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Major sermons by Rabbi Elton

Growing our Synagogue with our Values: A Sermon for New Members' Shabbat, 26 May 2018

This morning we hold our second annual New Members’ Shabbat and lunch. I want to welcome members old and new to shule this morning, and thank those who have made offerings in honour of the occasion. At the lunch we will hear from some new members, and as at all our communal lunches we will have the chance to spend some relaxed time with each other, growing closer as a community. As you know from the posters, in this year when we celebrate our 140th anniversary we are celebrating over 140 new members since the winter of 2015.

When I tell people, whether congregants of the shule or not, that we have been joined by more than 140 new people in the last three years, many of them are shocked, because they did not expect to hear about such an influx of new members. In some ways, it is fun to give them a nice surprise, but there is also a problem, a problem of perception which we need to fix. We have both gained new members, and increased the net size of our membership, and we have done so every year for the past three years. That is no mean feat given that we have older members who inevitably pass away over the course of the year. What is more, although some of our new members come only a few times a year, when I look round each Shabbat, I see many people who joined recently, and who are now loyal and regular attenders.

That means that our membership story is much better than many in the community realise. In fact, it is one of the best across the entire Sydney Jewish community and that is a story that we all need to make sure is more widely known. Success pursues success. We want people to know that we are a shule that is becoming larger and younger, because that is the sort of shule they will want to join. The responsibility to build up our congregation rests on us; no one else will do it for us. If we want to see the number grow to we all have to be involved in reaching out to friends and relatives and introducing them to the warm, lively and welcoming synagogue we all appreciate at The Great.

But as we grow, we must always keep one point firmly in mind. As we seek to increase our numbers, and as they do increase, there is a danger we will come to regard people as numbers and not as individuals. That was the message of my sermon last Shabbat, so I do not need to labour the point. If we start to think about each new member as just a means to quote a more impressive number of congregants, or as a way of improving our financial position, not only would we be abandoning our values, which are rooted in appreciating each individual person for and in themselves, we would also undermine our own efforts, because the spirit of personal warmth and friendliness that we have generated, and which is so attractive, would be lost. Every shule is friendly when it is small; the trick and the test is to remain friendly as it grows.

Making sure we do maintain our spirit is also a job for all of us, old and new members alike. I have been reflecting on the fact that a little under 20% of the current congregation joined over the last three years. Like the human body, we continually renew ourselves, and after a certain period of time, we become an entirely new entity. The alternative is that we simply cease to be, but what we come to be remains to be determined. In the case of this shule, whether in ten years’ time we are the community we wish to be, in terms of our culture and ethos, is entirely dependent upon us.

All institutions are driven by their underlying values, whether good or bad, the contest is only over what those values will be. We determine the culture of our community continually, as each month and year passes. Whether we remain, and become increasingly, a place of meaning, inclusivity and care, will be a judgement on our stewardship of the congregation during our time here, whether as clergy, lay leaders or regular members. The shule was here before us and will be here after us, but how we leave it to our successors will stand as a verdict upon us.

Now, the human body regenerates every seven to fifteen years. I am glad to say the process is slower for a shule. We still have members who saw Rabbi Cohen and Chazan Einfeld officiate in the 1920s. But as with the human body, when a shule does renew itself, it should look like the same being at the end of the process, as before, even if some changes have taken place. I think we achieve that balance in a Synagogue by valuing existing members as much as we welcome new ones. It is too easy to take what you have for granted, and we should strenuously avoid that.

We must also respect what long standing members represent, the established traditions of the congregation, even if they are always being tweaked at the edges, as part of a gentle evolution that goes back to 1878 and earlier. Our motto might be the words with which we replace the Torah in the Ark: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם, renew us as of days of old. There should be a happy and complimentary relationship between old and new, so that everyone feels at home and nothing of worth is lost.

The congregational values I have tried to set out this morning are Torah values, and I would like to draw on the parasha we read this morning to illustrate just some aspects of that. Right at the end of Nasso we are told how wagons and oxen were distributed to the Levite families so they could carry out their work of transporting the Tabernacle from place to place. But the family of Kehat received no wagons and no oxen, for this reason:

וְלִבְנֵי קְהָת, לֹא נָתָן: כִּי-עֲבֹדַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֲלֵהֶם, בַּכָּתֵף יִשָּׂאוּ

But to the sons of Kohath God gave none, because the service of the holy things belonged unto them: they bore them upon their shoulders.

