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Major Sermons by Rabbi Elton


A Revised Version of Sermon: Lech Lecha 5784

the article by Rabbi Elton that appeared in Monday’s Australian.

30 October 2023



Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against the Nazis until they murdered him in 1945. He told posterity ‘silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’ Now is indeed the time for those who can act to act, and for those who can speak to speak.

George Orwell, the most clear-sighted political and moral writer of the twentieth century also faced fascism as a fighter and a writer and in 1942 told his readers, ‘Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamoed the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other’.

That was true of the Second World War, and it is true of Israel today. Three weeks after the Hamas attack that precipitated the present crisis the voices that predicably criticise Israel in whatever situation she finds herself, have alighted on a word, ‘ceasefire’. The reasons they give for an immediate ceasefire vary, but they are equally spurious. Some people say it is so the hostages can be released, as though Israel is the reason that two hundred men, women are children are being kept in captivity in Gaza. Others say it is so that fuel and other supplies can enter Gaza, although there seems to be plenty of fuel to fire rockets into Israel and Hamas appear to be forcibly removing whatever supplies they can lay their hands on, and diverting their use from humanitarian needs and towards their own purposes. Whatever the pretexts being presented, we know what a ceasefire means in practice, and that is that Hamas can attack Israel, but Israel cannot respond. It is a call for pacifism, but in reality a one sided pacifism, and we do not need George Orwell to point out that is pro-fascist, pro-Hamas and in truth, pro-violence.
That point was made with great scholarly force in the House of Lords in London last week by Lord Verdirame KC. Lord Verdirame is not only a leading Silk, he is also Professor of International Law at Kings College London. he made this powerful point:

Asking a state that is acting in self-defence to agree to a ceasefire before its lawful defensive objectives have been met is, in effect, asking that state to stop defending itself. For such calls to be reasonable and credible, they must be accompanied by a concrete proposal setting out how Israel’s legitimate defensive goals against Hamas will be met through other means.

It seems to me that he is self-evidently correct, but of course Israel’s critics do not want Israel to achieve its legitimate defensive goals. Anyone who chants ‘from the river to the sea’, and is honest about it, does not want Israel to exist at all, and with such people there can be no dialogue or meeting of minds.

Mark Twain said, ‘you know your real friends when the chips are down’. That has become startlingly true over the past three weeks. The people who started criticising Israel within hours of the attack – in what was a truly reprehensible absence of empathy and compassion – are still criticising Israel, and calling for a ceasefire. They even seize on the words of a released hostage, whose elderly husband is still in captivity, when she says that Hamas treated her well. They must be either delusional or disingenuous.

By contrast, the people, from across the political spectrum, who know right from wrong, and recognise an atrocity when they see one, have refused to condemn Israel, to the contrary they have maintained their position that Israel has the right to defend itself.
Let us not forget that the atrocity is not over. For as long as there are still hostages in Gaza, Hamas is continuing to commit the most heinous war crimes against civilians. We should remember that when we hear calls for Israel to observe international law, because we do not hear the same demands being made of Hamas. That is for two reasons. First, because when those calls come from Israel’s opponents they do not arise from a good-faith interest in international law, but only from the search for a stick to beat Israel with. Secondly, because everyone knows there is no point asking Hamas to observe the laws of war, because Hamas has no interest in the laws governing armed conflict.

In their defence of Israel’s response, some have referred to the Allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, but with respect I think that is the wrong analogy. Much more precise is the siege and capture of Berlin in 1945, which resulted in civilian deaths, each one regrettable, but no one would argue that Berlin should not have been targeted and taken. Legitimate wars, lawfully prosecuted, almost always involve civilian casualties. We can and we should regard them as tragedies. even if in the context created by others they are also unavoidable.

