Defending Rabbi Sacks

A comment I received on my recent tribute to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l is important enough to deserve a more thorough response than usual. You’ll find the comment below, followed by my long reply


This is something I’ve wanted to ask you about for a long time, Rabbi Adlerstein. Although I never read Dignity of Difference itself, I did read the discussion of it in Marc Shapiro’s review in the Edah Journal (2003) which includes a good deal of quotation. If he presents it accurately, it seems that Rabbi Sacks’ approach to religious pluralism – or better yet, the relativity of truth- is arguably the greatest undermining of Judaism possible. Even an open-minded thinker such as Shapiro acknowledges that it upends millennia of normative Jewish thinking. (As far as the “sources” Shapiro musters to provide a basis for Rabbi Sacks’ thesis, I think that anyone with a strong background in learning will agree that they are ridiculous; it’s hard to imagine such an essay emerging from the more mature Shapiro of today. e.g. Does anyone think it plausible that when Bava Basra 15b states that Hashem sent prophets to the Nations it was referring to the Buddha sent to preach idol worship?)

It’s therefore very disconcerting to have to conclude that a contemporary hero of Judaism such as Rabbi Sacks, who embodied the best of his areas of Jewish learning and personal qualities, was a heretic. The fact that he revised the book isn’t helpful; removal from a book doesn’t mean that the ideas were removed from his mind. As a ben Torah and as someone profoundly sensitive to and committed to the theological backbone of Judaism, and a prominent chassid of Rabbi Sacks, perhaps you could explain to us how it is that you resolve this issue.

I hope that the above isn’t misconstrued as disrespectful to yourself, Rabbi Adlerstein, but as an honest request for clarification on a serious matter.


Was Rabbi Sacks a heretic, G-d forbid? It is painful to even write those words as a serious question. But if a question is asked respectfully and in good faith, it deserves an answer. And it was asked by several who wrote in, albeit not quite as respectfully.

It’s been a long time since I read the controversial parts of The Dignity of Difference, as well as the even more important long document of clarification that R. Sacks issued. I don’t have access to the book (packed somewhere in the many boxes I have to sort through in our new location, when I get back to Israel) or my notes, nor am I ready to commit the time necessary for a reread. I do remember being uncomfortable with several points of his articulation. I also remember being rather reassured by his fuller explication of what he meant in the follow-up document. Without throwing myself into the fray, I would like to make three points from memory, however fallible that it may be:

1) There is a fine (and dangerous) art in articulating Torah in front of fully or partially hostile audiences. People who do always come under fire. Think of Ramban, in the debate at Barcelona, where he said that Aggada = sermons, and it is no big deal if people don’t accept it. (He did this to defuse Pablo Christiani’s arguments that moshiach was born around the time of the churban, and therefore was – you guessed it.) The debate at Tortosa echoed this view, this time out of the mouths of the Baal HaMaor and R. Yosef Albo. Such a statement would not stand a chance today as a letter to the editor in Yated.

The most important example may be R Dovid Sinzheim (AKA the Yad Dovid on Shas) who led the rabbinic response to the questions posed by Napoleon at the Paris Sanhedrin. (E.g. Are Jews allowed to marry non-Jewish Frenchmen? A- “Well, ya see, we have a whole ritual surrounding marriage. The liturgy just wouldn’t fit Monsieur Pierre. Only native Jews can relate to those words. Nothing personal, though. We think Frenchmen make great spouses.” Not a response that will win awards for halachic fidelity. R Sinzheim recognized the stakes he was playing for – Napoleon saw himself as a great savior and emancipator, but couldn’t figure out if emancipated Jews would be loyal citizens of his new France, or a fifth column – and engaged in the fine art of delivering to his audience something they could relate to, without lying about or distorting Torah. Just pushing the envelope a bit, and resorting to language that could mean different things to different people. I have no idea as to how his command performance was received by rabbinic colleagues, with the exception of the Chasam Sofer himself. The standard edition of the Derashos includes a hesped for R. Sinzheim that lavishes praise upon him, and explicitly mentions the role he played in navigating the challenges posed by the Paris Sanhedrin.

Rabbi Sacks, then, merely continued a practice begun by some stellar figures of earlier times who presented Torah to non-Jews in a way that would win their respect, rather than their condemnation.

2) What do we make of R. Sacks’ contention that world peace is not attainable unless religions drop claims of exclusivity? They must come to realize that no one has a monopoly on truth, and that different faiths have contributions to make. Is this something that Torah-Jews can live with?

First and foremost, I believe, R. Sacks inveighed against a pernicious form of exclusivity that is endemic to certain faith groups. That exclusivity means not only that their tradition is authoritative, G-d given, and complete, but that it completely denies the existence of anything of worth in the beliefs of competing faiths. Degrading the beliefs of others as entirely worthless leaves room for viewing members of those faiths as less than fully human. It opens a door widely to those who would go further and try to eliminate those sub-human competitors. I think that R. Sacks was primarily arguing that people can believe that their faith is the one that G-d had determined will get people to Heaven – even to the exclusion of all other faiths – but still contain truths that make the practitioners of those faiths worthy of respect, to be treated with dignity. Enough dignity that people would want to work cooperatively with each other, rather than exterminating them.

I hope I am remembering correctly. If I am, R. Sacks stands on firm ground. Truth to us is not an all or nothing proposition. Many sources locate different belief systems on different places on a continuum. In other words, faiths that we completely reject as Jews nonetheless differ in the amount of emes that they contain. We don’t shy away from accepting that they in fact contain some admirable beliefs. They miss the all-important bulls-eye, but they don’t miss the target altogether – although some do.

Are forms of avodah zarah that see heavenly bodies as intermediaries between a Supreme Deity and us superior than those which deify dozens of sundry forces and objects? We have seforim that say just that. Does that mean that forms of Hinduism that insist that they are monotheistic (because they see a single god at the top of a pyramid of gods) are comparatively better than those who simply believe in dozens of competing gods? I would think so. Doesn’t that mean that the former have access to more truth than the latter?

Lots of important figures accepted the notion that shituf was permissible to non-Jews. Doesn’t that mean that shituf-based beliefs come closer to the truth than non-shituf forms of worship? Aren’t we crediting them for recognizing on some level the existence of the One G-d – even if Hashem demands more exacting belief from His people?

Rambam considered Christianity avodah zarah. Yet, in several teshuvos, he speaks more favorably about Christianity than other forms of avodah zarah, because it accepts the validity of Tanach. Doesn’t this mean that it contains emes about a G-d who communicates reliably with Man – something rejected by so many others?

Some are willing to go further, and see real contributions made by faiths that we reject. Consider the words of R. Shamshon Raphael Hirsch to Bereishis 16:14:[1]

The Arab nation, descended from Avraham and Hagar, is one-sidedly Jewish…In one respect – viz., the intellectual – the Arab nation occupies a position of prominence. It developed with keen insight the idea of G-d, and idea bequeathed to it by Avraham. Consider the magnitude of the Arab influence: The ideas on the unity of G-d in the writings of the Jewish philosophers – to the extent that these ideas are developed philosophically – are based largely on the intellectual work of Arab thinkers.

Does that sound like medieval Muslims can lay claim to no truth?

Avraham Avinu at the end of his life sends his “other” sons to the East, after giving then unspecified gifts. Citing Chazal, Rashi explains that these gifts were “shem tumah.” I recall hearing only two explanations for this. One of the baalei Mussar argued that Avraham gave these sons some very positive spirituality. However, any spiritual gift that is misapplied turns into a negative force, a shem tumah . My great mentor R. Aryeh Kaplan zt”l, however, surmised that he gave these sons a spiritual awareness that was not connected to belief in a One G-d. He sent them East – to the Far East, a part of the world in which belief in monotheism would be absent for thousands of years. The inchoate spirituality was meant to be a place-holder till an awareness of the Source of genuine spirituality would take hold. For this to happen, there would have to be something in those civilizations that people saw as more significant than their own egos – some transcendent Truth, some conversation about the interconnection of things in the universe, some regard for the powers of the mind/soul. Is it so clear that the Eastern religions that did not know Hashem,[2] but spoke of such Truth, did not in fact possess elements of truth?