The Ark of the Covenant was not carried on a wagon, but on the shoulders of the Levites. They literally put their shoulders to the task. There was no detachment, no relying on the strength or labours of others. They felt the weight of the task, they were fully aware of its gravity, they carried it and they moved forward. But it wasn’t a burden. The medieval Spanish guide to the commandments, the Sefer HaChinuch, explains that the Levites knew it was holy work, and that anyone who took part was honoured and sanctified by the endeavour. That is the nature of all worthwhile pursuits; they do require effort, often great effort, but they elevate us, and the harder we work the more we are lifted up. Our predecessors in this Synagogue undertook that work in earlier generations. We stand on their shoulders, and now it is our turn.

Building a Kehilla Kedosha, a Holy Congregation is, without question, holy work. Making sure it grows in the right way, establishing and retaining proper values, ensuring that the congregation succeeds and stays strong; these are all significant tasks, requiring significant effort, but on this New Members’ Shabbat, after a beautiful Shavuot last week, and a beautiful Pesach seven weeks before that, with the myriad activities and the succession of simchas, and with our many new members, we can see that the efforts pay off, and that our prayer חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם will be fulfilled, and that with the help of heaven we will continue to be renewed as of old.





One Hundred and Fortieth Anniversary Sermon, 3 March 2018

Premier, Ambassador, Dame Marie, Lord Mayor, Members of Parliament, Mayors and Councillors, faith and community leaders, Rabbinic colleagues, distinguished guests, friends all. Thank you for being with us this morning. Thank you to Daniel Abbott, Yoav Hammerman and Steve Schach who have done so much to organise this event, and to our generous benefactors and sponsors who made it possible. This is indeed a remarkable occasion, which does justice to the wonderful milestone we are marking today.

The curtain hanging in front of the Ark, the repository of our sacred Torah scrolls, bears the same verse that was embroidered on the curtain that was hung there one hundred and forty years ago, when the Synagogue was consecrated. The text is a quotation from the Book of Haggai:

נְאֻם ה' צְבָאוֹת, וּבַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶתֵּן שָׁלוֹם; ה' צְבָאוֹת, אָמַר--מִן-הָרִאשׁוֹן, גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן

The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, says the Lord of hosts.

That verse sums up the spirit of optimism in which this Synagogue was built, and which has guided it ever since. When The Great Synagogue was consecrated there were more seats than there were members of the congregation. Others might have built on a smaller scale, but not our founders. They looked beyond the narrow confines of the congregation, in space and in time. They knew there were Jews in Sydney, and around New South Wales, who did not belong to the Synagogue, but who would want to attend services for the most important festivals of the year, and so they made accommodation for them. Our Synagogue was built with the determination that room must be made for everyone, and with the optimism that they would come.

Our Synagogue was also built with optimism for the future. The founders predicted that the community would grow, and they were right. When we stand here on Kol Nidre Night, on the Eve of the Day of Atonement, when almost every seat is taken, we see that their vision has been vindicated. The same spirit animated the building of the War Memorial Centre in the 1950s and its extension in the 1980s, to provide for the needs of a growing congregation. Every generation of The Great Synagogue has believed that the glory of the latter house would be greater even than the glory of the former, and they were right. We still believe it, and we are still right

All of the work done over the past 140 years, and longer even than that, took immense effort, discipline, resources of time and money, but above all it needed that essential element which has sustained the Jewish People since the time of Abraham and Moses. It needed faith; faith in Judaism, faith in the Jewish community and faith in the Jewish future. We have faith that if we approach Judaism and community with passion and commitment we will find an enthusiastic response.

What is our approach? The Great Synagogue stands today, as it always has, for traditional Judaism, welcoming of all Jews, and open to the wider world. This is an Orthodox synagogue and always will be. We are committed to classic Jewish belief and Law, because, in the words of the prayer book, ‘they are our life and the length of our days’, but we do not approach them simplistically or with narrow minds. We try to study them, teach them and carry them out thoughtfully and with sophistication, drawing on a wide tradition, and using modern tools.

Our faith is combined with acceptance, inclusivity, a rejection of judgmentalism, to make everyone feel at home and valued, regardless of their identity or circumstances. That is something The Great Synagogue has always done, and always must do. In every generation inclusivity will look different, and we must deal with the world as it is, not as it was. We are not afraid of the outside world; for sure there are elements we cannot endorse and society has many problems, but there are also many positive aspects in which we can engage, and men and women of good will with whom we can work.

