Much is discussed and written about leadership. Historically, the Jewish people crave effective, responsible, and dignified leaders. This has been especially evident, again, during the current pandemic, when we hold our breath hoping that a reasonable and proper voice will emerge every time someone speaks on our behalf.
This past Shabbos has been a difficult one for the Jewish world. On Friday afternoon, word had spread that the gadol b’Torah and internationally renowned poseik, HaRav Dovid Feinstein, 91, had passed away. Right after Shabbos, the world learned that the former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, 72, had succumbed to cancer.
Those of us who knew both rabbis and who are familiar with the followings they enjoyed can describe the differences in their constituents, their distinct styles of leadership, and the contrast of their personalities. However, as we look at the lives of these two distinguished leaders, there are similarities and common strengths that helped elevate them to their prominent roles.
“We shared a platform at an Agudah convention and at a lecture on medical ethics and halachah,” said Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum, mara d’asra of Khal Nachlas Yitzchok in Kew Gardens Hills. “There are new ways to extend a person’s life; the question is when the person is under great pain. He also spoke on the topic of reporting abuse, which used to be covered up in the community.”
Rav Dovid Feinstein was all about Torah, halachah, and the service of Hashem. His volumes of s’farim, those that he studied and those that he wrote, are a testament to his life’s work. He was born in Belarus in 1929, descended from generations of Torah scholars, including his illustrious father Rav Moshe. Under Soviet rule, their way of life was persecuted and the family was fortunate to receive their exit visa in 1936. In New York, he and his brother Rav Reuven succeeded their father in heading Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on the Lower East Side, maintaining it as a beacon of Torah learning renowned throughout world Jewry. Today, Rav Reuven runs the Staten Island branch of the yeshivah.
“He was not obligated to take responsibility for the yeshivah, nor for the kollel. And, indeed, all the harbatzas haTorah that he performed was entirely chesed,” said Rav Chaim Ganzweig, the Mashgiach of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem at Rav Feinstein’s funeral on Sunday, which took place at the yeshivah. “The way he interacted with people, regardless if they were rich or poor, wise or foolish, talmid chacham or am haaretz, great or small, all were recipients of his endless chesed. Most did not even realize the chesed he was doing for them, as he did a tovah for each person according to the individual’s need.”
Following his father’s death in 1986, Rav Dovid became the Rosh HaYeshiva of Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel.
Rabbi Oelbaum noted his humility as a leader. “Sometimes when he spoke, you did not know that he was speaking. He wore a regular hat and jacket and he did not sit in his father’s chair,” he said.
Rav Feinstein kept a full schedule running the yeshivah, teaching varied shiurim, and answering questions over the phone, day and night. Rav Feinstein prepared many t’shuvos and authored nine ArtScroll s’farim: The Jewish Calendar: Its Structure and Laws, The Laws of the Seder, the Anah Dodi Haggadah, Seasonings of the Torah, Kol Dodi on Megillas Esther, Kol Dodi on Megillas Rus, Kol Dodi on the Haftaros, Kol Dodi on the Torah, and the Kol Dodi Haggadah. The rav’s humility was marked by his name never appearing on the cover of his works. While Rav Moshe was still alive, the term Kol Dodi was chosen as a suitable title for the ArtScroll scripts.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita, a leading poseik of our generation, also spoke of Rav Feinstein’s character. “It is especially hard to describe the many facets of his personality. He was kulo tov, kulo geshmak. He was a chaver tov, a good friend. He was a min bifnei atzmo (a breed unto himself). He understood everyone and what they needed, and he did whatever he could do to help.”
Rav Feinstein delivered a weekly Chumash lecture, where the rav would correspond notions of G’matria to the theme of each parshah. On Parshas VaYeira, Rav Feinstein noted its 147 verses were like the g’matria of Amnon, denoting the profound emunah, faithfulness, of our forefather Avraham, whose life story encompassed the Torah portion.
In his final public message, Rav Feinstein reminded the Jewish world that with the conclusion of a tumultuous election week, and the impending month of Kislev, Avraham Avinu’s words of emunah still resonate. “This faithfulness reached its zenith when Avraham was commanded to sacrifice the son through whom his every future promise was to have been fulfilled. Yet his faith in Hashem was so complete that he complied unhesitatingly.”
A masked crowd stood on East Broadway to pay their respects as thousands more listened and watched the funeral online. He was buried in Jerusalem, the resting place of Rav Moshe. He is survived by his beloved wife Rebbetzin Malka Feinstein, and their two sons Rabbi Berel Feinstein and Rabbi Mordechai Feinstein, along with their daughter Rebbetzin Gittel Fishelis, and by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A third son died in his youth.
