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Britain's Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Dies At 72

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the leading voices in Judaism died over the weekend. Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi in the United Kingdom, wrote more than 30 books. The most recent was perfect for this moment. The title - "Morality: Restoring The Common Good In Divided Times." Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Rabbi Sacks was an extraordinary student of the Hebrew scriptures, but he was probably better known for explaining Judaism to non-Jews, especially the Jewish understanding of tolerance. In his book "The Dignity Of Difference," Sacks wrote, quote, "God has spoken to mankind in many languages - through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims."

Here he is in a 2010 interview with Krista Tippett, host of the public radio program "On Being."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ON BEING")

JONATHAN SACKS: Don't think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don't think there's only one language within which we can speak to God.

GJELTEN: Such thoughts got Sacks in trouble with some conservative rabbis. In a later edition of the book, he softened his argument, as he acknowledged in a 2015 interview with NPR's Robert Siegel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL: It's claimed by some that you retracted some of the statements.

SACKS: I toned down several of the sentences because the truth is, if you're going to be a leader, lead at a speed that people can follow. And I just think I was trying to do too much, too fast.

GJELTEN: Sacks' most recent book, published just as the COVID pandemic broke out, emphasized what he called the importance of living the we. In a Zoom session last March with Hillel, the Jewish student organization, he criticized people who hoard food or refuse to engage in social distancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SACKS: These are people putting I ahead of we. When you emphasize the we, something extraordinary happens. You get the most heroic behavior from doctors, from nurses, from health care workers, from people who are stacking the shelves in the supermarkets. These are people who live the we.

GJELTEN: Rabbi Sacks was particularly thoughtful in answering big, tough questions. In an interview just a few weeks ago on a podcast called "From The Inside Out," the host asked Sacks, why does God let bad things happen to good people? Sacks said, God does not want us to understand that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "FROM THE INSIDE OUT")

SACKS: Because if we ever understood, we would be forced to accept that bad things happen to good people. And God does not want us to accept those bad things. He wants us not to understand so that we will fight against the bad and the injustices of this world. And that is why there is no answer to that question because God has arranged that we shall never have an answer to it.

SIEGEL: Sacks died on Saturday of cancer at the age of 72.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.