On Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Education

By Dr. Daniel Rose

“To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moses realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.” A Letter in the Scroll, p.32/33

On March the 8th, 2018, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks will turn 70. The way in which a person chooses to commemorate important landmarks in their life is a telling expression of their values and character. Rabbi Sacks has chosen to commission a curriculum that will explore his thought and writings, entitled “Ten Paths”. This curriculum, freely accessible to all educators and institutions, will explore the thought of Rabbi Sacks through ten themes, each one a path to God. In this article I would like to explore, from a personal perspective, the impact Rabbi Sacks has made on me as an educator, and the impact I believe he has and will continue to have on our world of Jewish education.

I have always found it strange how some people will queue for hours for a signed copy of a book from an author. Perhaps having the author’s signature on the first page of a book gives a sense of intimacy and connection. I have never been one of those people. When I hold a book in my hands, it feels to me that the author wrote the book personally for me. What could be more intimate than their philosophy on life contained in the words and pages of a book, that, it feels at least, they wrote just for me. That is how it feels to me when I read the works of Rabbi Sacks. I have every book he has written, and not one is signed. But each feels like it was written for me. It speaks my mind, or pushes me to take my mind to new places, and to see the world in new ways. While these ideas and places are new, at the same time they also feel connected to the core of who I am as a person and as a Jew. And so it was relatively early on in my intellectual and spiritual journey, that I discovered that Rabbi Sacks was my Rav.

Education in the thought of Rabbi Sacks
Growing up in England, with Rabbi Sacks as “my Chief Rabbi”, I witnessed firsthand the impact he made on Anglo-Jewry on the one hand, and then increasingly on the wider British society, with BBC broadcasts and television programs, prime ministers and royalty reading and quoting his books, culminating in his being awarded a peerage in the House of Lords. But since his retirement from the chief rabbinate, his global brand and influence has grown exponentially.

Perhaps even more impressive than his peerage is the millions of views of Rabbi Sacks on the TED stage. It does not get bigger than that! These areas of influence, on me personally, and on the wider global society, are not what I wish to focus on here. As my professional journey as a Jewish educator progressed and developed along the years, it became more and more obvious to me how central Jewish education was to the thought of Rabbi Sacks, and therefore how important Jewish educators were to him, as the agents through which his vision for the world could be actualized. It is this dimension of Rabbi Sacks I wish to explore here.

One of the first acts of his tenure as Chief Rabbi was to establish a new cross communal organization designed to evaluate and revamp Jewish education within Anglo-Jewry. Called Jewish Continuity, the statement was clear for all to see – the stakes for the Jewish people could not have been higher. This, together with publishing Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, one of his early titles, Rabbi Sacks set his stall out, placing children and their education front and center and firmly at the top of his list of priorities:

“The secret of Jewish continuity is that no people has ever devoted more of its energies to continuity. The focal point of Jewish life is the transmission of a heritage across the generations. Time and again in the Torah we are drawn to dramas of the next generation. Judaism’s focus is its children. Abraham’s first words to God are ‘What can you give me, if I am without children?’ Rachel says: ‘Give me children, for without them it is as if I am dead.’ To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of generations. It is to be a child and then a parent, to receive and to hand on. Moses ‘received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on…’ and so must we. Judaism is a religion of continuity.”
Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? p.34

But for Rabbi Sacks education is not just a vehicle to achieve Jewish continuity. As the opening quote to this article reflects, education is a universal value, and the secret to the actualization and fulfillment of the vision Rabbi Sacks has for humanity – a society based on freedom and the dignity of the individual; a society that celebrates the “Dignity of Difference”.

Friend to the Educators
As his career as Chief Rabbi developed, he never lost sight of the Jew on the street (and in the synagogue). Highly sensitive not to fall into the trap of isolating himself from the everyday Jew by catering only to the intellectual or learned (which would have been understandable considering his intellectual approach to Jewish thought), Rabbi Sacks, together with his team, would invest tremendous effort and resources finding creative ways to access every element of the community.

Covenant and Conversation, the weekly parsha sheet that first began in 2008, would be disseminated to and digested by thousands around the world every week. Its brilliance was (and is) not only in its inspiring weekly message, proving week in week out that our ancient texts have contemporary relevance, but also the way it presents the sophisticated and complex core concepts and messages from his thought in the simplest and clearest terms, for anyone to understand, whatever their background or education.