That should shape our attitude towards the people suffering in Gaza. I do not know how many adults in Gaza are public or secret opponents of Hamas, but I do know that there are a million children in Gaza. We have to be able to say at the same time that the suffering they are enduring is the responsibility of Hamas, and that is a heartbreaking tragedy that we have to weep over. If there are ways to allow in more humanitarian aid that will go to the people who need it, they should be explored.
There are Jewish victims of Hamas and there are Palestinian victims of Hamas and our compassion has to extend to them all. We can only hold onto the hope that when all this is over the people of Gaza, as well as the people of Israel, will stand a better chance of living safe and happy lives.

We continue to hope for an end to this conflict, but on the basis of peace and security for all, for the protection of all civilians, and for the release of all hostages. We will not be emotionally blackmailed by calls for a ceasefire, which is code for terrorism with impunity. No one with any human feeling delights in violence or in the suffering of civilians, but we have to hold onto what we know to be right and let that direct our actions. That is what George Orwell and Deitrich Bonhoeffer understood eighty years ago, Lord Verdirame has expressed so clearly and it is what all fair minded people have to keep in their sights today and in the weeks to come.




Sermon: Noach 5784

21 October 2023

After the initial shock of a disaster has passed, even while the crisis is not yet over, the human mind naturally turns to what comes next, where do we go from here, what are our next steps. As Australian Jews these questions are coming to us from three different but connected sources. They are not all of the same degree of magnitude, but they are all important and we have to think about all of them carefully. The first is the situation in Israel itself in the aftermath of the horrors of 7 October; the second is the impact of events in Israel and the response to them, here in Australia especially on relationship between communities; the third is the implications for inter-communal relations of the Voice referendum last Saturday, and its result. All these developments demand we address the question ‘what do we do next?’ Before I look at any of these issues in more depth, I want to ground what I have to say in the parasha, and three responses we see play out to the disaster, the tragedy and the trauma of the Flood.

After the waters subsided and the Ark came to rest, God told Noah and his family to re-enter the world and a new covenant was made with them. Shortly after Noah planted a vineyard, made wine and became drunk, to such an extent that he exposed himself, an act witnessed by his son, Ham. His two other sons, Shem and Yafet had to cover him up discreetly but the damage was done. Noah cursed Ham’s family severely and at length. Here we have the first response to the Flood: essentially a nervous breakdown, a personal collapse that prompted substance abuse, what we now regard as self-medication, shocking consequences for Noah himself, anger and family breakdown. This was an immediate, and profoundly unhealthy, reaction to the trauma brought by the Flood.

The second response took longer to play out. The descendants of Noah came together in a massive construction project:

      וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה־לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן־נָפוּץ עַל־פְּנֵי כׇל־הָאָרֶץ

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

This was the Tower of Babel, at attempt to reach heaven and become like gods. To prevent this happening God confused their speech and humanity began to use a plethora of languages as they scattered across the globe. Building the tower was also a reaction to the Flood; that generation decided that the answer to all the problems that led to the Flood, or were caused by it, could be solved technically, that there was a technological solution to all challenges. There did not need to be any spiritual effort, any introspection and self-analysis. If they could bake the bricks and build the tower everything would be fine. That idea was both dangerous and wrong and that is why God put a stop to it. There are deep issues about profound problems that simply cannot be fixed in a straightforward technical way; much more thought and much more intense and personal grappling is required.

Finally there was a third response. It is just alluded to at the end of our parasha, ‘This is the line of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old when he became the father of Arpachshad, two years after the Flood. After the birth of Arpachshad, Shem lived five hundred years and became the father of sons and daughters.’ Shem was the middle son of Noah and the ancestor of Abraham, but according to the Rabbinic tradition, he was more than that. He led a yeshiva, together with his grandson Ever. There, they kept the teaching about the true nature of God and the world alive, even as the rest of humanity descended into idolatry. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each studied in the yeshiva. In addition, the Rabbis identify Shem with King Malkitzedek, ruler of Shalem, who continued to serve God even when everyone else turned away from Him.

