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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948 – 2020)

  • 08 November 2020

Portrait photo of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The College is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Honorary Fellow and former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on 7 November 2020, aged 72 after being diagnosed with cancer. Rabbi Lord Sacks was a much-respected member of our college community. Our flag was at half-mast in his memory.

Lord Sacks first joined Caius in 1966 to study the Moral Sciences Tripos (Philosophy), graduating in 1969. During his time as a student at Caius, Lord Sacks was a scholar (1967), and received a Rhondda Studentship in Moral Sciences (1969). It was as early as this that Lord Sacks “had announced his mission in life, namely to bring new intellectual life to Judaism in the UK” as Dr Jimmy Altham, Caius Fellow in Philosophy, recalls. “Jonathan was one of my first pupils, and I remember supervisions with him in 24 Harvey Court. I had an early glimpse of his oratorical gifts when I attended the synagogue at his invitation and heard him give a speech. He was a man of great talent and generosity of spirit.”

This intellectual mission, and the kindness and generosity Lord Sacks showed to others, is a lasting legacy. Ordained in 1976 after his religious education at Yeshivat Tomhei Temimim in Kfar Habad, Israel, and Jews’ College, London, Rabbi Lord Sacks held many rabbinic appointments as well as many lectureships and visiting professorships. He was a prolific writer and a regular on radio, known by many for his contributions to the BBC’s Thought for the Day, which allowed him to share his wisdom with the world. In 1991, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Lord Sacks used this position for a renewal of “British Jewry” (Britannica) and to focus on ethics of responsibility, a theme which he discussed in his 2005 book, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility.  

In 2005, Lord Sacks was knighted, and four years later he was made a Life Peer becoming Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London. He stepped down as Chief Rabbi in 2013, and in 2016 he was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

Speaking about Lord Sacks and his contributions to the Jewish community and beyond, Sir Alan Fersht, Caius Fellow and former Master, said, “Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the mainstream Orthodox community and not the progressive wings of Judaism. Within the narrow constraints of his office, he was more inclusive than his predecessors and consequently more accepted across the whole Jewish community. He was one of the few religious leaders who was as well known outside their community as within and was active in interfaith relations. Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, who worked with him on the Council for Christians and Jews, commented, ‘His extraordinary ability to combine finely-honed philosophical reflection with the ability to communicate at a popular level with ordinary people – it is a combination that almost no other religious leader has.’ His communitarian philosophy led to his forging friendships with political leaders who were inspired by his writings.”

In 1993, Lord Sacks was appointed as an Honorary Fellow at Caius in recognition of “his scholarly background, high office (and his respect and affection for Caius)”. In the same year, Lord Sacks received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Cambridge.

Sir Alan recalls Peter Gray, a former Master of Caius and Chemistry Fellow, entertaining Rabbi Sacks and his wife at dinner in the Master’s Lodge when he came to receive his Doctorate of Divinity. “My wife Marilyn and he shared the kosher food brought in for them from London. Rabbi Sacks returned to Cambridge on several occasions for official events and always expressed his warmth for his time here, especially as he met his wife here and they had their first home next to Harvey Court in 1970.”

The College offers its condolences to his family, friends and all who knew and respected him across the world.