Meeting Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: A Spiritual Entrepreneur for Our Time

On May 26th, 2016, I walked to Central Hall Westminster at Storey’s Gate for the Templeton Prize Ceremony for which I had flown from Poland to London.

I had moved to Europe to study noble lives because, as George Weigel puts it, “The noble life is still the most compelling witness for the fundamental truths that are the basis for our common world.”

When I first discovered the list of Templeton Prize laureates, I considered this to be a sort of syllabus of noble lives and resolved to seek out these persons, taking to heart the wisdom of Ben Sira: “If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep.”

And so, it was incredible to have the opportunity to attend this ceremony honouring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I found the entrance by following the groups of Jews who were heading in the same direction, recognizable by the men wearing yarmulkes and by the sorts of greetings they gave to one another.

Upon entering, an usher directed us up the majestic stairs. Not surprisingly, I didn’t know anyone there, so I decided to concentrate on observing the interactions between others. I was a bit apprehensive to make introductions, preferring instead to watch people in this fascinating setting where I had felt a bit like an outsider who had been snuck in to benefit from the experience.

An ebullient Jewish woman floated around saying, “I thought I knew every person here. Would you believe it? I just met someone I didn’t know!” They were schmoozing a bit but also very much among friends – the Jewish community of London that had turned up to celebrate their former chief rabbi who was being honoured.

I made sure that I was near the doors so that when they were opened, I could find a seat that wasn’t reserved on the end of a row in order to have a good view during the speeches. Soon after, a woman sat beside me and we got acquainted. She is a teacher who found out about the Templeton Prize when one of her students offered her his ticket to the ceremony for the Dalai Lama since he had been unable to attend. After that, the Templeton Foundation continued to work with her to give her and her students an opportunity to meet the Templeton winners each year at their school. I told her a bit about my quest to study noble lives and, particularly as a teacher, I think she found it heartening to hear.

The ceremony began and Rabbi Sacks as well as members of the Templeton family were welcomed on stage. An initial speech was made by Josephine (Pina) Templeton, wife of Jack Templeton (1940-2015) and daughter-in-law of Sir John Templeton (1912-2008). She spoke with a soft, gentle voice with great personal sincerity.

“To understand why he founded the Prize,” she began, “We have to first ask: Who was Sir John Templeton?” She testified to his personal character, relationships, and principles. Then she continued, “For Sir John, the Prize was part of his quest for spirituality. The Prize was the result of his belief that the pursuit of the spiritual is one of the most important yet neglected disciplines. He wanted the Templeton Prize to foster that pursuit through discovery of the limitless potential of the spirit. The essence of his vision, he summarized as spiritual progress. Sir John envisioned that the Prize would identity entrepreneurs of the spirit – those who devote their talents to expanding our vision of the intangible and deeper realities of human purpose and ultimate reality.”

I was so happy and uplifted and amazed.

Then, the Shabbaton Choir sang a beautiful psalm which was very prayerful and moving. Next, Lord Griffiths delivered a few remarks, followed by remarks from Heather Templeton Dill. She is Pina’s daughter and is currently the president of the John Templeton Foundation. She was so poised and articulate, and I admired her elegance. Her tribute and introductory speech for Rabbi Sacks was edifying and instructive.

She began by discussing that Rabbi Sacks could have led a very different life:

In Rabbi Sacks’ book Lessons in Leadership, he writes about his first visit to the states in 1968. It was one year after the Six Day War. He describes how the generation born after the Holocaust felt as if they were about to witness a second Holocaust. He was a student of secular philosophy at Cambridge at the time when being a philosopher in Britain meant being an atheist or, at the very least, an agnostic. He wanted to know how Jewish thinkers in America were responding to these challenges, and so he came to America to meet as many rabbis and Jewish thinkers as possible – to understand where they were spiritually and intellectually.

