda is—and Rabbi Sacks' view is both radical and arresting.

In a chapter from his Future Tense, he notes that, over the course of Jewish history, some have permitted study beyond the confines of the biblical and rabbinic canons for one of three reasons: the ability to earn a living, the boosting of our national repute and attuning our senses to the presence of God. But for Rabbi Sacks, such study is not simply permitted—it is a necessity. In the boldest formulation, he sees the study of wisdom—or Madda—as the singular means to redeem the world, and he sees a refusal to endorse its worth as a version of Gnosticism.

For Rabbi Sacks, if Torah is a vision of the world redeemed, the path to us heeding God’s call to manifest that redemption lies, by necessity, through understanding how the world works. Studying the sciences is the only way to advance technology, and studying the humanities is the only way to unravel the human psyche, both for the sake of deepening dignity and advancing our destiny and mission to perfect the world. If Torah is the blueprint, Madda is the machinery that allows us to advance God’s plans. Throughout this course, we will see how Rabbi Sacks harnesses the wisdom of social scientists and chemists, psychiatrists and novelists, diplomats and poets to further the call he sees at the core of Jewish thought.

Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it important and meaningful to you?

Growing up in London, Rabbi Sacks was my chief rabbi for decades and served as a personal hero—embodying a characteristic grace and exhibiting a public embrace of our faith in a way that endowed the small Anglo-Jewish community with a deep sense of pride. But Rabbi Sacks' capacity to move a crowd or turn a phrase is the least salient part of what his legacy has to say to our moment.

His work serves as a model to our student body for how to navigate the currents of the broader world, and his writings speak to the unique set of circumstances that we face today. In the wake of his passing, a cohesive appraisal of his intellectual legacy could not be more urgent—and in this course, the depth, scope and power of his thought will become clear.

What is one book you would recommend to someone who is not taking the course but still wants to understand Rabbi Sacks and his philosophy?

This course culminates with a series of presentations on the part of the students, in which they are asked to analyze one of Rabbi Sacks' Covenant and Conversation essays on the weekly Torah reading. The purpose of the presentations is to evidence how Rabbi Sacks' weekly insights are more than sporadic or haphazard observations, but the exegetical concretization of the coherent outlook that emerges from his broader work.

The Covenant and Conversation compilations—whether one of the thematic or localized volumes—remain the most accessible and compelling pathway to unearthing Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy, however fragmented, and are most likely to incite the reader to dive deeper into his thought.

To view the full syllabus for The Thought of Rabbi Sacks, click here.

To learn more about Straus Center courses, click here.

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