Rabbi Sacks, 72, was not a rosh yeshivah like Rav Feinstein. His authorship, oratory skills, and academic prowess in many areas are what set him apart as a chief rabbi and world-class lecturer. In his storied career, he spoke at public celebrations, in the seat of government, in front of royalty, in friendly and sometimes hostile environments. “He made the Jewish people proud in how he articulated,” said Rabbi Oelbaum. “He was able to explain the ethical and moral, and get the audience to want to find out more. Many rabbanim read his articles as food for thought.”
Rabbi Sacks was born in London in 1948, and was the first in his family to attend college. His father, who arrived in England from Poland as a child, quit school at the age of 14 to work selling cloth. Sacks chose to become a rabbi late in his education, having initially studied philosophy at Cambridge University. His career path took a turn in 1968 when he was on a visit to America.
“I had no money in those days, and all I had was a Greyhound bus ticket,” he said at the 2011 International Conference of Shluchim, where he was the keynote speaker. “I came to 770, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done. He did a role reversal; he started asking me questions.”
The encounter inspired him to become a rabbi and to train other rabbis. “The world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: that a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders,” he said to the audience of thousands at the 2011 conference, where I was a participant.
Rabbi Shaul Wertheimer, the Chabad shaliach to Queens College, also attended that event and heard Rabbi Sacks deliver his powerful half-hour drashah. “My connection to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was through my father. He is not Chabad and you can call him a chasid of Rabbi Sacks. They had a lot in common; they are both intellectuals,” he said.
Remarking on his many books, articles, and essays, Rabbi Wertheimer said that this knowledge of texts extended “beyond the Jewish bookshelf.” Like Chabad, Rabbi Sacks knew how to use technology to extend his message to the world. He spoke on BBC radio, tweeted, and met with political, business, and religious leaders across the world. “It’s the sheer volume of his writings – so relevant, real, and personal.”
From 1991 to 2013, he served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, representing Orthodox synagogues in Great Britain, its dependencies, and other Commonwealth nations. His message of tolerance and ability to connect secular philosophical works to the parshah earned him a global following among Jews and gentiles.
“His immense learning spanned the sacred and the secular, and his prophetic voice spoke to our greatest challenges with unfailing insight and boundless compassion,” Prince Charles wrote in a statement. “His wise counsel was sought and appreciated by those of all faiths and none, and he will be missed more than words can say.”
In 2005, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him, and four years later he was elevated to the House of Lords as a life peer with the title “Baron Sacks, of Aldgate in the City of London.”
“The Rabbinical Alliance of America appreciated the love, energy, and devotion that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had for the Jewish People. Thanks in part to the strong advocacy of Rabbi Sacks, traditional Torah Judaism became fashionable and respected across the world. This remarkable contribution of Rabbi Sacks will forever be remembered with reverence and appreciation and will help to continue to inspire the Jewish community to champion Orthodox religious practice,” stated Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. In a pre-High Holiday Chomer LiDrush Homiletics Session hosted by the Chazaq organization, Rabbi Sacks addressed the Rabbinical Alliance of America, where he shared inspirational Torah insights for incorporation in holiday sermons. “We are grateful that he shared some of his last rabbinic activities with the rabbis of the RAA, and it was a moment that all of us at Chazaq will hold dear, being able to disseminate some of his last recorded words,” noted Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of Chazaq.
After his retirement as Chief Rabbi, he was hired by Yeshiva University as a Professor of Jewish Thought, circling back to his previous role as a rabbinic instructor at Jews’ College in London, where he taught before becoming Chief Rabbi.
“For our community, Rabbi Sacks uniquely exemplified and articulated Yeshiva University’s world view and mission to the broader Jewish people and the world at large,” said YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. On the shelves of YU and many Modern Orthodox synagogues worldwide, Rabbi Sacks’ thoughts resonate alongside prayers in the Koren siddurim and machzorim.
“OU Press was privileged to be a partner in publishing many of these writings, and the Orthodox Union family benefited from a wide range of programming and teaching experiences he shared with us,” the OU wrote in a statement. “Rabbi Sacks’ unique voice, novel and insightful ideas, exciting and elegant prose, unfailingly relevant messages, and outstanding leadership will all be sorely missed.”
Sivan Rahav-Meir added an everlasting remark from Rabbi Sacks, “When we make Judaism our top priority – we lose nothing.”
The coronavirus pandemic reminds us of just how fragile Jewish leadership can be, and the void felt in the absence of our most effective leaders. As we remember the lives of Rav Feinstein and Rabbi Sacks, let us emphasize how seriously they took their leadership roles in the Jewish world and the world in general.
By Nachum Segal
and Sergey Kadinsky