Rabbi Sacks, it seems to me, simply looked at others with a less jaundiced eye, and found the elements of truth they possessed.

3) No, he was not a heretic. Full stop.

Heretic” is a word too often applied loosely and irresponsibly to positions we don’t agree with. Apikorus, min, kofer – these are terms that have halachic application, and halachic definition. Misusing them amounts to ziyuf ha-Torah, no small offense.

Now, I will readily concede that I was greatly exercised by some of the phraseology in the first edition of The Dignity of Difference. I did find it unacceptable. I was happy to see some of it stricken from the record – and just as happy to see Rabbi Sacks mount a defense in a 100 page addendum added during the controversy. But, as unhappy as I was, I did not regard him, chas v’Shalom, as an apikorus/heretic. Smart people sometimes say some not so smart things. As I described above, it is quite easy for someone trying to translate Torah values into a foreign cultural vernacular to step over the edge. We call that a pleitas ha-kulmus, not apikorsus. To be considered an apikorus, a person should have to demonstrate a pattern of rejecting the broadly accepted beliefs of Torah Jews, not a single pronouncement. I realize that we can point to umpteen examples of this gadol or that who called person X an apikorus, but we have to discriminate between hyperbole an significance.

I recall a time when some talmidim tried to get Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, the posek hador, to call out a major rabbinic figure as an apikorus. They called

attention to some of his positions which might have justified such treatment, at least the way they saw it. Rav Moshe replied, “Not everyone who says apikorsus is an apikorus.

That, I believe, is an extremely important point to keep in mind. All the more so, because almost always, those doing the calling out are hard-pressed to offer a definition of heresy – at least the kind that is based on beliefs that run counter to the accepted system we see as part of Torah she-b’al peh.[3] At several times, I’ve spoken to morei hora’ah in different cities about various contemporary figures, and whether to consider them apikorsim in halacha. Each time, we were in full agreement about the impossibility of considering them within the fold of Torah Judaism is we understand it. If I found out that any one of them taught one of my grandchildren, I would immediately call my kids and ask them to pull their children from the classroom. At first, these halachic decisors were ready to call them apikorsim. After I pressed them to define the term, they backed off, and we could not resolve the question.

The Chazon Ish, on the other hand, does offer a definition of an apikorus. He points to the historical reality that the avodah in the Temple was conducted for many decades by Kohanim who were Saducees, i.e. they rejected the Oral Law. Rejection of the Oral Law is one of the varieties of heresy mentioned by the gemara. Yet, says the Chazon Ish, their belief system did not invalidate their avodah. We must conclude, says the Chazon Ish, that rejection of the Oral Law invalidates only when the person distances himself completely from traditional Jewish life. I don’t think anyone is going to make that claim about Rabbi Sacks, who lived his life entirely within the bounds of halacha, and had high regard, believe it or not, for the more haredi elements of the community.[4] At least the ones who operated with menschlichkeit.

Bottom line: Rabbi Sacks was no heretic, but a trailblazer who was responsible for incredible kiddush Hashem. His accomplishments should be emulated, while we should take note of the pitfalls that opened before him, which we should indeed avoid.

  1. I am indebted to Rabbi Moshe Pogrow of Ani Maamin for providing this source.

  2. Which means that the forms of Buddhism that don’t incorporate elements of older spirit worship are likely not halachically avodah zarah. They are just atheistic

  3. There are others, of course, like one who disparages a Torah scholar. Those other categories are usually not the ones applied to people who have parted company with our mesorah.

  4. I heard this from him, personally, in private conversation

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70 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Do non-Jewish religions (heresies in Judaism included) contain any true, worthwhile content not traceable in some form to our Avos or to Sinai? Someone who would try to answer yes owes us a detailed, plausible argument. Did Rav Sacks try to answer yes, and, if so, did he provide that supporting argument?

    • Weaver says:

      Of course – basically any the mitzvah in the Torah in the category of “sichlios”, i.e., logical, and therefore potentially knowable even without the Torah mentioning them.

      • Bob Miller says:

        The other position is that every mitzvah, and really anything in the spiritual or physical world, has a chok-like aspect that is concealed from us. We get access to the amount of understanding we need to succeed at our mission.

      • Bob Miller says:

        How do you view Chukkim, or the concept that all mitzvot have a Chok factor built in?

      • Weaver says:

        Maybe even sichli mitzvos have a chok aspect (I’m not sure), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that their main purpose is more apprehensible to human mind than other mitzvos. Human beings are created with divine souls that are hard-wired towards Torah morality to a large extent. Give us some credit!
        Other mitzvos (chukkim, many “ritual” mitzvos) have meanings which are less apparent.

    • Bob Miller says:

      (updated) I’d welcome further responses to my questions above. I’m trying to clarify for myself what the real facts and issues are here. Why be reduced to guessing what Rav Sacks meant by any given statement and what motivated him to make it? He was a clear thinker and writer, so we shouldn’t need to assume much. I haven’t been exposed to enough of his output to venture answers, but surely someone else could!

      • mb says:

        Bob Miller,
        Then I suggest you expose yourself to more of his voluminous works. You will be enlightened.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Cool, but what’s your specific take?

      • mb says:

        Bob Miller,
        My specific take is yes they do. And Rabbi Sacks was extremely articulate. There are so many examples. So please read his works. But the Talmud gives you a specific answer to your question. If a gentile tells you he has wisdom, believe him.

      • Bob Miller says:

        1. The QED is not so open and shut. Who says whatever they offer as wisdom is correct? Or only kinds that really are wisdom and do not contract Torah?
        2. I have books by Rav Sacks and do not accept everything he wrote as true.

      • Bob Miller says:

        I meant to write “contradict” above, not “contract”

  2. Benzion Katzir says:

    The mere accusation is a chillul Hashem. Elevating this disingenuous and hateful accusation in this way is a contemptible denigration of someone who brought Torah to many, many Jews. Very disappointing.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Let’s imagine that you were Rav Sacks and you were challenged directly in the same language Rav Adlerstein quoted above. Would you reject this angrily as a chutzpah or worse, or would you engage the challenge and respond cogently on all points? I think Rav Sacks would have chosen the latter course, providing another glimpse into his high character.

      • Raymond says:

        So very well said. It gratifies me to know that there are people out there who truly understand and appreciate what Rabbi Sacks was all about.

  3. Daniel says:

    Wasn’t the baal hamaor a contemporary of the Raavad (the raavad of the hasqgos on the rambam)who lived centuries before Tortosa?

    • You are 100

      You are 1000% correct. Dumb mistake on my part. It was a different Zerachia ha-Levi at Tortosa, centuries after the Baal HaMaor. He, too, was no lightweight, and a talmid of Rabbenu Chasdai

  4. Shmuel says:

    Thank you for your article. Well argued and explained. I did not know this Chazon Ish.

  5. Jacob Suslovich says:

    Where can I find eh follow up document to which you refer?

  6. nt says:

    Thanks for an enlightening article. The point that not everyone who says apikorsus is an apikores is worth remembering. Ultimately, the question of whether someone who passed away was an apikores is for the beis din shel maalah to decide. But it is worth considering whether the works and opinions of various personalities conformed to true Judaism or not. It is also worth considering whether their works could be misunderstood in a way that leads people astray. We find Chazal considered hiding Koheles because it might be misunderstood.

    Do R’ Sacks’ writings pass these tests? The first edition of Dignity of Difference definitely did not. I did not see the second edition, so maybe it improved. But the general thesis seemed to me outside of Judaism, inasmuch that he was arguing that all religions could coexist peacefully in a Western state if they agreed to the basic principles of Western civilization. Without this contention, there is not much book left.

