Sacks, Jonathan Henry

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SACKS, JONATHAN HENRY (1948– ), chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, from 1991. Born in London, Sacks combined brilliant success in secular studies with his Jewish education. He obtained a doctorate in moral philosophy at London University in 1981 and was ordained from both Jews' College and Yeshivat Etz Ḥayyim in London, in 1976. After lecturing in moral philosophy at Middlesex Polytechnic, he taught Jewish philosophy and Talmud at Jews' College from 1973 to 1982 and served as the college's principal from 1984 to 1990. Simultaneously he was rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue, 1978–82, and Marble Arch Synagogue, 1983–90. He edited Tradition and Transition (1986) and Traditional Alternatives (1989), which stemmed from a major conference on contemporary Judaism that he convened in 1989. It was followed in 1990 by a gathering focused on women in Judaism.

A frequent radio broadcaster, Rabbi Dr. Sacks delivered the prestigious Reith Lectures in 1990, subsequently published to wide acclaim as The Persistence of Faith (1991). He also published Tradition in an Untraditional Age (1991) and Covenant and Crisis: Jewish Thought after the Holocaust (1992). His broadcasts and publications established the new chief rabbi as a popular representative of Judaism, although this has not been matched by uniform acceptance among British Jews. He created controversy in 1985 with a pamphlet on Jewish attitudes to wealth and poverty, issued by the rightwing Social Affairs Unit.

His scope for initiative in office was limited by a financial crisis in the United Synagogue and the polarization of Anglo-Jewry. He disappointed Progressive Jews by declining to participate in a radio discussion if a Reform rabbi was included. He inaugurated an unprecedented review of the position of women in the United Synagogue, but his decision to permit women's prayer groups only outside the synagogue, and without use of a Scroll of the Law, was considered a conservative compromise. Popular hostility to the recognition of homosexuals within communal life led him to sanction their exclusion from a fund-raising event, dismaying liberal opinion. These controversies overshadowed his achievements in promoting Jewish learning under the banner "Decade of Renewal."

[David Cesarani]