This third response, that of Shem, is very different to the first two. Shem did not run away from the crisis or run towards a quick fix, he took his time, he thought, he taught, he held onto the values he knew to be true, he created space for others to develop their solutions and eventually facilitated the emergence and education of the patriarchs of the Jewish People, and therefore the whole of our religious story that has followed.

Let us look now at the crises that confront us as Jews and as Australians and which demand a response. The first is about the State of Israel itself. The attacks of 7 October are exactly what the existence of the State is supposed to prevent. We anticipated military attacks, we even understood that Israel could be hit by terrorism like other nation states, including the bombing of civilian targets. What was new two weeks ago was the replaying of a pre-State, European story, in which Jewish communities suffered the rampages of our enemies, murdering and torturing anyone they could find. We saw the massacres of 1096 and 1648, the nineteenth century pogroms and many elements of the Shoah all played out again. That tragedy raises both narrow and broader questions.

The failures of preparation, intelligence and response that could have prevented the attacks, or limited their impact will all have to be examined. But there are wider questions to: how did the last twenty or thirty years of Israeli policy lead us to this point? It became accepted that Hamas could be tolerated and contained in Gaza, that nothing else needed to be done on the Israeli-Palestinian question, and Israel would continue more or less as it always had. That view has proven to be tragically false, and now we have to wonder why we did not see that it was always doomed to be false, and why no compelling alternative vision was put forward and endorsed by the Israeli public and world Jewry.

The second crisis is the implications that the 7 October attack has on inter-communal relationships in Australia. Those of us involved in interfaith work have been shaken both by what has been said and what has not been said by our counterparts in different faith groups. Some have been very impressive, such as the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, but others have been silent, and some of the Muslim clerics we have developed relations with over the years have personally or through their staff or supporters been present at demonstrations or made statements that we find unconscionable. They have shredded the positive relationships between Jews and others built up painstakingly over the years. There is now a massive job of rebuilding those relationships and it is very unclear what is actual possible to be done.

The third crisis, which is also an inter-communal one here in Australia, arises from the Voice referendum and the No result. It is clear from the 60:40 result that the Australian people were very far from persuaded to back the Voice. I was also struck and disturbed by the degree of tension and ill-will the debates between Yes and No created in Australia as a whole and in particular within the Jewish community. In my eight years here I have never seen anything so divisive within congregations on what is not even a specially Jewish issue. Many good people found the Voice proposal offensive and threatening. This result – and maybe it would have been true of any result – leaves many unhappy, even heartbroken people. Some people feel let down by communities they thought were allies and friendships have been strained or broken. There now needs to be a huge effort to reassure indigenous communities that those of us who are not indigenous care about them, their history and their future, to find practical solutions to help First Nations people, and a way to communicate the value of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to all Australians.

These are three enormous challenges that come to us in this moment because of our hybrid identity as Australian Jews. In Israel, in interfaith relations in Australia, and in First Nations matters in Australia, we cannot respond like Noah, and succumb to the trauma in unhealthy and destructive ways. Neither can we adopt of method of the builders of the Tower of Babel, and launch at an ill-conceived, quick and simple solution that will not meet the needs it seeks to address but only create more problems. Instead we need to act like Shem, to take our time, take stock, tackle the hard questions we would prefer to avoid, cultivate a new generation of leaders, hold onto the truths we know, keep the faith and maintain it for as long as it takes to see a vision for a better future emerge and start to be implemented. We will need courage, patience and wisdom, and I pray that in these very difficult times God will send us all three. 