    At the same time, even if R’ Sacks’ writings were not successful explications of authentic Torah Judaism in its complete fullness, it cannot be denied that he was tremendously successful in teaching the value of the Torah viewpoint to a grateful world. If we can give credit to Christianity and Islam for spreading some Jewish values unintentionally, we must definitely thank R’ Sacks for spreading widespread appreciation for the wisdom of the Torah to the world at large. The tremendous kiddush Hashem he made in his life should make us pause before we become too critical.

    If there is one point I must disagree with, it is that the examples of Rabbis summoned to disputations does not seem to appliy. They did not seek the position they were in; it was forced on them by the governments they lived under. They were keenly aware that an offensive answer could cost Jewish lives. Rabbi Sacks chose to enter the arena. He had tremendous success, but also made errors. We should learn from the good he did, while avoiding his mistakes.

  7. Melech Press says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein, for your perceptive comments. Let me add two notes as Yehuda v’od likra. Rav Aharon Soloveichik zt”l used to say that there were many errors that were not k’firah; they were merely wrong. We might think of this more often.

    As to the fluidity with which the term apikorsus is used, I will share a story that I heard from a rosh yeshiva who was present at a meeting of Torah leaders discussing vital issues. Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l said something that caused the Satmar Rov zt”l to shout “S’iz apikorsus.” When some present objected to his words, the Satmar Rov is reported to have replied “Un mir kennen nit hob’n a machlokes in Dyos?”

    Thank you again, Rabbi Adlerstein, for so often demonstrating that one can combine deepest Torah commitments with wisdom and common sense.

    • Raymond says:

      i wish that you would not have assumed that all of us know Yiddish, because now I missed the punchline of what the Satmar Rav said.

  8. David Twersky says:

    Yasher Kochacha, Rabbi Adlerstein. Thank you for publicly sharing the reader’s comment and special thanks for publicizing these very eloquent and important points in defense of and Limud Zechus for a great defender of Torah integrity and Torah values, Zechuso Yagen Aleinu.

  9. L. says:

    Thanks for this piece.

    As an aside, you may not be aware of it, but R. Yankev Tzvi Sacks (aka Lord Jonathan Sacks) זללה”ה, was a descendant of Maharal of Prague זי”ע, someone else you have dealt with in your writing. As his ancestor the Maharal interfaced with King Rudolph centuries ago, R. Sacks interacted with British royalty in our time.

    More on the roots of R. Sacks here.

    • mb says:

      So what? I’m descended from Abraham and Sarah! And they interacted with Royalty first!

      • Mycroft says:

        Agree with your point. Of course, I am descended from Adam and Eve- both created directly by God. That is my yichus and everyone else’s.
        We are all I related to everyone, some very famous, some not so much. Our job is to the best job possible in life.

  10. Reuven Ungar says:

    Rabbi Press- may I please trouble you for a translation of the response of the Satmar Rov? As a Yiddish- challenged reader, it would be greatly appreciated. (at least I understood the first statement of the Satmar Rov).

    • Chaim Goldberg says:

      Rav Ungar shlit”a–my Yiddish is no less challenged, so it would great if a more knowledgeable Yiddish speaker jumps in, but my understanding is that he said “And can we not have a machlokes in dei’os??”

      • Raymond says:

        but you also did not express yourself entirely in English, and thus I missed out on the punchline of what you said here.

  11. Michael Halberstam says:

    It is a very often remarked fact of life that a lot of us don’t feel comfortable in our religious skin unless we can find a way to exclude someone else. It is as important to some to know that the other guy is wrong as it is to believe that we are right. I have lived long enough to know that very little is to be gained by such an attitude.
    Sometimes we need to remember that what we say should never be characterized as “Ra be’oznei hashem”

  12. Melech Press says:

    The Satmar Rov zt”l responded “We can’t have a difference of opinions?” My point was only to show that despite his using the term apikorsus he didn’t mean to imply that Rav Aharon zt”l was spouting real heresy.

  13. Derekh_Eretz_Kadmah says:

    Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins at BBC RE:Think festival 12 September 2012

    My transcription of ~17:55 – ~19:27 below.

    NOTE: Emphasis indicated by bold-text is mine. Use of italics is to indicate emphasis on the part of the speaker. Question-marks within brackets indicate that what was said was not clearly audible to me, so I offered my best guess -D.E.K.

    Dawkins: Well, what about Adam and Eve? I mean, what do you think about that? Is that symbolic or–?

    Sacks: Well, Adam and Eve is clearly a parable because there was no first human and, there may have been a mitochondrial Eve, but I mean, that was somewhere else, in another country [,?] besides [?], the wench is dead. [In response to something said by Dawkins that I could not make-out:] Exactly so. So, no, I mean Adam and Eve are, really, if you trace it back 6,000 years ago, obviously the Bible is telling us the story about the first dawn of civilization that is [inaudibale; “an art”? “a part”?] of 25,000 years

    DAWKINS: So, Adam and Eve is symbolic,

    SACKS: Yes,

    DAWKINS: and the Parting of the Red Sea. But how do you decide which bits are symbolic and which are not?

    SACKS: Very simple. The rabbis of the tenth century laid down the following principle: If a Biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally. And that was eight centuries before the word ‘science’ was coined, so they weren’t just doing it to please Richard Dawkins, they were doing it for their own intellectual integrity.

    MODERATOR: But many people do believe it literally, and its [inaudible; “increasingly controversial”?] —

    SACKS: Exactly so. But in Judaism, we take a strong stand on this, and we have now for 2,000 years. We say, reading the Bible literally is heresy. Why so? Because we believe– and it’s a fundamental of rabbinic Judaism– that there’s an oral tradition, alongside the written tradition, and simply to read the words as they are written is heretical.

    • Essentially the same thing that R Gedalya Nadel zt”l, the posek of Bnei Brak (hand-selected for that position by the Chazon Ish), wrote. Not necessarily what most of us would say in public without equivocation, but not so shocking at all. Check out the Abarbanel in Bereishis where he lists (and disagrees with) all those who saw various narratives in Bereishis as allegorical

      • Bob Miller says:

        1, Where would you and Rav Nadel draw the line between the natural order and the miraculous in looking at Tanach?

        2. Was there such a thing as a natural order before the creation was fully rolled out?

      • 1. Can’t do better than observe that Rambam thought that everything worked within the natural order, and lots of people disagree
        2. I didn’t think so until I reflected on a particular gemara (Yoma, I think) that gives three opinions on “how” HKBH created the world: outside in; inside out; crashing a large rock into the sea. Until I saw the gemara, I thought that all bets were off on a natural order until the Shabbos of Bereishis, which fixed things in place according to predictable rules. The gemara suggested that there was some sort of “natural” law operating during the period of Bereishis itself – that the gemara was asking about how the process of Bereishis took place, rather than assume that the Dibbur of Hashem simply delivered the requested result without having to consider any process at all

    • Bob Miller says:

      ” there’s an oral tradition, alongside the written tradition, and simply to read the words as they are written is heretical”

      This does not mean that accounts in the textual/written tradition that appear to violate the natural order are NEVER supported as miracles or even amplified as such in the oral tradition. Did Rav Sacks allegorize all miracles reported in BOTH the written and oral traditions? If so, that would make his reference to the oral tradition hard to justify. While a miracle may play out in a way that does not totally negate the natural order, it’s a singularity that science may not relate to.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      If you learn Chumash with classical Mefarshim as opposed to either a very juvenile manner ala the Medrash Says or championing only Pshat, you will see that Chazal and the greatest Mefarshim always employed the tools of TSBP in explicating the Torah Shebicsav

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    The real question in analyzing such remarks is whether or not the same go beyond a time honored tradition of apologetics which may be inspiring and helpful to some listeners and readers or that which goes beyond the pale I think WADR R Sacks ZL knew the difference and when his writings either went beyond the boundary line and required him to think about their applicability and his intended audience The bottom line remains that R Sacks ZL was a champion of traditional Jewish observance and values who was keenly aware of how to speak to a post modern and increasingly secular world

  15. Shades of Gray says:

    “Bottom line: Rabbi Sacks was no heretic, but a trailblazer who was responsible for incredible kiddush Hashem”

    Rabbi Hershel Schachter said  at the beginning of the OU’s  moving video tribute, that for so many years,  the Jewish people have not been functioning, b’kum v’aseh(“in an active manner”),  as an Ohr  LaGoyim; R. Sacks, by teaching and representing to the world what Tzelem Elokim is all about, fulfilled the Navi’s mandate  of Ohr LaGaoyim. R. Schachter said at the video’s end that “…his loss will be felt for many years to come”.

