Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the much respected former chief rabbi of the UK, has died aged 72. Sacks was highly esteemed around the Jewish world for his erudition, his wisdom, and his prolific authorship of works on Jewish thought. He was regarded as an erudite teacher of the human condition.
His death on Saturday morning was announced on his Twitter feed after the end of Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. Orthodox Jews do not use the internet or phones during the 24 hours between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday.
Sacks was the Orthodox chief rabbi for 22 years until 2013, and was made a life peer in 2009.
But his regular broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and newspaper articles ensured he reached a wide audience for his views on Jewish values in the 21st century.
He also wrote more than 30 books, with the most recent, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, published earlier this year.
Sacks announced he was being treated for unspecified cancer three weeks ago, after twice being successfully treated for the disease earlier in his life.
His office said: “He remains positive and upbeat and will now spend a period of time focused on the treatment he is receiving from his excellent medical team. He is looking forward to returning to his work as soon as possible.”
Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “We are distraught at the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Sacks. He was a giant of both the Jewish community and wider society. His astounding intellect and courageous moral voice were a blessing to all who encountered him in person, in writing or in broadcast.
“His outstanding tenure as chief rabbi led to a revolution in Jewish life and learning which has ensured his legacy will pass not just through his own beloved family, but through generations of our community’s young people too.”
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said that Sacks had been “a towering intellect whose eloquence, insights and kindness reached well beyond the Jewish community. I have no doubt that his legacy will live on for many generations.”
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said Sacks was “a giant of world Jewry and will be truly missed. His scholarship and oratory skill were without parallel and he has been an inspiration to an entire generation, no matter their faith.”
Nick Baines, the Anglican bishop of Leeds, was among the first to pay tribute on social media, tweeting: “Very, very sad news. A giant has gone. Condolences to our Jewish friends, but way beyond, too … I owe him such a debt – culturally, spiritually, intellectually. So sad, and a massive loss to the country.”
Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, said: “Today the world lost a rabbi, a lord, a wonderful philosopher. The world will miss him, I will miss him.”
Sacks repeatedly warned of rising antisemitism, telling the House of Lords last year that “there is hardly a country in the world, certainly not a single country in Europe, where Jews feel safe” and that societies tolerating antisemitism had “forfeited all moral credibility”.
In a speech three years ago, Sacks said a “politics of anger” and a “culture of grievances” was corroding US society.
The former chief rabbi was a friend of the royal family, with the Prince of Wales describing him at the end of his time as chief rabbi as a “light unto this nation”, “a steadfast friend” and “a valued adviser”. Sacks attended the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.