Sermon: Bereshit 5784 - delivered after Hamas attacks israel on 7 October 2023

14 October 2023


Every Rabbi dreads having to speak to their community in times like these, but the reality of Jewish existence is that at some point every Rabbi has to do it. I begin simply by mourning over the suffering in Israel, of the devastated families and communities indeed the whole nation. I recognise the grief, pain and fear that we are feeling, as well as paying tribute to the concern, solidarity and loyalty that so many people have shown. I will not rehearse the series of atrocities we now know have been committed. The volume of death last Shabbat was greater than any day since the Shoah, but the level of cruelty was as great as the Shoah itself. I am not sure we understood that such actions were still possible. We say ‘Never Again’, but in one sense, it has happened again. The difference now, is that as Rav Soloveitchik said, the State of Israel means that Jewish blood is not cheap. Yes, it is spilled by those who hate us but in 2023, as opposed to 1943, the State of Israel means there will be a response and as that response unfolds, directed not by vengeance but by strategic aims that will nevertheless bring severe consequences, we must stand by Israel and urge our elected representatives to stand by Israel. If we talk about Israel’s right to defend itself and its people, that is what it means, and we should have the moral courage to look upon that squarely and without flinching.

We have been reminded that Hamas, the people who control and rule Gaza, are sadists, psychopaths and pathologically evil. We thought Israel could live alongside them and keep Israeli casualties within tolerable limits. We have learnt that is not true. Hamas knew that their actions last Saturday would have no strategic impact on the State of Israel. They acted simply to cause as much death, and more than that, as much suffering, to Jews, as possible, even at the price of massive consequences for their own people in Gaza. Let us not forget how Hamas treat the people of Gaza: the murder and maiming of political opponents and others they do not like, the repression of freedom, the indoctrination of children into their death cult.

Hamas is a genocidal group; they would kill us all if they could. That is literally true. We are faced with the same situation as the Allies faced when confronting Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Just as the Nazis had to be removed from Germany, Hamas must be removed from Gaza. There will be a terrible price for that, but there is no alternative. This will be a just war, but it may have to be a severe war, and Hamas will bear responsibility.

We cannot weaken our support as the coming weeks unfold. We have to remain determined call out any moral equivalency set up between the actions of Hamas and the response of the State of Israel, whether that emerges in the media, amongst commentators, by politicians and others. The people who show any solidarity for Hamas are sitting in moral sewage. The demonstration from Town Hall last week was a disgrace, even before they started chanting ‘Gas the Jews’. I saw the organiser interviewed on Channel 9. The newscaster never challenged her, even when the organiser said that her feelings were a mixture of concern for Palestinians and pride in their resistance. Resistance to forty babies in a kibbutz? Words fail me. Shame on her and shame on Channel 9.

At the same time, we must acknowledge those who are standing with us. The amazing turnout of politicians at the rally on Wednesday evening, who all spoke well and bravely. The extra police protection mobilised by the State Government. The individuals who are contacting the Synagogue, or us as individuals, whether they are archbishops or just regular members of the public dropping round a bunch of flowers and a note, the attendance here on Friday night of Daniel Mookhey, the Treasurer of New South Wales, the lighting up of the Opera House and other Australian landmarks, the statements by many world leadersm and the exceptional comments by the King, and his invitation to Chief Rabbi Mirvis for a personal meeting to express his support face to face.

Jews are an extraordinary people, and the support that the whole Jewish world is giving to Israel and its families and soldiers is breathtaking. You may have heard of the people standing in JFK airport paying for the flight for any member of the IDF who is travelling back to Israel. People are sending supplies, they are digging graves, and they are doing what we have to do every day for as long as it takes, they are praying.

As your Rabbi, everything I say should be expressed through the lens of Torah, so I will share Torah, indeed the Torah of the Land of Israel. Rav Yehuda Amital was the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion in the Gush in Israel. he saw many of his students go out to fight in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and not return, and in the 1990s he turned his work to making the religious case for peace, as a party leader and government minister. He wrote about the first instance of violence in the Torah, in the very first parasha of the Torah, the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. The reasons for the murder are unclear, indeed, there are some surprising gaps in the narrative.