    Rabbi Alan Kimche of the UK  concluded his hazkara for R. Sacks on the OU website that  “your name will always be, for all of us, equal to …emunah at the deepest levels…”.  He also said that “When Dovid HeMelech said “I will speak about Your truths in front of kings and I will not be embarrassed”, Dovid Hamelech had in mind Rabbi Sacks… I have no doubt that in the Olam HaEmes, as we stand here now, Dovid HaMelech is giving Rabbi Sacks a Yasher Koach…” (6:00). 

    According to R. Kimche, R. Sacks didn’t really engage fully with the questions of  bible criticism  because he believed, quoting Prof. Leo Strauss, that the bible critics only had an assumption rather than having proved or argued their case. Instead,  R. Sacks said that the Tanach is a symphony which is  scored in three voices, rather than different texts coming from different sources.(Minute 25; one would have to reconcile what R. Kimche said with what R. Sacks told Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg in 2013 that he planned to write “a comprehensive Orthodox response to modern biblical criticism”).  This is the link to the OU video tribute which includes R. Schachter, above, as well as the video of R. Kimche:

    Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s first question to R. Sacks in a 2018 interview was whether he ever struggled with faith, and R. Sacks answered that he was sorry to disappoint him, but he  “never, ever had a crisis of faith” in God; a critical moment for R. Sacks  was after he understood the actions of Avroham in Parshas Chayei Sarah after  Sarah’s death(“Bonus Episode: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l”, Behind the Bima Podcast, Minute 4:45). R. Sacks was asked in the above-mentioned  2013 Tablet interview  why, unlike other authors, he never made reference in his writings to his battles with cancer. He answered,  “…there was no test of faith at any point…I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”  “I had faith,” said Sacks, “full stop.”

    • mb says:

      Shades of Gray,
      Rabbi Sacks wrote and spoke often of theodicy.
      His faith was not diminished one iota because he deeply believed that God created a natural world where bad things happen, and His demand on Jews and humanity in general was to fight to erase it. Before y’all accuse him of further heresy it’s based on the gamara in Brachot about ailing Rabbis. I forgot the page #.

  16. Reuven Ungar says:

    I thank both Rav Goldberg and Rav Press for the translation- and context, very appreicated!
    Concerning the exceptional article of Rav Adlerstein- so on point and logicial, Rav Sacks ztl deserved no less.

  17. Yisroel Miller says:

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for an essay which will be important long after the controversy over Rabbi Sacks will be forgotten. I do hope you will publish it in book form, along with other essays. Two questions, please: Where is the Chazon Ish you cited? And can you tell us your source that Rav Moshe said what he did about Apikorsus?

    • Shades of Gray says:

      Below is a link to the Chazon Ish  which looks like the one  R. Adlerstein referred to(Hilchos Shechitah, 2:18; Page 8, end of  top right paragraph). It’s the page after the well-known part about bringing back the contemporary non-religious  with ‘cords of love’ :

      Compare with the Chazon Ish’s  letter  below(Kovez Iggeros, I, no. 15)cited by R. J. David Bleich in the Winter, 2011 Tradition(pgs. 62-63) and  by R. Aharon Feldman regarding whether one can say that Chazal erred in science. In his letter, the Chazon Ish writes that the “shechitah is neveilah”, seeming to contradict the above Chazon Ish which validates the  shechitah of   Sadducees: “We shudder to hear casting of doubt with regard to the words of Hazal, whether in Halakhah or Aggadah, [which is] tantamount to hearing blasphemy, Heaven forfend. One who departs from this is, according to our mesorah, as one who denies the words of Hazal: his slaughter is nev-eilah and he is disqualified as a witness, etc…. ”  

      A third Chazon Ish, linked below, has not been discussed, to my knowledge,  by anyone in the Torah and Science debates. There(Rosh Hashanah 138:4, p. 466, third paragraph on right, in brackets), the Chazon Ish quotes the view of the  “Itim LeBinah”(authored, I believe,  by  the  19th Century Jewish-Russian astronomer  R. Joseph Ginzburg, available on Hebrew Books) concerning the source of certain scientific statements in Chazal. The Chazon Ish rejects the position of the Itim LeBinah with much less strong language than in the above letter, writing that he  was a “Yerei Elokim” and that there is a great Yetzer Hara to say what he said!  :  

      I became aware of the Chazon Ish in Rosh Hashanah from a Rav who has connections to both the Lakewood community and to MO to whom  I went to for  guidance during the Torah and Science controversy. He showed me the above Chazon Ish in Rosh Hashanah, saying that R. Feldman should have cited it(R. Bleich, above, likewise does not quote this Chazon Ish, though both no doubt would have their own understanding). I remember this Rav smiling, because the language of the Chazon Ish in rejecting the position of the  Itim Le’binah is much less strong than  his language in the above letter. He further told me, as I recall,  that either the view of the Moreh Nevuchim concerning Chazal’s knowledge of astronomy and/or R. Avroham ben Harambam would indeed differ with the above Chazon Ish in Rosh Hashanah(as R. Feldman implies as well concerning the Chazon Ish’s letter which he quotes; R. Bleich quotes those who differ from the Chazon Ish’s letter on non-Halachic matters). Despite both of these Chazon Ish’s on Chazal/Science I quoted above, this Rav  told me twice to “Relax!”, that one is allowed to follow those who differ with the Chazon Ish. I leave it to others to put together all of the above three statements of the Chazon Ish.

      • This might help a little:
        שולחן ערוך הרב יורה דעה הלכות שחיטה קונטרס אחרון סימן ב הערה ח
        וכן כל אותן שמנו חכמי הגמרא בפרק חלק בכלל אפיקורס שאין לו חלק לעולם הבא, כגון מבזה תלמיד חכם או מבזה אחרים בפני תלמיד חכם (ואינו בוש מתלמיד חכם), או הקורא לרבו בשמו, או כגון הני דאמר[י] מה אהני לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו, או כגון הני דאמר[י] מה אהני לן רבנן מעולם לא שרו לן עורבא ולא אסרו לן יונה, או כגון דאמרי הני רבנן, פירוש כאדם שאומר אותו תלמיד חכם [ד]לשון ביזוי הוא, כל אלו אינן כנכרים לענין שחיטה, אפילו למאן דאמר שדינם כאפיקורס גמור דגריע מנכרי לענין שמורידים אותו לבור כדלקמן סי’ קנ”ח, מכל מקום הם בתורת שחיטה במכל שכן מאפיקורס הכופר בתורה שבעל פה לגמרי. ואין צריך לומר לפי דעת הרמב”ם דסבירא ליה שכל אלו אינם כאפיקורס גמור לענין מורידין, אלא

          שחכמינו כינו אותם בשם אפיקורס ואמרו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא כמו אפיקורס, שכן דרכם של חכמים שכל עבירות הקלות בעיני הבריות כינו אותם בדומות להן מן החמורות כדי להרחיק את האדם מן העבירה

        , על דרך חייב משום נשג”ז בבא על הנכרית וכהאי גוונא טובא

  18. MLD says:

    Thank you for the post. As to whether or not it clears up the actual question – someone wrote the following analysis. I’m curious to how you would respond:

    Point 3 is [mostly] an irrelevant distraction. For the purposes of the discussion of venerating the man it makes little difference if he was a technical halachic kofer, or just a believer and espouser of views that are anathema to authentic Yiddishkeit.

    (Point three also argues that we can’t teitch up the whole man based on one idea he said. This is actually a separate argument and overlaps with point one – see below).

