Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I first read the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks during a year of study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sacks quickly became my rabbinic intellectual hero. I voraciously read his writings, spellbound by his clear explanations, which combined deep insights into the world of Torah and Jewish thought with the writings of thought leaders in so many other disciplines. I was 18, and I was in love; I had fallen in love with his work.

Rabbi Sacks’ work contained a vision of Judaism that sang to me, a vision he would later describe as “a Judaism engaged with the world.” I began to cite him regularly in classes I taught at the Bronfman Center, in papers that I wrote for school assignments, and even in casual conversations. Simply put, he was my hero.

It is rare that one gets to meet one’s heroes, and rarer still to forge a personal relationship with them. I am profoundly grateful that I was able to do so when he joined the faculty at NYU.

The most meaningful interactions we shared were our personal conversations. He always wanted students to choose the topics; he wanted to know what we were interested in. For me, those topics were usually “big questions”: Judaism and intersectionality, Judaism and pluralism, and the like. For our last individual meeting during his professorship, I decided I wanted to do something different. I wanted simply to learn Torah with him. I wanted to see how Rabbi Sacks approached a text, so that I could gain insight into his methodology. I chose a text from the siddur: The Ata Yatzarta prayer recited on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, which Rabbi Sacks had not commented on in his illuminating translation and commentary to the prayer book.

I walked into the room. We already had seen each other earlier in the week, and so we jumped right into it: “What would you like to discuss?” he asked. I pulled out the siddur and showed him the page. He looked down at the siddur, looked back up at me, and said “You know, I’ve never really looked at this before.” And with that, I watched a mind spring into action.

He looked at the paragraph for a minute. Suddenly, he was picking out key words in the prayer, linking them to sources in the Torah, in the Talmud, and even in kabbalistic texts. At one point, he excitedly got up, ran to the door where NYU-JLIC Rabbi Joe Wolfson was sitting, and said “Rabbi Wolfson, I need a sugya,” a section of Talmud. “It’s in Masechet Chullin; I can’t recall the precise page, but here are some quotes!” The next thing I knew, Rabbi Joe, Rabbi Sacks, and I were flying through the talmudic text, and Rabbi Sacks presented an entirely original reading of it. The lens through which we studied that talmudic pericope and the other texts led to insights on the passage that I’d selected to study from the siddur, a passage whose surface, I might add, we only cracked. The rest is for me to do. It was a lesson in learning how to learn.

A few nights later, Rabbi Sacks spent his final Shabbat at NYU. On Friday night, he spoke about the Lubavitcher rebbe, who had influenced him when he was in college. I couldn’t help but grin. The rabbi who inspired me in college was speaking about the rabbi who had inspired him in college. And so, at the farewell tisch in his honor later that evening, I decided that I would speak a bit about the college days of Rabbi Sacks’ inspirational hero, the rebbe.

When the Lubavitcher rebbe was at the University of Humboldt in Berlin, he got drunk on Purim. And what did the future rebbe do when he got drunk in college? He got up on a chair in the middle of the night and started lecturing about the observance of Purim—for which he was promptly arrested for preaching without a license and creating a public nuisance, only to be bailed out of prison by his college classmate, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

The message of that story for me lay in the talmudic teaching of nichnas yayin, yatza sod: when someone gets drunk, their inner self is revealed. For the Lubavitcher rebbe, his inner self was teaching Torah in the public square.

Who are in our time has more emulated the spirit of the rebbe by teaching Torah in the public square than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? And from every public square—whether Washington Square, Trafalgar Square, or Rabin Square, he was the exemplar of Torah in the public square.

Parenthetically, when I had finished speaking, Rabbi Sacks looked up at me and said, “so it’s not enough that you brought me to New York—Gabe, you want me to leave New York with a criminal record!” He was a man who appreciated humor.

He also was a man who practiced what he preached. He used to cite the Rizhiner rebbe, who said that there are five sections of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law: the four written volumes, and the fifth, which says “always treat a person like a mensch.” I had the privilege of introducing him to audiences on more than one occasion, and once, at the 92nd Street Y, where there couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds from the time I walked off stage to the time he walked on stage, he took those scant few seconds to grab me by the hand, look in my eyes, and say, with obvious sincerity, “Gabe, that was quite some introduction.” It was another example of his instinctive generosity, his graciousness, his menschlichkeit.

Above all, though, my central message is that Rabbi Sacks brought Torah both to the world in the public square and to individuals in the private space, and those teachings have left us with a responsibility.

The Talmud says that whenever the teachings of a deceased scholar are recited in his name, his lips move in his grave. Last year, in one of his writings concerning a tragedy in that week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Sacks wrote something very apt for us: “There were, and are, no words to silence the grief or end the tears … yet, like Moses, the Jewish people found the strength to continue, to reaffirm hope in the face of despair, life in the presence of death.”

In our tradition, Torah and life go hand in hand. So my job, and the job of all his students—those who learned with him directly at NYU or elsewhere, and those who were inspired by his voluminous writing—is to keep teaching his Torah, to apply his methodologies, and to ensure that his lips never stop moving in the grave, that his words live on and on and on.

May his memory be a blessing for us all.

Gabriel Slamovits is a graduate of both NYU College of Arts and Science and NYU School of Law and co-founded The Downtown Minyan, a community in lower Manhattan which was privileged to host Rabbi Sacks on four occasions.