One of those who he hoped to meet was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, a pioneer in Jewish outreach in the US who had turned his Hasidic group outward to campuses and communities that had never previously encountered such a type of orthodoxy. After being told repeatedly that a meeting would be impossible, one Sunday night, the phone rang and a meeting was scheduled for the following Thursday.

That afternoon, the rabbi patiently answered the questions of the young student and then he reversed roles and began to ask questions of his own. How many Jewish students were there at Cambridge? How many engaged with Jewish life? How many attended synagogue? Jonathan answered that only about 10% were engaged with Jewish life. Then the rabbi asked him, ‘So what are you doing about this?’ This was unexpected. Jonathan began to say, ‘In the situation in which I find myself…’ but the Rebbe allowed him to go no further and said, ‘No one ever finds himself in a situation. He places himself in a situation. And if he placed himself in this situation, he can place himself in another situation.’

It soon became clear to him what the Rebbe was doing. He was challenging Jonathan to act. And so, Rabbi Sacks did precisely that. He, simply put, has changed the situation. And that is why we honour him tonight.

Then, Rabbi Sacks began his speech. He began with humour, humility, and thanksgiving. He said, “I know full well that the credit is not mine, but that of the Jewish tradition to which I have tried to give voice, and to its twin imperatives: to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. […] And thanks ultimately to God, who believes in us so much more than we believe in Him.”

Throughout his talk, he spoke about the problem of attempting to outsource ethics, morality, memory, and identity, saying:

There is, though, one form of outsourcing that tends to be little noticed: the outsourcing of memory. Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories, from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes, while our memories, and those of our children have got smaller and smaller. In fact, why bother to remember anything these days if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia?

But here, I think, we made a mistake. We confused history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity. […] A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom. […] You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away.

Two historical phenomena have long fascinated me. One is the strange fact that, having lagged behind China for a thousand years, the West overtook it in the seventeenth century, creating science, industry, technology, the free market and the free society.

The second is the no less strange fact that Jews and Judaism survived for two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, having lost everything on which their existence was predicated in the Bible: their land, their home, their freedom, their Temple, their kings, their prophets and priests.

The explanation in both cases, is the same. It is the precise opposite of outsourcing: namely the internalization of what had once been external. Wherever in the world Jews prayed, there was the Temple. Every prayer was a sacrifice, every Jew a priest, and every community a fragment of Jerusalem.

It was an excellent speech. After this, his youngest daughter Gila gave a speech in tribute to her father. I was in awe. If you click only one link in this post, let it be that one to her 5-minute speech. All of this was so noble and inspiring – their examples of family life, responsibility, and faith. These are persons who are really living their lives in order. I rejoiced because it was so profoundly humanizing.

Then, an organist played between the speeches and, at the conclusion of the evening, Rabbi Sacks joined the Shabbaton and the Sacks Morasha Primary School choirs in song.

Following the ceremony, there was a reception downstairs. To my great delight, I found Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute there. We chatted for a few minutes and I commended him on a record number of applicants to Acton University, one of the most formative events I have ever attended, and let him know that the only reason I would be absent from it that summer was in order to attend a seminar of the Hildebrand Project. (Both of these organizations are doing work in a similar vein – restoring the Jewish and Christian foundations of our civilization.)

Then I went over to Rabbi Sacks and said hello. It was, understandably, quite an overwhelming evening for him. So I simply congratulated him and made sure to thank him for his Humanum speech, one of very few YouTube videos to move me to tears by its beauty.

On my way out, I said hello to Pina Templeton and Heather Templeton Dill and thanked them for their contribution to illuminating role models who are orienting my life, anchoring my soul, and uplifting my spirit.

I hope that Rabbi Sacks’ death will bring a new and magnified awareness to his life and legacy.

To order his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, click here.

“The zaddik helps everyone, but he does not relieve anyone of what he must do for himself. His helping is a delivery. He even helps the hasid through his death; those near him in the hour of his death receive ‘a great illumining.'” – Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.

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