    Point 2, despite the arichus, is really a very basic point and depends on facts, not speculation. Was Rabbi Sacks pushing an agenda of relative truth and theological equality as Dr Shapiro claims he was? Or was he simply arguing for mutual respect and recognition of the objectively true and beautiful (i.e. things that are not in contradiction to Yiddishkeit) elements of other cultures?

    I personally hold with the interlocutor that the quotes that Shapiro cites alone seem quite damning. But I’m open to reevaluate based on an actual analysis of Sacks in context. Unfortunately Rabbi Adlerstein does none of that; he chooses to leave the actual facts of the matter packed in boxes in his apartment, and simply speculates that perhaps Sacks merely meant the non objectionable ideas. He then proceeds to spend several paragraphs proving that the non objectionable option is not objectionable. Alas, the whole exercise adds nothing to the discussion.

    The real limud zchus on Rabbi Sacks is what Rabbi Adlerstein argues in point 1 (and as a subpoint to point 3). Not, of course, because of bogus analogies to the Ramban and HaRav Zintzheim (both being total nonsequitors – the former because the Ramban actually believed what he said whether you like it or not, and the latter because R’ Zintzheim was trying to placate a despot in a pikuach nefesh d’rabbim situation whereas Rabbi Sacks was proactively pushing ideas he felt should be a basis of dialogue – if they’re ultimately wrong and wrongheaded then no, we shouldn’t be basing our policies and relationships on them. More importantly, R’ Zintzheim was threading a needle; Sacks, in the objectionable interpretation of his words, was just plain wrong). The real point is that, quite frankly, Rabbi Sacks probably never considered the implications of what he was saying and was simply throwing around the kind of nice sounding meaningless verbiage that makes people nod knowingly by multicultural interfaith conferences. The fact that he responded to the tumult by walking it back indicates that this was indeed just a misstep, not an indication of a deeply held deviant theological weltenschaung. As such we certainly should judge the man by the body of his works, not by this one unfortunate mistake. (I personally don’t know enough about him to do so…)

    • Be curious no longer. My comments are interspersed as bolded italics

      Point 3 is [mostly] an irrelevant distraction. For the purposes of the discussion of venerating the man it makes little difference if he was a technical halachic kofer, or just a believer and espouser of views that are anathema to authentic Yiddishkeit.

      Point 3 was not a distraction. In fact, it is the most important part of the piece. The ludicrous fact that the צמצום המותות (as Rav Bulman zt”l, used to call it) of some people could allow the word apikorus to be attached to R. Sacks could not go unchallenged. It had to be forcefully resisted apart from the expected Modern Orthodox responses. It also contains the single point that I most wished to convey to my readers who would never entertain such a thought. That point is, as Rav Moshe put it, that not everyone who says apikorsus is an apikorus. An apikorus is one who has a track record of removing himself from the mesorah of action and though A single error cannot be what we use to define an individual, let alone someone who displayed such deep Emunah and commitment to it.

      Shall we discard the Ralbag for his solution of the tension between free choice and Divine foreknowledge? What would you do to a rebbi who came into a classroom today, and said, as the Ralbag did, that HKBH does not know about the actions human beings will take until they do so? Should we call him an apikorus – or just fail to “venerate” him? (It seems to me that we should continue to place the Ralbag on a high pedestal, while explaining that his position is indeed anathema to what we consider authentic Yiddishkeit.)

      (Point three also argues that we can’t teitch up the whole man based on one idea he said. This is actually a separate argument and overlaps with point one – see below).
      Point 2, despite the arichus, is really a very basic point and depends on facts, not speculation. Was Rabbi Sacks pushing an agenda of relative truth and theological equality as Dr Shapiro claims he was? Or was he simply arguing for mutual respect and recognition of the objectively true and beautiful (i.e. things that are not in contradiction to Yiddishkeit) elements of other cultures?
      I personally hold with the interlocutor that the quotes that Shapiro cites alone seem quite damning. But I’m open to reevaluate based on an actual analysis of Sacks in context. Unfortunately Rabbi Adlerstein does none of that; he chooses to leave the actual facts of the matter packed in boxes in his apartment,
      and simply speculates that perhaps Sacks merely meant the non objectionable ideas.

      He then proceeds to spend several paragraphs proving that the non objectionable option is not objectionable. Alas, the whole exercise adds nothing to the discussion.

      Correct. It would not add anything to someone like the author of the analysis, known to me as an intelligent, fair-minded, and astute thinker. It would add something to think about to those with a predilection to denigrate and anathematize anything with the faintest smell of anything they are not used to in their narrow box.

      The real limud zchus on Rabbi Sacks is what Rabbi Adlerstein argues in point 1 (and as a subpoint to point 3). Not, of course, because of bogus analogies to the Ramban and HaRav Zintzheim (both being total nonsequitors – the former because the Ramban actually believed what he said whether you like it or not,

      Back to my packed boxes again. Am I wrong in recollecting that the Chavel edition of the Debate has a note that includes those who opined that what the Ramban wrote was not what he really believed?

      and the latter because R’ Zintzheim was trying to placate a despot in a pikuach nefesh d’rabbim situation whereas Rabbi Sacks was proactively pushing ideas he felt should be a basis of dialogue – if they’re ultimately wrong and wrongheaded then no, we shouldn’t be basing our policies and relationships on them.

      This I believe to be a serious error, one that was made by several commenters. They see the kind of apologetics that Jews have engaged in over the centuries as a binary option: it’s kosher if your back is up against the wall, and treif if you voluntarily engage. And R Sacks, they suppose, did the latter. But that is simply not so. There were far, far fewer degrees of freedom left for R Sacks than they think. Once he donned the mantle of spokesperson for Torah to royalty and intelligentsia – something no one seems to have faulted him for doing – he was left with much less freedom than people realize. When you use your intellectual powers to wow the listeners into respecting you – and take more seriously your positions on Israel and on anti-Semitism more seriously, which he succeeded at brilliantly – then there are expectations those people have of you. You can resist some of those some of the time, but not all of the time. I am quite ready to say that some of his articulations went beyond anything I could get on board with. He may, in his devotion to a good cause, have gone too far. I am not aware of covenants that Hashem made with Christians and Muslims. (I am aware of people far greater than us who thought that Christianity, as a form of shituf, was fine for Christians.) But it is simply not accurate to think that R Sacks was an אוחז בעזני הכלב for wading into waters when he could have kept his toes dry.

      More importantly, R’ Zintzheim was threading a needle; Sacks, in the objectionable interpretation of his words, was just plain wrong). The real point is that, quite frankly, Rabbi Sacks probably never considered the implications of what he was saying and was simply throwing around the kind of nice sounding meaningless verbiage that makes people nod knowingly by multicultural interfaith conferences. The fact that he responded to the tumult by walking it back indicates that this was indeed just a misstep, not an indication of a deeply held deviant theological weltenschaung. As such we certainly should judge the man by the body of his works, not by this one unfortunate mistake. (I personally don’t know enough about him to do so…)
      While holding the author of the analysis in great esteem, I am more than gratified by the reactions of other readers, some on this site, and some not. In particular, the kudos I received from someone who can only be described as one of the gedolei Yisrael of our generation

      • YA says:

        Perhaps we truly do need to reconsider if the position of Chief Rabbi of Britain is appropriate for a true Torah Jew, however appealing it may be.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Can one maintain that the decision by HaShem in Parshas Noach after the Mabul not to destroy the world again by a flood a type of covenant albeit nowhere as unique , unilateral, and overriding as the Bris Bein HaBesarim with Avraham Avinu in Parshas Lech Lecha?

