Jonathan Sacks, a great thinker, a great man

The Next Century Foundation is deeply sadened to report the death of former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. He was one of the world’s most remarkable of men. In the public arena he was known as a great and visionary thinker, whilst privately behind closed doors, he engaged in incisive political dialogue with more than one of the leading figures of the Islamic World. Indeed his dialogue with one key Islamic leader, arguably changed the course of history in some degree though it was never publicised in any way. His work in the cause of justice and peace is little known and will probably always remain unheralded.

Jonathan Sacks was a remarkable man in so many ways. He always had time for you, and he would make time if he had no time. He treated prince and pauper with equal magnanimity and graciousness. He was a believer in inclusivity but controversially in the eyes of some, he none the less valued our differences. He was a true multiculturalist in the best of ways.

I well remember my first meeting with him when Rabbi Herschel Gluck brought him to Lord Alliance’s home for the first in a short series of world changing private dialogues with one of his most prominent counterparts in the Islamic World, the leader of the Safavid Sufi movement, Seyed Safavi (now generally known as Ayatollah Safavi). I remember the then Chief Rabbi’s gentle thoughtfulness, his inspirational assertion that we should all place an equal value on one another, that we are all of us, saints, sinners, rich and poor alike, of equal value in the eyes of God, and that all religions shared common threads though we should respect the differences.

Those dialogues, held in both London and Paris, most of which were hosted by the Next Century Foundation, were secret at the time but we were today given permission by key participants to mention at least something of them. The men involved made commitments to one another to take public stances that were world changing at great personal risk. For example this from Jonathan Sacks the then Chief Rabbi, who really went out on a limb himself to ensure that corresponding steps were taken on the part of prominent Muslims: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/aug/27/israel.religion – and then in turn and in direct response, and blazing a trail in the Islamic World, this statement was issued by his friend and interlocutor:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/1434489/Suicide-bombings-are-against-Islam-says-leading-Iranian-cleric.html

Over the years I would meet Jonathan Sacks here and there. On more than one occaision those meetings would be at Israel’s national day receptions. He would always have time to argue some fine point of philosophy. I was more of an integrationalist than he, believing in the melting pot approach so prevalent in the sixties. In that respect I think we both represented opposite poles of the magnet, and I now begin to think that there is a middle road in philosophy, that represented by Kwami Appiah’s “cosmopolitanism”.

All I can say for certain is that Jonathan Sacks was one of the greatest minds I have ever had the priviledge to meet. More than a great mind. There are great thinkers that never change the world because they are neither great communicators nor do they have the courage to take risks. Jonathan Sacks could communicate. I would listen out for his messages and thoughts on Radio Four in the early morning from time to time. His dulcet tones helped make it a safer world as he reached millions with his broadcasts.

Jonathan Sacks was a man much loved. The world is a poorer place for his passing, but it is a far far better place, and indeed a safer place, for his having lived.

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