I’m sure everyone here is familiar with that moment in Fiddler on the Roof where the Rabbi is asked, “Rabbi is it true that in the Jewish tradition there is a blessing for everything?” “Of course,” he answers. “So Rabbi, is there a blessing for the Tsar?
There is a pause. The Rabbi strokes his straggly beard, he blinks, his face beams; “of course! May God bless and keep the tsar… Far away from us!”
I have in my hands my great-grandfather’s prayer book, printed a hundred and five years ago. Translating from the Hebrew on page 58 it reads; “He who gives salvation to Kings and dominion to princes, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom… May he bless and keep, sustain and elevate, raise up ever higher our head of state Tsar Nikolai Alexandrovitch, his mother the dowager Tsarina Maria; the Tsarina Alexandra and prince Georgie Alexandrovitch.”
There is indeed a blessing for the Tsar.
The prayer book was printed in Lemburg or Lvov. That part of the Ukraine changed regime with every battle and every peace treaty. In 1906 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Accordingly, just above the prayer for the Tsar is found a similar prayer for those who lived locally enjoining the Almighty to raise and elevate the Kaiser Franz Joseph the first. The prayer for the Tsar was for those who lived across the border.
There is a blessing to recite on seeing a King or a ruler. What do we say when the head of state is not far away, but rather in our presence? The blessing is Baruch hanoten michvodo levasar ve’dam. Blessed is He, who gives of His glory to flesh and blood. It is our great pleasure to join in that blessing as we welcome her Excellency the Governor General to The Great Synagogue. And we do so with far greater alacrity than I suspect my great grandfather would have been able to demonstrate in saying a blessing for the Tsar.
There is a parallel blessing upon seeing outstanding scholars and sages. It is Baruch hanoten michochmato levasar ve’dam. Blessed is He who gives of his wisdom to flesh and blood. This evening we salute her Excellency’s as her Majesty’s representative, and bless God who has given her honour. We acknowledge also her wisdom and her scholarship, her impressive record as a campaigner for rights and freedoms within society, particularly but not exclusively for women.
A look at rabbinic literature shows a range of teachings concerning the ruling power. In the harshest era of Roman rule, the Sage Shamaya admonishes, “Love work, avoid authority and have nothing to do with the ruling power.” A couple of hundred years later, Rabbi Gamliel who was head of the Sanhedrin echoed from bitter experience that “one should be careful of the ruling power because they appear friendly when they can benefit, but will not stand by someone who is in need.”
A more sympathetic understanding of the importance of civil authority is found in the words of Rabbi Chanina who was a Deputy High Priest. He encouraged worshippers to “pray for the welfare of the ruling power, for without fear of them a man would swallow up his neighbour alive.” Clearly Rabbi Chanina recognised the role of authority in maintaining law and order. It is his words which underpin and inspire the prayer for the welfare of the nation; for the Queen and Governor General, for the Kaiser Franz Josef or even the Tsar.
Two centuries back when Napoleon prepared his armies to march across Europe he sent agents to the leaders of the Jewish communities in the countries he intended to invade. With promises of liberation from their ghettos, he sought to encourage their support. He found no takers. Even when subjected to discrimination and persecution, Jewish communities have shown loyalty to their hosts and would not countenance acting as a fifth column or proxies to undermine the State.
One of the most basic tenets of Jewish Talmudic law, which has enabled our survival in the Diaspora is that “Dina deMalchuta Dina” the law of the land prevails.
It is introduced within the Talmud where a question is asked about property which is seized by the government to build bridges and highways. The Talmud determines that the original owners of trees which have been felled may not come by night and remove them from the bridges claiming they were taken without fair compensation. Moreover a God-fearing citizen need not avoid crossing the bridge lest he derive benefit from stolen property. Dina deMalchuta Dina. The law of the land prevails. The government is entitled to take our property, to tax our income to build with it, to provide services and to regulate our behaviour in the best interest of society as a whole.
This doctrine has parameters. It is not in any way a capitulation of religious principle or practice. For example, the state cannot abrogate the imperative of the Jewish dietary laws or require a violation of Shabbat. We must be free to exercise Brit Mila and eat matzo on Pesach. These are an essential part of our covenant. However in matters of civil and criminal law Judaism simply does not allow for a pretence that we are not bound by the law of the land or that we may set it aside because we are answerable to a higher authority. The bottom line: is we must pay our taxes and we must honour our contracts.
Does this mean that the Torah is inadequate? Is outdated? Is ill-equipped to address modernity? Have the scrolls behind me which we just paraded so proudly been superseded by secular statute books? Is there no place for religious jurisprudence in 2011? Far from it!
Throughout the ages, rabbinic literature in upholding this principle has been quick to highlight the sophistication of Judaism’s own civil code. Jewish law has evolved continually over the last 2000 years and where Jewish parties are concerned Jewish law emphasises that it should be reflected in their contracts, arbitrations and dispute resolution.
Here within New South Wales, the Jewish Arbitration and Mediation Service was launched a couple of years ago as a joint initiative between members of the New South Wales Society of Jewish jurists and lawyers and the Sydney Beth Din, which is our ecclesiastical tribunal. The service is an exciting project because it is a partnership of Jewish religious and Jewish secular expertise. It is also a melding of our ancient yet vibrant tradition with Australian civil law. At every level the service operates under our Australian statutes and principles of procedural fairness which govern our State and our Commonwealth.
It is my privilege to be conducting this year’s service, for the first time as an Australian. One of the messages emphasised in the citizenship booklet and echoed in our citizenship ceremony is:
“People come to settle in Australia from countries all around the world. Many people have a different cultural heritage with different beliefs and traditions. In our democratic society, we are all free to follow and share these beliefs and traditions as long as they do not break Australian laws.
“We value this freedom and expect all Australians to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of their race, country of origin, gender, sexual preference, marital status, age, disability, heritage, culture, politics, wealth or religion. We value this mutual respect for the dignity of all people.”
Just as Judaism has blessings which acknowledge the Majesty and wisdom that is to be found in other peoples and traditions and can appreciate their contribution in the development of God’s world, Australia encourages the respectful contributions of its diverse composition; under the rule of law.
Your Excellency, Chief Justice, Judaism is unusual amongst religions in that it does not seek to impose its laws or principles on other societies or overall humanity. Judaism teaches that every civilised community, in its own way, should protect the person, respect property, honour relationships, defend against abuse of people and also their pets and livestock. In the Talmud, each of these tenets is couched in the negative, prohibiting offensive behaviour. Only one injunction is given in the affirmative and that is the requirement that every society regulate itself with a system of courts enforcing the rule of law.
Your Excellency, Chief Justice, the administration of Justice in the truest sense is a solemn enterprise infused with holiness, whether it is in the Great Sanhedrin of Rabbi Gamliel, the Supreme Court of New South Wales or a private mediation of a minor dispute. In the Psalm 82 which we read just before, the Hebrew word Elohim is used both as the name of God and as the word for judges. Some translations render God judges amongst the divine beings, however traditional Jewish translations and commentaries favour “God judges amongst the judges.”
When judges judge with righteous justice, God's presence is felt in our world and His blessing is upon our society.
God judges amongst the judges. He endows them with wisdom.
Chief Justice it is always a pleasure to welcome you and your judiciary into The Great Synagogue. Baruch hanoten michochmato levasar ve’dam. Blessed is the Almighty who gives of His wisdom to flesh and blood. May God bless you and your holy work. May He endow you all with wisdom and with insight. May the 2011 Law Term be a good one for the profession and for the community it serves; may we and you enjoy the year, enriched, inspired and blessed.