  19. mb says:

    With the Shloshim for Rabbi Sacks Zt’l fast approaching(this coming Sunday) I thought I’d just add some final thoughts. I felt it strange that R.Adlerstein’s corespondent was making his/her assessment without even reading the book! but on a critique, albeit by R.Marc Shapiro. But who says Marc Shapiro interpreted it correctly? Did he discuss it with R.Sacks, for example? In fact, I found Marc Shapiro’s critique wanting in places, but he was no where near as damning as the corespondent suggests. Indeed his conclusion was supportive! I do agree with Bentzion Katzir above, that the mere suggestion of R.Sacks being a heretic is a disgrace. I hope the writer has or will do teshuva. He/she needs to. For the record, the revised edition did not replace the original, and both were still in print contemporaneously, and may still be. I haven’t checked. Not that Rabbi Sacks had to prove himself, but he did in spades with his pamphlet on sources that caused concern in the first edition,published with the revised edition. It should be read. Time has been the proof in the lockshon pudding, so to speak, as R.Sacks star was rising exponentially throughout the Torah world. And it will continue for centuries as his voluminously work will be studied ad infinitum. As R. Sacks used to say often, playing with Kierkegaard’s well known phrase about the tyrant and the martyr, when a king dies, his power ends, when a prophet dies, his influence begins. R.Sacks was no prophet, but a Torah commentator/philosopher extraordinaire. As great as his influence was, it has only just begun.

    • nt says:

      I did read the original, if not Shapiro’s analysis of it. There were statements in there that were far beyond the pale as to the qualitative equality of religions, and they seemed pretty necessary to Rabbi Sacks main point that all religions should just get along. I’ll leave it to people more familiar with his life and works to make a definitive statement on the person, but the book Dignity of Difference itself cannot be defended as a work of Jewish thought. It is an impressive explanation of some Western thought, and a powerful argument against the French concept of laicite, but that is it.

      I do know R’ Sacks was a student of Roger Scruton, and I believe his main thesis ran counter to Scruton’s thesis in the West and the Rest that some religions (specifically Islam) are incompatible with Western values. R’ Sacks basically said those religions should learn from the others and reinvent themselves to fit in a world with separation of church and state, without justifying why those religions should do so. (In a conversation with Scruton at the Tikvah institute, I believe he also implied that he did not agree with everything R’ Sacks wrote.) In a way, this is a form of unthinking Western imperialism. It just takes for granted that Western/American values are superior, and other cultures/religion should give way.

      • Bob Miller says:

        There are areas where Jewish values and Western values diverge. We should not feel obliged to defend Western values against all criticism. There are areas in which Islam imported Jewish values in its own, often strange, way, but the West did not. Dietary laws come to mind. Sharia law imitates aspects of Halacha.

        What’s the Jewish argument, if any, against destroying artfully sculpted idols, as the Taliban and other Muslims did?

  20. dr. bill says:

    I am completely taken by three terms that Prof. Moshe Halberthal suggests an awareness of as we contemplate the issues raised. First, we have the belief “that” originating with Rambam and with clear Greek antecedents. Second, we have a belief “in” that dominates Tanach and later rabbinic writing. Finally, we have a more modern construct in belief “as.”

    The desire of bundling all our beliefs together requires examination. My beliefs as an orthodox Jew are quite different than my beliefs as a logician. I need not feel troubled by my inability to fully integrate them.

    Rabbi Sacks was an orthodox rabbi/scholar, a trained philosopher, and a public figure. While he did a remarkable job at integrating those positions, I would expect that thinking as an advanced inhabitant of those three different universes was challenging. His books and essays tried to express a “unified” view; its possibility is not entirely obvious in my mind.

  21. Mark says:

    Without referencing Rabbi Sacks, whom I am not in a position to comment on in any way whatsoever, I do have two points to make to Rabbi Alderstein.

    1 – Whereas Ramban was forced to debate, Rabbi Sacks was not. That is a significant difference even if one posits that Rabbi Sacks believed that his mission was to articulate Judaism for the masses.
    2 – There is no one who believes that elements of truth can’t be found in other religions. The Talmud, while showing no love for certain nations and their religious leanings, still insisted that there were aspects of them that we could learn from. The Persians and Mediites among others were lauded for certain notable practices.
    That’s a far cry from what’s being described here.

    On another note, whether or not Ramban meant his explanation of “Medrash = Drashah” literally or just as an excuse, is far from simple. There are very good reasons to believe that he believed it wholeheartedly. Notable among them is the fact that he often disagrees with Medrashim which were cited by Rashi and shows little reverence for them. There are other indications as well, but this one is glaring.

    Rabbi Sacks was without question, the most eloquent and articulate speaker I’ve ever had the pleasure to listen to, albeit minimally.

    • mb says:

      Marc, heck we can learn from ants and cats too!

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Those of us who have trying to learn Ramban for years, especially those who of us who learned Ramban in JSS with R M Besdin ZL and R P Oratz ZL understand that Ramban both in his Perush on Chumash and Hasagos on Sefer HaMitzvos operates from a very different set of tools in understanding and giving primacy to Drashos Chazal other than what Rashi quotes and how both Rambam and Ibn Ezra understand Torah Shebicsav, Dinim Drabanan and Taamei HaMitzvos. Rashi uses Medrashim that Rashi thinks are close to pshat or are emphasizing a certain hashkafic fundamental asa means of telling us how a Jew should approach certain hashkafic issues. Ramban works a vast sea of statements from Chazal in Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Medrash Halacha and Aggadah as well as some Divrei Sod in his commentary on Chumash and offers a multi dimensional panorama of such views so you can get the fullest possible picture of what is implied in a multi level reading of the Pasuk and like Rashi will tell you “Aine Yodea” when Ramban is stuck on a particular Pasuk.

      Rambam in Shoresh 1 contends that only that which can be discerned from Pshuto Shel Mikra is Min HaTorah. That which is derived from the Midos of Chazal as Min HaTorah is Min HaTorah but not as purely so as that which is Pshuto Shel Mikra ( see R Shelat’s edition of Igros HaRambam for more in this regard) Ramban in his Hasagos marshals many Gemaras to the contrary beginning with the first sugya in Kiddushin. In fact, one can argue that where is there is a conflict between Pshuto Shel Mikra and a Gezerah Shaveh ( see Yevamos 23 or 24) the Gezeraha Shaveh displaces and uproots the PshutoShel Mikra . One can also argue that Chazal especially in certain battles with the Tzadukim did not follow Pshuto Shel Mikra as in the sugyos of Avodas YK and Sefiras Haomer. While Ramban heatedly differs with Rambam and Ibn Ezra , Ramban never RL viewed their views as beyond the pale.

  22. DF says:

    Outstanding article. Important for far more than its applicability to the late R. Sacks himself, but to the whole notion of Bittul. How’s the Cancel Culture been working out in general society? It is universally reviled by those on the right and left, who both have fallen victim to its destructive excesses. Most thinking people would say, without hesitation, that they wish the genie could be put back in the bottle.

    Now, always there have been zealots who rush to condemn; we will never rid ourselves completely of such elements. But, to the best we can, let’s not import such a harmful way of “discourse”, if such this destructive culture can be called, into our own. This is no easy ask, because even centrists – like the commenter this post responds to – have their limits. Still, the cancel culture must be rejected, and without qualification of equivocation. Your article makes a strong contribution towards that end.

  23. Shades of Gray says:

    “Think of Ramban, in the debate at Barcelona…”

    In Note 59 of his Hakirah article, R. Chaim Eisen writes,  “Moreover, considering that Ramban presents these statements, unqualified, in Ma’amar ha-Vikuaḥ— written in Hebrew, for a Jewish audience — it appears highly implausible that he would have employed them only tactically, without sincerely believing them.” See link:

    “The most important example may be R Dovid Sinzheim”

    In an essay defending R. Lamm’s response to an article by Prof. Noah Feldman, R. Adlerstein quoted from  the Yad Dovid’s response at length, and also mentioned that  “Rav Moshe zt”l used to remark that the minhag of Klal Yisrael was not like the Yam Shel Shlomo!”  concerning his prohibition of distorting Torah even if lives are on the line.  See  “A Time To Be Silent: In Defense of Rabbi Lamm”(CC, 8/07).