As well as a place of faith we are a place of community. We are a Bet Kenesset, a house of assembly. One of the happiest aspects of today’s service is that we are joined not just by our dedicated and appreciated members, not just by our honoured dignitaries, but by people who may not be members at the moment, but who have been associated with the Synagogue over the years and who have come to be part of our special day. To all those people I say, ‘friends, welcome home’. See and enjoy what The Great Synagogue is in 2018, with an outstanding Cantor and Choir, new ritual roles for women within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, a Pastoral Care committee keeping an eye on members who are older or unwell, a monthly Tot Shabbat for 1-4 year olds, the children’s service, the Jewish Enrichment Program for students approaching bar and bat mitzvah, our new Tweens and Teens group to maintain a connection after bar and bat mitzvah, Young Great Synagogue for 20s and 30s, a monthly communal Shabbat lunch set out by the ever-dependable Women’s Auxiliary, the Book Club, education series, the Rosenblum Museum with a new Guest curator, the Falk Library currently being re-catalogued, and more.

All of these activities and initiatives are drawing energy into the congregation. In the last two and a half years we have welcomed close to 130 new members and more are on the way. We have seen increased attendance at Shabbat and Festival services, and on weekday mornings and afternoons too, we are celebrating more semachot – weddings, baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs than we have for years. We are growing larger, deeper and fuller as a community. I believe that is because we are driven by our values, the Jews of Sydney are responding to those values and want to be part of a congregation that champions them. Above all, we know the importance of simple human connection. The Great Synagogue has retained its glory and its splendour without sacrificing the spirit of fellowship that is at the heart of any successful synagogue. When I hear existing members, new members and visitors talk spontaneously about the warmth they feel here, I know that the Synagogue is going in the right direction.

Today is the last day of our one hundred and fortieth year, which means that tomorrow is the first day of our one hundred and forty first. That has to be our focus now. Today we have enjoyed a beautiful service. Our task is to make sure that every service is beautiful, that every Simcha is meaningful, that all of our prayers are offered with sincerity and passion, that all the Torah that we learn together is authentic and powerful, that all our members know that we care about them, and feel able to reach out to us to ask for the support they need. The past has been glorious, the present is exciting, the future must be even better. That is a task for every one of us, the Clergy, the Board, the Staff, seatholders, members and friends. This magnificent anniversary and its celebration is the time for us all to resolve to continue the work begun fourteen decades ago, and make every Shabbat, and every day, one to celebrate.

The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, says the Lord of hosts.

That verse has guided this Synagogue since 1878, embroidered on the curtain protecting the holiest items we possess, our Torah scrolls. This morning, one hundred and years after our doors first opened, let us embroider it again on our hearts and minds. May God bless us and this Synagogue with an ever brighter future. Amen.






Law Service Address, 7 February 2018

Chief Justice, learned judges, Attorney-General, Leader of the Opposition, Members of Parliament, Mayors and Councillors, distinguished academics, communal and faith leaders, members of the legal profession, revered rabbinic colleagues, friends all. Once more The Great Synagogue is honoured to host the Jewish community’s Law Service. In our long history, which next month will enter its one hundred and fortieth year, this Synagogue has been the place where the Jewish and the wider community meet. That is a heritage we are proud to perpetuate. It is in the best traditions of Sydney and Australia that a minority faith group and the leaders of civil society can interact with such respect and esteem. You honour us by coming to our Synagogue, and we pray for God’s blessings upon you, as you undertake your arduous tasks on behalf of us all.

The greatest of the Jewish jurists and philosophers, Moses Maimonides, taught that a judge has to have several qualities: wisdom, humility, fear of God, loathing for money, love for truth, being beloved by people at large, and a good reputation. I understand that loathing for money is why many leave private practice and join the Bench. We are immensely fortunate in this State and in this country, that the judiciary, and the legal profession from which it is drawn, are of the highest quality, with an outstanding reputation for both integrity and ability.

Every year judges and lawyers attend not only this service, but also a service at St Mary’s Cathedral, St James’s Church, as well as Greek Orthodox and Muslim services. Religion and the law are seen to have a proper, balanced, and friendly relationship, each fulfilling its own role in an atmosphere of mutual regard. This year the nature of that relationship has been explored, even tested. Faith and Law intersected in an unusual way, with the debate and postal survey on same sex marriage. Several religious figures and organisations urged either a yes or a no vote, explicitly on the basis of their religious values. Some argued that principles of Divine love, and the creation of all people in the image of God required all people to be allowed to find and marry a partner for life. Others contended that a faith-based prohibition on homosexual relations made same sex marriage a step too far.