His informal writings, such as Covenant and Conversation, are not the only opportunities for the layman to access the thought of Rabbi Sacks in an accessible and enjoyable way. Several of his books have been written in a style aimed directly at the general population, such as A Letter in the Scroll (Radical Then, Radical Now in the UK) and Future Tense, both beautifully and simply written explorations of the thought of Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy of Judaism. These books are enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews, beginners and advanced students, alike. And in fact, even his more academic and complex books are written in a “middlebrow” style, accessible to most. As well as a world class orator, Rabbi Sacks has a tremendous talent for writing complex ideas in simple yet beautiful language.

As we found our world changing rapidly, in what Rabbi Sacks terms the next communications revolution, he and his talented and forward thinking staff quickly saw the potential in technology general, and social media in particular, and harnessed it in a way no other Jewish thinker of our generation has. Through mediums such as YouTube, podcasts, and white board animation, together with more conventional email lists, disseminated on all the major social media platforms, Rabbi Sacks has cemented himself as a voice for our generation, for all ages, across the world.

Asking the right questions
All of these examples of innovative mediums for spreading his teachings are excellent resources for educators no doubt. But for me, the greatest impact Rabbi Sacks makes on our craft is in content. The system of thought and philosophy of Judaism that he has developed over the years is based on asking the right questions – the questions that our students are asking and the questions we ourselves ask. His personal hashkafa (world outlook) is anchored in brave engagement, and sometimes confrontation, with the secular world, while never compromising on his steadfast commitment to Torah values and halakhic observance.

For educators at the chalk face, his exploration of these critical themes provide invaluable resources for helping our students on their own journey, building their own personal hashkafa and philosophy of Judaism. In The Great Partnership he masterfully shines new light on the question of the relationship between Torah and Science, as well as exploring the role of technology in our lives from a Torah perspective (some of these ideas are also briefly explored in Future Tense). In Dignity of Difference he presents his approach to other religions and how we should consider adherents of those religions. He explores this in the broader context of finding the humanity (that every human is created in the image of God) that all people share, while honoring and celebrating our differences.

More recently, Rabbi Sacks has felt the need to write a defense of religion in general terms, in the context of a world on fire with religious extremism. He does this (through historical and philosophical analysis, as well as a breathtaking rereading of the book of Genesis) in his most recent book Not in God’s Name. But possibly the most critical theme for educators (extensively presented in both A Letter in the Scroll and in Future Tense) is his philosophy of Judaism, essentially addressing the question why be Jewish? (For the engaging and inspiring cliff note version check out his white board animation entitled Why be Jewish? which is based on text taken from A Letter in the Scroll).

Personal Inspiration
Over the past few years, as Rabbi Sacks has retired from the chief rabbinate and made the transition to world renown Jewish thinker, writer and orator, we have had the opportunity to hear many prominent and important people give speeches in his honor; from prime ministers and members of the royal family, to religious leaders and fellow philosophers. But none were more poignant and powerful than when, as a surprise, his youngest child, Gila, spoke for a few minutes at the Templeton Prize award ceremony in 2016. She spoke as a daughter about her father, but touched on points that resonated with anyone that consider their lives significantly impacted by her father.

Gila quoted the first mishna in the 4th chapter of Ethics of the Fathers: “Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from all men” as epitomizing her father. She expressed what I had understood but never found words for. I find it profoundly inspiring watching Rabbi Sacks find truth and values in all fields and subjects, from sport to psychology, from economics to other religions and cultures. Rabbi Sacks learns something from everything, and ultimately from everyone. What stronger, more powerful message for educators to transmit to their own students, using him as a paradigm and a role model.

But more than all of this, Rabbi Sacks has given our profession its dignity back. Teachers and educators work hard and don’t get paid enough. They lack the status in society given to other professions that, some argue, contribute less to society. Rabbi Sacks has reminded us, and our communities, that we are its heroes, fighting on the front line in the battle for Jewish continuity, and we are the vehicle through which the Jewish people will ultimately achieve its calling and destiny.

Dr. Daniel Rose has taught in day schools and gap year programs in England, America, and Israel. As Director of Educational Projects at Koren Publishers he has developed the siddurim in the Koren Magerman Educational Siddurim series, and is currently developing the curriculum Ten Paths to God on the thought of Rabbi Sacks for the Office of Rabbi Sacks. The curriculum can be accessed for free.

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