    “R. Aryeh Kaplan zt”l, however, surmised that he gave these sons a spiritual awareness ”

    R. Aryeh Kaplan discusses the connection between Avroham’s gifts and the Eastern religions in “Meditation and Kabbalah” (p. 32), referencing the Zohar and various sources.

    “For this to happen, there would have to be something in those civilizations that people saw as more significant than their own egos”

    Ami once had a feature about the production of the film on the Klausenberger Rebbe. I believe the originally secular Israeli filmmaker explained how Eastern spirituality started him on his journey to Judaism.

    In “Reciprocity and Specialness”(CC, 3/07), R. Adlerstein mentioned that “I can immediately think of at least one place where the Chovos Halevavos points appreciatively at aspects of Sufi religious conduct”(someone commented there about Prof. Diana Lobel’s book on the subject).

    R. Aryeh Kaplan, in the introduction to his book “Jewish Meditation” writes concerning meditative practices, of the  “considerable evidence that the Jewish mystical masters had dialogue with the Sufi masters and were also aware of the schools of India”. In his introduction to “Meditation and Kabbalah”, R. Kaplan writes of the resemblance of  Eastern  meditation systems to Jewish ones, already mentioned in the Zohar(who warned against their use), being limited to technique; he also references  in that book R. Avroham ben HaRambam and Sufism(p. 107, footnote).

  24. Avi says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    Where is this Chazon Ish?

  25. Raymond says:

    I am coming to this discussion rather late, so I am not sure if anybody will even read this. My long delay has largely been because after I wrote my tribute to Rabbi Sacks elsewhere on this website, I felt such a sense of inadequacy, that I was not able to truly capture who Rabbi Sacks was and what he has meant for me and for the world at large. It frustrates me because I enjoy writing, plus Rabbi Sacks deserves to be written about in a flawlessly and uncompromisingly praiseworthy manner.

    Regarding the issue at hand, I am reminded of a parable that was very popular just a few years ago. A man dies and goes to Heaven, with his entire life placed before him consisting of two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him, and the other one belonging to G-d. What he feels troubled about it, is that it was precisely the times of his life that were the most difficult, that one set of footprints is missing. Why would G-d abandon him just when he needed Him the most? To which G-d answers him, “It was in those moments that I carried you.”

    Another parable involves two brothers. One is single and alone, and the other one is married with children. So one day the single brother tells himself that he will bring his married brother some food, because after all a married man with an entire family needs the food more than he does. At the same time, the married brother tells himself that he will bring some food to his single brother, because after all, the single brother is all alone and feels lonely. The place where the two brothers meet each other, is the place where the Holy Temple was eventually built.

    Now, what do these two stories have in common, aside from the fact that they are such wonderful stories that teach us valuable lessons about life? The answer is, that neither originates in any Torah source, or even any Jewish source at all. And yet they teach us much needed wisdom. Or think about the classic Jewish work, Duties of the Heart. I have to admit it that I myself was disappointed when I found this out, but apparently its author got many of his ideas from non-Jewish, in this case islamic, sources. When the Rambam wrote his commentary to the Chapters of the Fathers, he remarked that he believed in getting the truth from anywhere he could find it. He actually meant Aristotle in this case, but refrained from saying it in order to avoid controversy. His Doctrine of the Means certainly came from Aristotle. Many years ago, when I read Plato’s dialogues about love called Symposium and one about the afterlife called Phaedo, the ideas expressed there were so Jewish, that part of me wondered if we Jews got many of our ideas about such subjects from such Ancient Greek sources. I have also heard that Rav Dessler’s classic Strive for Truth series, was inspired by Dale Carnegie’s secular classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

    My point here, of course, is that Rabbi Sacks was certainly within Jewish tradition when he would quote from non-Jewish sources to express Torah-true values. One may ask why he chose to express himself in such a manner. I think he wished to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. He himself said that he wrote half of his books targeting the non-Jewish world. I will admit that I like his other half of his book better, the ones where we Jews are his intended audience, plus sometimes when he seems to quote non-Jewish sources more than traditional Jewish ones, that it kind of makes me a bit uncomfortable. I would remedy that by watching videos of Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz of Ohr Sameyach, who is coming from a purely Torah-only approach, making me feel a bit more cleansed about it. There are advantages and disadvantages to either of the two approaches, and both have managed to be part of our Jewish traditions for a very long time.

    Nobody is forcing anybody to read Rabbi Sacks’ books, but for those of us who are open to them, I can virtually guarantee that it will experience such intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pleasure in reading them. I continue to mourn the fact that he will never write another one of his amazing books, and yes, I do think he was irreplaceable. His death leaves a huge void that simply nobody can be adequately fill.

  26. Steve Brizel says:

    Compare R Sacks ZL sustained advocacy of Jewish tradition, practice, belief and the family with the following comments of R Riskin at a lecture at Yale, which WADR and IMO , in substance went far beyond any of the negative comments leveled at R Sacks ZL ( the PDF can’t be accessed but R D A Brill quoted the following from it on his blog , which all can read there :

    “Allow me to add to his symbolism. Can we not argue that, although we use different names, symbolic images, rituals, customs and incantations by which we call and worship the Deity, everyone is speaking and praying to the same Divine Force who created and guides our world? Allah is another name for the one God (“El” or “Elohim”), the Trinity is mysteriously considered a unity by Christians, all the physical representations of the Buddha are meant to express the All in the All that is the god of the Far East. Is it not possible that the real meaning of the credo of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord (who is known by our different names of different forces and powers), Elohaynu, is (in reality the) One (YHVH of the entire cosmos).” Just as the white of the cloud is refracted into different colors, so the one God of love may be called by different names and different powers, but these all coalesce in the mind of the one praying and in the reality of the situation into the one all-encompassing Lord of the Universe.

    If this is the case, as long as humans are moral, they can call God by any name or names they wish since their true intent is the God of the universe. They may even be secular humanists, as long as they do not engage in the abominations of idol worship. The ultimate religious concern is that humans not destroy the world, and this can only be predicated upon the universal acceptance of ethical absolutes, compassionate righteousness and justice, the inviolability of the human being, and his/her right to live in freedom, peace and security

    Christianity sees itself as being grafted onto the Jewish covenant, God’s covenant with Abraham. This is legitimate from a biblical and Jewish perspective, since Abraham, by his very name, is a patriarch of a multitude of nations. Christianity worships Abraham’s God of compassionate righteousness and justice, and traditional Christianity surely accepts the seven Noahide laws as given by God. The return of the younger faith to its maternal roots was eased by leading theologians from most churches recognizing the permanent legitimacy of the Jewish covenant with God and the possibility of Jewish salvation on the merit of that covenant. The partnership between the daughter and mother religions is particularly important today in the face of the existential threat of Islamist extremism against which all who are committed to a hopeful future must battle—including moderate Muslims. The Bible records a loving reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael, coming together in bringing their father to his eternal resting place. The God of Abraham as the God of love, compassion, and peace is the antithesis of Satan, who instructs violence against all those who do not accept his cruel prescription for world domination.

    Now that the Jewish people have returned to their homeland and to empirical history and now that Christians again recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant, Jews and Christians must march together to bring the faith of morality and peace to a desperate but thirsting world. We dare not rest until we succeed and see “justice roll like the waters, and compassionate righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24). This is our united mission, far more important than the legitimate and the to-be-respected differences that divide us. And if the moderate, religiously pluralistic Moslems join us, we will all not only survive as free people created the Divine Image. We will redeem ourselves and the entire world.”