Abel was a shepherd while Cain raised crops. They each brought an offering to God. The verse notes that Abel brought his best, an observation that is not made about Cain. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. When Cain was upset, God gave him comfort and encouragement. He asked him: ‘Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?’ and then reassured him, ‘Surely, if you do right there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.’ In other words, there is good and evil in the world. They really exist and we have to choose between them. That choice is a challenge but also a comfort if we choose good then we improve ourselves and the world.

Cain was neither encouraged nor comforted, instead we read this tragic verse:

"Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him."

Cain said something to his brother, but we don’t know what. In the Midrash, written by the Sages of the Land of Israel, we find three different possibilities. The first sees them arguing about possessions. In the argument that ensued Cain killed Abel. In the second opinion, presented by Rabbi Yehoshua of Saknin in the name of Rabbi Levi, they were arguing about the location of the Temple which they each wanted to be built in their portion, and their dispute ended in violence and death. The third opinion, of Rabbi Huna, reports that it was an argument over who would marry a particular woman.

As Rabbi Amital observed, here in a nutshell we have the three major causes of much conflict: the first was about power and control, the second was about religion and the third was about sex. We have seen all three expressed in the rhetoric and the wicked actions of Hamas. But this is the point I want to add. Why are none of these three motivations recorded in the Torah? Because none of them really mattered. None of them were reason that Cain killed Abel. Maybe Cain made one or all of the complaints that the Midrash records, but the verse omits them because ultimately they are irrelevant. Cain killed Abel because he hated him, because he wanted to kill him, because he had made the immoral choice and he was bound to find a pretext. Yes, there are issues with the Palestinians that need to be resolved, but they are not relevant to the present situation. Hamas have chosen to kill us and we are determined to stay alive. The contest between Israel and Hamas is between good and evil; nothing should distract us from that truth and nothing should distract Israel from total victory over Hamas. The State of Israel will overcome. The Jewish People will endure.

Am Yisrael Chai.




10 September 2022

In a tradition going back over a century, The Great Synagogue in Sydney marked the passing of HM the Queen and the accession of HM King Charles III.

On Shabbat 10 September, Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, the Chief Minister, spoke in tribute to the late Queen. He said:

“Queen Elizabeth II was the Head of State of Australia and of her other realms for over seven decades, but her life of service went back even further than that. She was dedicated to duty from her teenage years and begged her father to allow her to serve in the Armed Forces in the Second World War, and indeed she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Reserve. She enjoyed just a short apprenticeship for Monarchy, and had to assume the mantle of Queen while only twenty-five years old. From that moment onwards, she accepted her awesome task without flinching and she lived for others and her responsibilities to them. She was still at work just a few days ago, playing her part in the constitutional stability of Britain.

“The Queen was a long-standing and steadfast friend to the Jewish community, indeed she was a consistent supporter of healthy and stable multiculturalism across the board. When she acceded to the Throne Britain was still the centre of an Empire. It spent the next seventy years transitioning to a new role and place in the world, and developing a new society at home; the Queen was a bedrock of support and security in those difficult processes. 

“The Queen loved and respected Australia and Australians, and that was reciprocated. I have been struck by the warmth and dignity of the responses from Australians of all political opinions. Whatever discussions may have happened, or may take place, about Australia’s constitutional arrangements, everyone recognised the personal qualities of the Queen. She in turn, supported Australians finding our own way to the political institutions that suit us best. That was another example of her graciousness. I hope we will be equally gracious in the debates that may follow.

“The Queen was wise, she was sympathetic and kind, she stood for decency and integrity and had an instinct for unity and reconciliation, standing above politics to be a symbol of what all people have in common. She combined majesty and humility and lived with grace and deep faith. I will end by quoting her own words, which can guide us all:

“I Know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings and to put my trust in God.

“Yehi zichra baruch, may her memory be a blessing.”

On Monday 12 September, at the invitation of the Governor, Rabbi Elton entered a message at the Book of Condolence at Government House on behalf of the Jewish community of New South Wales.



