I am Jewish? Australian? Both of them? – opinion

There is a gap between the role of the rabbi in Israel and the diaspora. In general, the Israeli rabbi is more of a Talmudist and teacher and less of a mentor and minister. The diaspora rabbi tends to be a professional, focusing more on people’s skills, ministering to a congregation, and representing Judaism to the host society.

I was an embodiment of the second concept. Forty-five years in the pulpits of the diaspora made me an ecclesiastic and ambassador. Beginning my career at the United Synagogue in London, I spent 32 years in Sydney as Chief Minister of the Great Synagogue. At first, I had a meeting with the Synagogue Board about the role of the rabbi. I said that he seemed to have two full-time jobs: minister of the congregation and ambassador of the community. I felt I was competent to do either one and asked the board what they preferred. Rather pragmatically, they said, “Both!”

So “both” remained. I know he was not the perfect rabbi: no one was and could not be. But somehow the combination of roles evolved over the years by previous rabbis (not always in consultation with lay leaders) seemed to work, and that’s how things were and still are. From time to time I would ask myself a philosophical question: When I was involved in matters of national debate, was I Jewish or Australian? Once again, the pragmatic response was “both!”

In fact, the question constantly came up. Interviewed on television in the 1990s (considered “one of the top twenty Australians”) about the future of the British monarchy in Australia, did I speak as a Jew or Australian? When I spoke at the National Sea of ​​Hands event in Bondi Beach to advocate for reconciliation (and an apology) with Aborigines, was I there as a Jew or Australian? When I helped the United Church to get its first military chaplain, was it my involvement as a Jew or an Australian? Sometimes I defended the Muslim, Chinese and Roman Catholic communities; I addressed lectures by politicians, judges, journalists, nurses, naval chaplains, teachers, and child care workers. What was I, Jew? An Australian? I addressed large audiences on national occasions like Anzac Day and Australia Day, as a Jew? as Australian? I can’t be sure, but I think the answer was “both!”

I felt deeply the quality of Australian society (and still do), the cleanliness of Australian streets, the decency of Australian democracy, the right of all Australians to a place in the sun, and a variety of other issues of our time. I wanted Australia to be a good place for all Australians. I heard from various sources that I was considered a solid thinker and a good speaker. One freemason even said that I was the wisest man he had ever met, the greatest compliment he had ever received.

The Australian flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A newspaper columnist reflected on the possibility that I was Governor General of Australia. However, he thought it would be complicated and he probably had no idea about technical aspects such as kashrut, mezuzah, and Shabbat.

Every now and then there would be nasty people calling me names, like the thugs who followed my wife Marian and me one night down Park Street in Sydney with a mocking “Jew!” How clever of the yobbos to identify me. I couldn’t escape my Judaism and I didn’t want to. It was because I was a Jew and a rabbi that I went public. I’m sure it was because my thinking was shaped and informed by my Judaism that I had things to say about Australian affairs.

The president of the national Supreme Court called by phone and asked for a Bible verse for the new Superior Court building. Cabinet ministers (some Jews, some not) wanted quotations from Jewish ethical writings for their speeches. The Department of Defense made special kashrut arrangements for me, as did Government House. I gave speeches at church synods and on public platforms, and wrote “opinion pieces” in the media. I was a full-time Jew and a full-time Australian at the same time. Both of them? Yes, but it seemed to work.

What can I say about the Israeli rabbi? It is certainly in Israel, but is it from Israel? Some are. Many are not. Does the Israeli Rabbi’s Torah enhance Israeli character and quality of life? Some rabbis are suspicious of the IDF and regard non-religious Israelis as an enemy. There is little religious (or spiritual) Jewish input in its approach to national and humanitarian problems.

When we say that this is the only Jewish state in the world, the statement is true, but does this show Israel as more than just a place inhabited by Jews? We know about eternal problems, but what about the inner dimension of Israeli life? Where is the Jewish thought that could influence our political, economic, cultural, intellectual and scientific ethics, even in our sports life? We talked about the size of the prime minister’s kippah, but wondering to what extent the tradition of the Torah might affect the appearance of Israel? I know many Israelis are afraid that the state will become too “frum”, but Israel’s Declaration of Independence expects the state to follow the principles of the prophets and the sagacity of the sages, or is it just motherhood?

The writer is a rabbi emeritus of the Great Synagogue of Sydney.


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