The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Literary–Theological Approach to Biblical Interpretation

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, was probably the most important and well known Jewish theologian of the twentieth first century. He believed, like his predecessor Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, that Jewish values and teachings have relevance for all of mankind. What is somewhat surprising is the source of Rabbi Sacks`s theology. Orthodox Jewish theology has traditionally been anchored in either the perspective of Talmudic Rabbis as transmitted through the halakha (as emphasized by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) and the agadda or based on the works of the great medieval Jewish philosophers such as the Rambam, Crescas and Yehuda Halevi. In contradistinction to these approaches, Rabbi Sacks turns to the Bible as the primary source of his theology. This "returning to the Bible" is consistent with other trends in orthodox Jewish scholarship which also emphasizes a return to the intensive study of the biblical text using modern methodologies. It is certainly plausible to maintain that Jewish theology should be based on the Bible but for some of R. Sack`s positions there is simply no rabbinic precedent. In addition, since biblical theology is open to a myriad of differing and even contradictory opinions the role of rabbinic tradition is of utmost importance. Notwithstanding these sentiments, Rabbi Sacks was an important and creative thinker who made a lasting impact using the "literary-theological" methodology to the study and understanding of the Bible.