Sermon: Mishpatim 5782: Double Standards 

29 January 2022

A couple of weeks ago a Hollywood story caught my eye. Four very famous and successful actors have been signed up to star in a film of the Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl. Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley will be joining the project, directed by Wes Anderson. I know the story because I read it as a child, indeed I read most of Roald Dahl’s books. They were in the library of my Jewish primary school in Manchester, and a class trip was organised to see a stage adaptation of one of his stories. This was in the late 1980s, and that trip was cancelled because Dahl came out with a shockingly antisemitic statement. Not just anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, but unmistakably antisemitic. For example, he once said ‘there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity’ and ‘even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’.

These four actors, seem to have no problem starring in a film of the work of such a Jew-hater, nor does Wes Anderson mind directing it, nor does Netflix wince at buying the rights to all the Roald Dahl stories for over US$500 million. Now, it is possible to make a respectable case for adapting the Roald Dahl stories and staring in them. Artists perform in Wagner or play Richard Strauss, scholars write on Heidegger, we buy Ford motor cars. The antisemitism of an author or founder does not always lead to a boycott of their works. But those, I feel, were the old rules. In contemporary Hollywood different standards seem to apply. Let us take the most prominent case at the moment, J.K. Rowling.

Rowling is the author of the massively successful Harry Potter books and films. She has also written that she has concerns about trans women (that is to say women who were once men) having access to women only spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms. She is worried about the incidence of violence against women by those who have transitioned but retain the strength of men, and in some cases also the anatomy of men. She might be right, or she might be wrong, but price of making these statements has been death threats, the publication of her home address, and most interestingly for our purposes, her condemnation by a slew of actors, some of whom are only successful because they starred in her films. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Eddie Redmayne and others all publicly denounced her. In 2022 an unfashionable statement on transgender issues provokes immediate censure and worse, but no one seems to care that Roald Dahl hated Jews.

To be clear, I don’t think it is because the actors playing in Dahl films are antisemites, but I do think that in the words of British comedian David Baddiel ‘Jews don’t count’. Seventy seven years after the liberation of Auschwitz, an event we marked this week, for complex cultural and sociological reasons, Jews are not a minority that the zeitgeist cares about. The contemporary hypersensitivity about gender and some other issues, exists alongside a tolerance of antisemitism, and very few people notice or care. But inconsistency is injustice and double standards are indefensible.

If the Torah stands for anything it is a protest against this sort of moral incoherence. There are a lot of mitzvot in parashat Mishpatim; some of them might be called meta-mitzvot because they govern the way the system works as a whole, they regulate it and make sure it is fair. Let me give you three examples:

לֹא תִשָּׂא שֵׁמַע שָׁוְא...וְדָל לֹא תֶהְדַּר בְּרִיבוֹ... לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט אֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּרִיבוֹ

Do not listen to one side of the case without hearing the other side…do not show bias towards the poor…do show bias against the habitual criminal.

A judge should never hear only one side of the story, however obvious the matter may seem. One side’s account heard in isolation is called a false report, because any story that comes from a single perspective in inevitable false, inasmuch as it cannot be the whole truth. Even if a matter seems open and shut we always have to hear different perspectives. We have to embrace nuance and complexity and not divide the world into black and white.

Everyone deserves justice, and that means no more than they are due as well as no less than they are due. The poor, the powerless, the downtrodden should be helped and supported through all appropriate means, I would say even political and economic means, but not by perverting justice, not by rendering an unfair verdict in the matter under examination, because bias towards one always means bias against another. Belonging to a disadvantaged group no more makes a person virtuous than belonging to a privileged group makes them wicked. These days, when entire groups of the supposedly advantaged are being declared guilty by definition, the Torah’s stance is radical and countercultural.

