To the Bar-Ilan Community,
Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost a giant of his generation, and we at Bar-Ilan a true partner and friend.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks—the international religious leader, philosopher, and voice of morality to so many—brought the Jewish tradition and unique worldview into profound conversation with the challenges of our time. The relations and rifts between the various Jewish denominations, the many alarming social, political, and cultural trends, even our global environmental crisis: He believed that Jewish sources could, and must, make an important contribution to all these debates. Moreover, he showed us that Judaism could engage, confidently and with sincere intention, in meaningful interfaith dialogue.
Rabbi Sacks’ vision was vast, and his many goals astonishingly ambitious. Indeed, even a single one would have provided the basis for a meaningful life’s work. A commitment, as chief rabbi, to address the complex halachic challenges of the Jewish community in Britain, as well as the changing nature and threats to that community’s identity. An advanced education in the sciences, scientific collaborations with academic institutions in Britain and the United States, and the creation of a fruitful discussion between science and faith. A leading role in the promotion of interdenominational and interfaith dialogue, and an outspoken critic of religious extremism in all its forms. In the end, it was our great fortune that Rabbi Sacks declined to choose.
Rather, he took on each challenge at once, and combined them into a new concept of ewish responsibility: for ourselves, for other Jews, and ultimately for the whole world. He worked tirelessly to advance his goals, as many of us may know firsthand. He spoke with audiences large and small, educators and students, learned rabbis and unaffiliated Jews, and leaders and members cof all faiths. He never shied away from civil debate, and always strived to create dialogue. There was no pressing world event that he didn’t address, no moral question or ideological issue that was foreign to hispen.
To Rabbi Sacks, everything mattered, and on everything, Judaism had something important to say.vIndeed, in his public lectures, in the twenty books he authored, and in the countless shiurim he taught,vRabbi Sacks consistently searched for wisdom in the classic sources of the Jewish tradition—and unfailingly, he found it. He was also profoundly attentive to these sources’ social vision for mankind. As he wrote in the introduction to his work of weekly readings on the Hebrew Bible, the “revolutionary idea” the Bible sets out in its first chapter is that “we are each, regardless of color, culture, class, or creed, in the image and likeness of God. This was one of Judaism’s world-changing ideas.”
Yet beyond this universal commitment, Rabbi Sacks was taken up with a special task: the future of the Jewish state. Two years ago, Rabbi Sacks came to Bar-Ilan to deliver our annual lecture on Jewish thought. In his incomparable way, he opened with words of praise—that were also an unmistakable call to action. Bar-Ilan’s scientific achievements, he said, are known throughout the world, and we have taken our place among its leading academic institutions. Yet our ability to forge affinities between the right lobe and the left lobe, between the scientific, the scholarly, and the spiritual worlds—that is what makes Bar-Ilan unique, and that is why we can never be “just” another esteemed university. The academic world, the rabbinic discourse, and Israel’s vibrant culture—all these are flourishing, yet each can be enriched enormously by the other. Among Israeli universities, only Bar-Ilan actively creates opportunities for connection between them. This, insisted Rabbi Sacks, is our privilege, and this, too, is our responsibility.
Of course, Rabbi Sacks himself modeled that commitment to duality he encouraged others to adopt, never seeing in it a contradiction. On the contrary, he showed that a moral Jewish life can involve itself, actively and passionately, in cultural and educational pursuits; enlightenment, he believed, need not pose a threat to one’s religious identity. At the same time, he spoke first and foremost with a Jewish voice, and out of a desire to bring the Jewish perspective out of the text and the study hall and into the heart of the public square. And it was thus, when he took the podium at Bar Ilan, that he explained that the State of Israel was born of a dream of a utopian society. The very idea of its establishment, he said, was bound up in grand visions, many of which have come true. Yet since its inception, the state has struggled to present that vision to its society. Today, argued Rabbi Sacks, Judaism’s mission is to bring a Jewish vision back onto the Israeli stage. Now is the time for a vision that is both universal and national. “Now,” he urged, “is the time for a Jewish renaissance.”
In the introduction to the Hebrew edition of his book Healing a Broken World: Life as a Call to Responsibility, Rabbi Sacks writes, “This book, which first appeared in Britain and America, belongs first and foremost to the people of Israel and the State of Israel. The reason for this is simple: Judaism is not just a religion. Nor is it not concerned primarily with the relationship man leads with God in the private chambers of his soul. The raison d’être of Judaism is building a society on the foundations of law and justice, kindness and mercy, human dignity and the sanctity of life. And there is only one place in which this can happen. For almost four thousand years, Jews lived in every country in the world. Yet only in one of them are they able to build a society: In Israel. This is the place where Judaism lives, not only in the hearts of men and women, but also in the public square, in the common spaces of our collective lives” (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 7, Hebrew edition).
We at Bar-Ilan see in Rabbi Sacks’ words an appreciation of and enthusiasm for our academic research, as well as a partner in our determination to occupy a special place in the landscape of higher education in Israel. It is our privilege to answer Rabbi Sacks’ call, and to take a special responsibility toward Israeli society.
Prof. Arie Zaban
President, Bar-Ilan University
We invite you to watch the lecture given by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at Bar-Ilan University in June 2018.