Tribute – Daniel Taub: Studying with Rabbi Sacks
search

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here
Analysis

Tribute – Daniel Taub: Studying with Rabbi Sacks

Former Israeli Ambassador to the UK pays tribute to an intellectual Jewish giant, who singlehandedly created a corpus of Jewish thought unprecedented in modern times

Daniel Taub
Daniel Taub (left) interviewing Rabbi Lord Sacks
Daniel Taub (left) interviewing Rabbi Lord Sacks

The position of Israeli ambassador to the Court of St James’s comes with a number of perks. But perhaps none was more precious to me than the regular appointment I would have, as Israel’s envoy, with the Chief Rabbi. For the first three years of my posting, this meant a regular monthly session with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks had a keen interest in events in Israel. He had a deep personal connection himself (he would joke that when he visited during the Gulf War he was the only person who followed the government’s instructions to shave off his beard so he could wear a gas mask), but he also wanted to be able to help his rabbis be effective in connecting their communities to Israel. He was eager to be briefed on the current security situation, the political intrigues, and the state of Israel-UK relations.

I had a rather different agenda. Here was an intellectual Jewish giant, who had singlehandedly created a corpus of Jewish thought unprecedented in modern times. He had energised thinking within the Jewish world and made Jewish ideas a force to be reckoned with in wider society. I was astonished at the range of non-Jewish leaders I would meet with, from archbishops to public intellectuals, who would confide what a treasured influence his writing had been on their lives. With such a teacher, I thought, there has to be a better way for us to spend our time together.

I suggested to Rabbi Sacks that I would prepare briefing notes so that the business part of our meeting could be completed in fifteen minutes at most. That would leave the rest of the time for us to study together. Rabbi Sacks agreed willingly, but the truth is our earliest efforts were not a great success. He was not a natural study partner, or at least the imbalance between us made our study awkward and stilted. I suggested an alternative. Rather than study a text together, I would send him, in advance of our meeting, a list of five or six questions that seemed to me current and important. He could choose any one of them and speak freely about it.

So did I come to have the benefit of a truly wonderful tutorial. The range of his erudition was breathtaking – we would leap from the history of language to the relationship of Judaism to oriental philosophy – but the discussion was almost never disconnected from the challenges of our time. His focus was on ideas as moral forces in the real world: how do we balance our local, national, and global responsibilities; how do we navigate between hubris and humility in the face of scientific progress; how do we harness the power of faith without unleashing the darker sides of fundamentalism?

At the same time, our sessions together gave me a glimpse of a man who had embraced his public role with reluctance. On one occasion he spoke about the sin of the biblical spies, who gave a bad report on the land of Israel. They were scared, he suggested, not of defeat but of victory. If they succeeded in the battle, they would have to take on the challenge of facing the real world. As he said this, it seemed this was a fear he had known himself.

Truly one of the great public speakers and broadcasters of our generation, this was never a role he imagined for himself. I have a passion for ideas, he would say, but I’m just not a people person. It’s easier for me to speak to a thousand people than to three, he would add. If left to his own inclinations he would, he admitted, have been happy to remain in the ivory tower.

Two things I think made him change his mind. The first was his acute sense of tzav hasha’ah, the call of the times. In a largely godless age, where the voice of faith was barely heard on the major issues of the day, he recognised that he had a unique ability to redress that balance.

And the second was that he was surrounded with a remarkable group of people who cherished his strengths and appreciated his weaknesses. ‘I realised I needed to surround myself with individuals with outstanding people skills’, he said – and in this he was blessed. Blessed above all with his wife, Lady Elaine, who was always in his mind when he advised people with an abstract intellectual bent like his own, to marry someone “who has a bigger heart than you do”.

Alongside the legacy of wisdom and insight that he has left us, and which is more relevant today than ever, Rabbi Sack’s life leaves us with another lesson too: with commitment and moral vision, and some help from our friends, we can become something greater than we ever thought we would be.    

  • Daniel Taub was Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2011 – 2015

Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...

Engaging

Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.

Celebrating

There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.

Pioneering

In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.

Campaigning

Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish News also produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more:
comments