No one is guilty be definition. Even the recalcitrant recidivist cannot be summarily condemned. We cannot simply ‘round up the usual suspects’. They might be guilty in many instances, but not necessarily in this case. So many miscarriages of justice arise from the authorities believing that as a person is probably guilty of all sorts of other crimes, they might as well be convicted for this crime, whether or not they actually committed it. That is not only wrong itself, it also places too much trust in our limited knowledge and understanding of other people. even God who knows us all completely never acts in this way. As the Ethics of the Fathers teaches:

וְדַע שֶׁהַכֹּל לְפִי הַחֶשְׁבּוֹן

Know that everything is according to an exact calculation.

God judges precisely and fairly in each case individually, and we should do the same. But as we look at contemporary morality, into the cases of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling we find no precision, no fairness, no individuals analysis, no willingness to listen to both sides and appreciate the complexities. Instead we see a crude and unjust division of the world into goodies and baddies.

The Rebbe of Kotzk explored why it is that the Torah seems to state the obvious: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery. Don’t we know that without being told? The answer he gave is that these truths have to be constantly restated because they are so often overlooked and forgotten. These principles of fairness are certainly being forgotten today, and our responsibility is to bear witness to them and uphold the values of justice and equity which the Torah gives us to safeguard.



Sermon: Behaalotecha 5781: Critical Race Theory, Jews and Israel 

29 May 2021

עַל־פִּי ה' יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־פִּי ה' יַחֲנוּ

According to the command of the Lord the Israelites journeyed and according to the command of the Lord they camped.

I have always found these among the most powerful words in the Torah. In a world that has always had shifting moral values, and in which ethics have varied from age to age and place to place, as Jews we have a stable morality based on eternal principles. When new ideas come along and challenge or confront us, we have a fixed point from which to measure them, and to endorse, modify or reject their claims. I want to attempt to do that this morning with an ideology, or at least an analysis, that has become immensely influential in the last few years, and has even more recently been the foundation for deeply concerning events and trends around the world. I am talking about critical race theory.

But first let me give the context. Although there is now a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, we have been shocked in recent days by videos coming out of Europe and North America of Jews being attacked on the streets by pro-Palestinian activists, simply for being Jews. Anti-Semitic incidents are sweeping across the West. ‘Hitler was right’ was tweeted over seventeen thousand times between 7 and 14 May. Synagogue windows have been smashed and graffiti has appeared on Jewish buildings.

There is another development which is just as frightening in its own way. Over one hundred American rabbinical and cantorial students, from a range of movements other than Orthodoxy, signed a letter which attacked Israel for ‘violent suppression of human rights and enable[ing] apartheid’. It claims that Israel is perpetrating ‘racial violence’. No mention whatsoever is made in the letter of the actions of Hamas or the suffering of Israeli civilians. When omission was challenged one of the authors said ‘I don’t feel like I have ground to stand on to try to influence how Palestinians respond to oppression’. It is terrifying and it is confusing, so we must ask, where does this mindset come from?

I was recently privileged to hear a Muslim scholar who argued that what we are seeing is a manifestation of critical race theory put into practice. As I was doing more research, I found a video of a panel discussion from last year entitled ‘Racial Justice Has No Borders: Embedding Palestinian Rights in the 2020 Agenda’. I was particularly struck by one of the panellists.

Noura Erakat is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, a well-respected college in New York State. She comes from a Palestinian family and was brought up in the United States. She is now an advocate of critical race theory and, importantly, for the connection between the struggle between white and black in America and between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. She described how she came to her analysis of the situation in Israel, West Bank and Gaza. She was a daughter in a traditional Arab home, albeit one situated in the US. It was automatically assumed that she would have a life of cooking and housework while her brothers would have lives in the public sphere. She rejected that, and she identified a binary: women and men. She then noticed other binaries: black and white; Israel and Palestine. In each case she saw an unequal and oppressive relationship. What is more, and this is crucial to critical race theory, all of these aspects of oppression are connected. Class, gender, race, sexuality and other axes all intersect with each other. That leads to a view that there is a group of oppressors and a group of the oppressed and they are defined by their category. Whites are oppressors, blacks are oppressed. But where does that leave Israelis and Palestinians?

