What would Sacks say?

Hundreds gather to mark 3rd anniversary of Rabbi Sacks’ death, consider how religion can ‘heal a fractured world’

Interfaith panel reflects on the devastation of Oct. 7 attacks and how Jews, Christians and Muslims can grow from them

The question that Gila Sacks has been asked repeatedly since Hamas’ Oct. 7 deadly rampage in Israel is what wisdom her father would have offered.

Sacks is the director of prevention services in the United Kingdom’s Department for Health and Social Care and the youngest daughter of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the British chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, who died three years ago.

“There were times that either I individually, or we collectively, found to be very frightening or difficult and he would say to take a broad view,” she told eJP at a reception on Tuesday night, following an event to mark Rabbi Sacks’ third yahrzeit this Saturday, calledThe Sacks Conversation: To Heal a Fractured World,” named for the title of one of the 25 book Sacks authored. 

“Though he understood the problems of the world more acutely and in greater depth than any of us, that didn’t get in the way of his hope. Ultimately, he believed that any problem could be solved. It might be difficult but ultimately people create circumstances and can make them better — he really believed that.” 

As college campuses have been among the places hardest hit by increased antisemitism since Oct. 7, the younger Sacks, who serves on the board of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, said her father would address the lack of moral clarity in young people by telling them: “There’s an enormous amount that every one of us can do.”

“We can look to leaders, politicians and rabbis and that’s important, but none of that can get in the way of the strong individual responsibility we each have to influence the people around us,” she said.

More than 400 people from across Judaism’s denominational spectrum gathered to remember Sacks — yearning for a piece of the rabbi’s insight during a dark time. The event — held at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, a tribute to the rabbi’s love of music — opened with a musical performance of “Oseh Shalom,” dedicated to the Israel Defense Forces, by Shimon Craimer, a former chazzan at the Riverdale Jewish Center, who now lives in Israel. 

The discussion also featured an interfaith panel featuring Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York; Imam Abdullah Antepli, an interfaith leader who teaches at the Duke Divinity School; and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who leads Shearith Israel – often called the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – an Orthodox congregation in Manhattan and directs the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

Each religious leader pointed to teachings from Sacks — who died at age 72 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer — that could help heal a fractured post-Oct. 7 society. Sacks was an advocate of interfaith dialogue and sat on the Board of World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, though he faced criticism in his lifetime for not taking part in Jewish pluralist and interdenominational initiatives like Limmud.

Dolan recalled meeting Sacks once and corresponding with him on many occasions. “One of the things that strikes me about his discourse would be to heal a fractured world, we first need to acknowledge, identify and admit the fracture. Sometimes he would counsel us that we tend to avoid, deny or run away from [the problem]. He, of course, as a deep Jewish scholar would know the power and significance of repentance. We are constantly acknowledging and admitting the fractures within so that can be healed and, if I understand correctly, can lead to the healing of others.” 

Antepli, an associate professor at Duke University, fellow on Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute and co-director of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, said he attends synagogue more often than most of the Jews he knows. “The world was fractured enough before October 7. But after the barbaric savagery and monstrous terrorism that has been committed in the name of Palestinian suffering or in the name of Islam, as a Muslim it cuts much deeper. It really hurts. For those of us who are Muslim and love [Judaism], the least we can do is condemn in the clearest terms possible this barbaric savagery without ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ to make sure this is unacceptable.” 

Antepli, who said he immediately became close friends and “conversation partners” with Sacks upon meeting, continued, “No scripture of Islam could justify this… I cannot even find words to express how shaken I am. What religions do best in these times of calamity and disaster is to slow us down… make sure we are not revealing the worst of ourselves. For those of us who are not holding arms and wearing uniforms, our job is to make sure we are better than our enemies. The holy Quran says ‘replace evil with what’s better.’ You can find many similar verses in Judaism and Christianity.”

Soloveichik said the one statement he’s heard “over and over” within the Jewish community since Oct. 7 is, “I wish Rabbi Sacks were here with us, to speak for us, to speak with us, to guide as at this moment.” 

“That’s a sign of what a loss we are marking,” Soloveichik said. “But also what a legacy we are marking. When you think about it, what other rabbinic leader should inspire a gathering such as this in his memory?” 

Although the event was planned before Oct. 7 by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog said, in virtual remarks, that the title, “To Heal a Fractured World,” was particularly timely. 

“As we fight a war for our home which was imposed on us by Hamas, a terrorist organization, we will go in and we will destroy the war machine. We will destroy the leadership that built and operated that war machine. But there is a deeper war going on here. There is a cultural, civilizational war. Those who went in on Oct. 7 and carried out these atrocities were driven by a set of values, by a culture that directed them at burning people alive, at taking captive Holocaust survivors. They celebrated the blood of Jews. Those who support them support the glorification of terror. We all have to wake up and understand that this is a defining moment that calls for moral clarity, exactly as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told us.” 

“I strongly believe that Judaism has so much to offer to heal a fractured world,” Herzog said. “Israel is a grieving nation but we are united… and with the power of our faith we will prevail.” 

In the keynote address, Shari Redstone, board chair of Paramount Global, said, “Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory loved to share an old Hasidic teaching that saw the Jewish people as a living Torah scroll with each person as one of its letters. For Rabbi Sacks this offered a radical insight about human dignity. If a single letter in a scroll is damaged or missing, a torah is considered invalid. If we ignore or dismiss a single person’s humanity, our collective humanity suffers.”

In addition to Gila Sacks and her siblings, the event was attended by Rabbi Sacks’ wife, Lady Elaine Sacks, and Sacks’ brother.