    For those interested in a similar critique, take a look at R D D Berger’s strong critique in Tradition of RYG’s claims ( that the covenant between HaShem and Klal Yisrael is no longer binding RL after the Shoah

    WADR to those have criticized R Sacks ZL, IMO, R Sacks ZL never went beyond the boundaries of traditional thought and views of traditional Jewish practice as did RYG or R Riskin

  27. Shades of Gray says:

    “Rabbi Sacks…had high regard, believe it or not, for the more haredi elements of the community”

    There are two illustrations of this as well from his recent writings.  In the  Covenant & Conversation Family Edition(Parshas Eikev, 5780) this year, R. Sacks quoted a NYT article that described the Covid-related  blood plasma donations from New York’s Orthodox and Chasidic community  who have “taken a tragedy and turned it into a superpower”.  R. Sacks there quoted  Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s chief of staff,  who arranged a program through the Agudah to organize volunteers and who explained it by saying that  “I think that it comes from our education and the way we’re raised, the idea of kindness, or chessed, as being one of the foundations of what the world is built on and how it is sustained”. R. Sacks similarly quoted that the limited capacity of NY blood banks led to that “there were probably never so many Hasidim in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the history of the world, and here they’re riding in literally to save lives”.

    R. Sacks mentioned the growth of Daf Yomi in a Yom HaShoah series this year,  mentioning  the complete renaissance of Jewish life and learning as a reason for one of the remarkable signs of hope after the Holocaust,  and referred to  how earlier this year  “one little celebration in New York showed 90,000 people who met together in a baseball stadium there”. In the background section, R. Sacks  mentions that “the Daf Yomi programme has been credited with making Talmud study accessible to Jews who are not Torah scholars, contributing to Jewish continuity after the Holocaust, and having a unifying factor among Jews across the world”(“Topic 10: Hope and the Holocaust”). 

    The above is notable because  in 2013,  the American Agudah objected to  Rabbi Sacks’ description of the Siyum Hashas in his “A Judaism Engaged with the World” pamphlet(available online)  that R. Sacks published  upon stepping down as chief rabbi.  Before explaining on the Zev Brenner radio program the Agudah’s objection  to certain parts of that pamphlet, Rabbi Avi Shafran said that he had shared R. Sacks’ Divrei Torah from the podium of his Agudah shul and at his Shabbos table. R. Shafran said that his respect had only increased when R. Sacks bended to a rabbinic statement in the past, i.e., the criticism of  “The Dignity of Difference”(R. Eliyahu Fink then explained on the radio program R. Sacks’ side). The mention of this past year’s Siyum Hashas which I quoted above would satisfy everyone.

    On a lighter note, R. Sacks, who famously attended an  Arsenal – Manchester United game with the  Archbishop of Canterbury, was apparently unfamiliar with American sports, as he referred to the past two Siyumei Hashas, which I mentioned above,  as having taken place in “baseball stadiums”…  

    R. Dovid Lichtenstein had a brief appreciation for R. Sacks in his Headlines program(Show #298, Minute 16); in the next show (# 299, Minute 2-9)he responded to criticism by a listener for his doing so. He expanded upon the uniqueness of  R. Sacks in terms which could be appreciated by the Charedi world, mentioning, like R. Kimche whom I quoted previously, about “speaking before kings without embarrassment”. He  played a clip from R. Wildes of Manhattan who said that he would frequently recommend  “A Letter in the Scroll”  and other of R. Sacks’ books as part of his kiruv work.  See as well these links:

  28. Shades of Gray says:

    R. Adlerstein wrote about relating to R. Sacks’ missteps a number of years ago which has stuck in my mind(“Listening to Multiple Voices”, CC, 10/07 in comments):

    I can’t think of anyone who walks the tightrope between universalism and particularism as well as Rabbi Sacks. When you don’t have the luxury of coming down, and traverse the rope again and again, you are bound to make a misstep from time to time.

    Dr. Alan Jotkowitz, who wrote tributes to R. Sacks in the Jerusalem Post and on Tradition Online, prefaced his critique in the Fall, 2011 Tradition of aspects of “Dignity of Difference”   by acknowledging that “in the course of his eminent career, R. Sacks has developed a Jewish theological response to the impact of globalization and multiculturalism on a religious life-style; something few Orthodox thinkers have grappled with.”(he also discusses  Dr. Marc Shapiro’s defense of R. Sacks,  see Dr. Jotkowitz’s  “Universalism and Particularism in the Jewish Tradition: The Radical Theology of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks”). R. Gil Student responded to Dr. Jotkowitz’s article  in Tradition Spring, 2012, and  also wrote that  “R. Sacks is only human and may be guilty of inconsistencies and errors.” R. Sacks wrote, in general, that when grieving for his father a number of years ago, “The mood eventually passed but while it lasted I made some of the worst mistakes of my life.”(“Healing the Trauma of Loss (Chukat 5776”).   
    In the recent week’s Covenant & Conversation,(“Be Thyself”,  Vayishlach 5781),part of this year’s series prepared in advance from “Lessons In Leadership” to allow R. Sacks space, per his office, to continue to work on the Chumash, R. Sacks quoted Churchill  that  “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”(one can find more than fifty results when searching “Churchill” on his website, as R. Joshua Berman pointed out in his tribute ; R. Sacks said in a podcast interview this September that he had self-doubts “possibly every single hour”(“From the Inside Out: With Rivkah Krinsky and Eda Schottenstein”, Minute 38).  In  “Light in Dark Times” (Vayetse 5781) published two weeks ago, R. Sacks quoted from Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech  which might be said about R. Sacks as well(compare with R. Hutner’s famous letter):

    It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…

    The fact that R. Sacks was open about his failures, ironically, made him more  relatable.  Gordon Brown wrote in his tribute “he could bring an audience to its feet with memorable displays of humour, often directed against himself”.  In a 2019 pre-Selichos address in London called “An Unforgiving Age”(Minute 12, available online), R.  Sacks said that when asked by an American rabbi who asked him “if he ever failed at anything “, that he almost fell out of his chair laughing, saying that  he failed at almost everything, and that  his favorite sentence in the English language was Winston Churchill’s definition of success, mentioned above(the above “American rabbi” appears to be   R.  Efrem Goldberg; see the posthumously published interview  on the “Behind the Bima” podcast(“Bonus Episode: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l”, Minute 21). 

  29. dr. bill says:

    One additional point needs to be made. When one confronts challenges that others do not perceive or acknowledge, unwarranted criticism is not unexpected.

  30. Bob Miler says:

    “… Christians again recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant…”
    If a Christian denomination does not believe in a pure monotheism, what legitimacy does it have as an offshoot?

  31. Shades of Gray says:

    For more on R. Sacks and the Charedi community, see R.  Yehoshua Pfeffer’s article in Tzarich Iyun: 

    The part below about “Rabbi to the Goyim” was said by others(see Giles Fraser’s  and the Church Times tributes), but here R. Sacks says it:


    At our last meeting, a couple of years ago in Jerusalem, he made an unforgettable statement: “For too many years, I was predominantly a rabbi to the Goyim; now I wish to be a rabbi to the Jews.” I remarked that we do not have many “rabbis to the Goyim” like himself – figures who…fulfilling the words of Yeshayahu…“This is exactly why we need to focus on the Jews,” he retorted with a smile, later clarifying that his reference, to no small degree, was to Charedi society.

     In the section titled “The Article That Never Was” R. Pffefer writes:   

    My last meeting with Rabbi Sacks focused on Charedi society in Israel…He saw enormous potential in Charedi society…expecting it to share the spiritual goods it had accumulated with the entire Jewish People (and even beyond). He was pleased to hear about the formation of Tzarich Iyun as an intellectual Charedi publication, and even proposed submitting an article…

    There are also   two articles in Mishpacha, available online,  by R. Emanuel Feldman titled “David and Jonathan”(discussing Rav Feinstein as well), and by R. Warren Goldstein. Ami Magazine tweeted about  an article in the print edition   by R. Gil Student, which sounds like it might be similar to  what he posted on Torah Musing.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Something to think about:
      What specific action plan would Rav Sacks have proposed to Chareidim if any asked for one?

  32. Steve Brizel says:

    I have read excerpts of Morality which was the last of the books authored by R Sacks ZL The excerpts are a clear dissection and disssent from the social cultural and economic effects and havoc wrought in our individual familial and communal lives by the events effecting the same from the 1960s to the present It is far more critical of the world we live in then Future Tense

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