These appeals to religious imperatives were made despite the fact that the potential change to the Marriage Act would not affect religious weddings at all, it would only vary the types of civil marriage which were permissible. Nevertheless, some faith leaders took the view that they should urge their followers to vote one way or another. This turn of events brought to the fore this question, a perennial one: to what extent should our religious commitments inform our attitude towards secular law? Should it determine the way we vote or campaign on matters which are restricted to the law of the land, and which neither prohibit a religious activity, or force a particular course of action on a religious person, and which they may find anathema, or should religious be put aside when we consider ostensibly secular matters?

Taken at its simplest, it seems obvious that our religious persuasion will inform the way we approach even apparently secular questions. When we vote in an election, a referendum or a survey we do so as complete human beings. If we are thoughtful people, we have arrived at a view of the world based on a whole range of influences. If we are religious, then our faith and its texts will be one of the greatest of those influences, because those are the sources of what we believe to be fundamentally right or fundamentally wrong in the world. It was perceptively observed that the Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer; while the British Labour Party was said to owe more to Methodism than to Marxism. Those two political parties were deeply informed by the religious background of their founders and leaders. In the United States, Jews are overwhelmingly Democrats, and there the joke is made, again with an explicit religious reference, that the Jewish community lives like Episcopalians and votes like Puerto Ricans.

If we examine this question more closely, it becomes clear that our political positions must be informed by our morality, in some cases the morality taught by our faith, because cannot view something as essentially wrong and then support it for mere pragmatic reasons. If there was a referendum to make euthanasia compulsory at seventy, it would be bizarre and repulsive for someone to walk into the voting booth and say to themselves ‘I believe that this would be murder, but it makes economic sense, so I am going to vote in favour’. A conscientious person would say with Emperor Ferdinand I, ‘fiat justitia, et pereat mundus - ‘let justice be done, though the earth perish’.

Should the same approach apply to questions like same sex marriage, when such a reform would either flow from or be opposed to, religious teachings? Should we always oppose in the secular realm what our religion opposes in the realm of faith? Here is it essential to make a distinction. Some regulations restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals. On the other hand, there are regulations which do not impose any restriction or make any interference whatsoever. That is the basic difference between compulsory euthanasia and same sex marriage. Of course, there might be reasons to be against same sex marriage, perfectly good ones, but I do not believe that they would be narrowly religious. That is to say, they would not refer back to religious precepts which believers consider themselves bound to obey. They would be arguments on pragmatic, policy grounds.

If there are individuals who believe those arguments are compelling, they are duty bound as good citizens to put them forward. Then there can be a full and open debate about the advantages and disadvantages of a proposed reform. But to restate, those arguments do not, and I suggest should not, have recourse to religious texts or dogmas. There is an anecdote of one of the greatest rabbis of early twentieth century Russia, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. During the campaign for the first Russian Duma in 1906, Rabbi Kagan was asked by his followers which candidate would be good for the Jews. He replied, ‘vote for who is good for Russia!’ Following Rabbi Kagan, we should campaign and argue for policies, which do not harm or restrict others freedom, not on the basis of what is in keeping with the laws of our faith, that is for our own private conduct, but rather what is good for Australia.

There are serious concerns that there might be infringements on religious freedoms, whether it is pressure to perform ceremonies, supply ancillary services, amend teaching in schools, or in diverse other ways. We have to remain alert to that possibility, but I would say this. The essence of the good administration of any system of law, whether religious or secular, is the ability to make fine but crucial distinctions. In the Jewish liturgy for the High Holidays, when we are all judged, we acclaim God as ‘’lehogeh de’ot beyom din’, the ‘One who analyses concepts on the day of judgement’. God Himself makes those careful distinctions in order to reach a fair and truthful outcome, and we should do the same.

Religious liberty is too serious and too subtle a subject for a broad-brush approach. When we consider any regulation that might be imposed upon religious institutions or individuals, we have to determine after great thought, whether it would be genuinely oppressive or objectionable. Only if we come to the conclusion that it is, should we protest. Often a closer examination will find that it is not so. In the Jewish community, we have a precedent for that. One fruit of the diaspora experience has been realisation that interaction with a different cultural, religious or faith system, one that we disagree with, does not mean that we endorse its ideas or its practices in theological terms or practical ways. Jews concluded long ago that not every act of engagement is an act of support or facilitation, and therefore even when we have the greatest ideological objections, many forms of engagement are not precluded by our religious principles.

Perhaps this is one way in which the already positive relationship demonstrated here this afternoon between the Jewish and legal communities can go deeper, and we can not only share a service, but also share wisdoms and insights, for the benefit of both, and our shared civil society. That is my prayer this afternoon. May God bless us all and the exercise of justice in our State. Amen.

Thu, 16 August 2018 5 Ellul 5778