Erakat said something which took my breath away. She claimed that when Jews embraced Zionism they chose to become white. Jews were not white before that, and we certainly are not white in a standard European sense, but the real reason we were not white is because we were oppressed. We were the victims of anti-Semitism in Europe. We were non-white victims; indeed we were non-white because we were victims. Once Jews adopted Zionism, became historical agents, rejected a fate as victims, we became white and we became oppressors. While I am confident that Erakat would condemn individual acts of violence in Europe or the US, I think we can now see the pieces coming together.

In an American context of the death of George Floyd, of Black Lives Matter, of the focusing on violent white oppression of black people, once you define Jews as white, Palestinians become black and the relationship becomes one of oppressor and oppressed and there is nothing more to say. There are goodies and baddies, and Jews are the baddies A Jew in New York is white and therefore an oppressor by very definition and in the next step, which some then take, they become a legitimate target. A racial murder in Minneapolis becomes the same as a deeply complex political, ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East. That is what it means to call a panel ‘Racial Justice Has No Borders: Embedding Palestinian Rights in the 2020 Agenda’. And that is despite the fact that America with its racial history is an entirely inappropriate model for looking at almost any other society in the world, and certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But this is now the accepted fact in a large part of the contemporary left, particularly. That does not mean that it has taken over all of society or all of academia or the media, but it is undoubtedly a strong force. It is that force that we are seeing spill over into violence. Incidentally this is not an idea found in Islam, which is why the Muslim scholar I heard took the view that the potential for violence does not come from older and more religiously connected and educated Muslims, but from the young, secular and religiously ignorant members of the Muslim community.

But the first home of critical race theory is not irreligious Muslim youth, it is western liberal youth. It is warmly embraced by many young people who are avowedly secular and even anti-religious. That is why we have the very strange sight of, for example, parts of the Queer community supporting Hamas, wilfully ignoring the persecution of LGBTQ people in Gaza.

It is why is has even seeped into parts of the religious Jewish world, even to its future spiritual leaders. That is why the letter from the liberal rabbinical students refers to suppression, apartheid and racial violence, because they are the only concepts they have to understand the situation. The only tools they have to understand any conflict is between the oppressor and the oppressed and it is simply a matter of applying the labels. Once those labels have been assigned, woe betide the identified oppressor in the dock of their opinion.

The leaders of the non-Orthodox movements have condemned this letter, so this is not a problem that affects Progressive Judaism across the board, but it is clear that we see something here of significance. When a theological system emphasises making value judgements based on personal perception rather than the teachings of tradition, the results can be surprising and appalling. These rabbinical students, who come from the left, have been bowled over by the momentum and impact of the powerful left wing movement that is inspired by critical race theory, because they have no objective moral standards to hold onto in order to withstand it. In that view, Israelis are racists and oppressors and must be condemned and Palestinians are the oppressed and can never be criticised or questioned. And that is exactly what the letter sets out. It is a perfect essay in half-digested critical race theory.

That is simply wrong. Contrary to the statement of the co-author of the student letter, we do have ground to stand on. We have the ground of the Torah and our religious ethical tradition. Targeting civilians is wrong. Placing fighters in civilian areas is wrong. Diverting money from civil improvements into arms is wrong. Ruling a society through repression, fear and brutality is wrong. Yes, we can and we should use our moral norms to assess our own behaviour, and valid criticism of Israel remains legitimate and essential. But we must totally reject simplistic equations that lead us to abandon our responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong based on the facts on front of us, and not follow the dictates of a theory, which even if it is applicable to the United States, which it might or might not, certainly does not apply elsewhere. We must not desert the unmoveable principles that make it always wrong to beat up a Jew on the street of a western city simply for being a Jew. We live in a Woke age, but I believe that the world has to wake up to that truth, and it is our responsibility to the morality we have inherited, we live by and we must advocate to make sure that the world does wake up.



In Memoriam: HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

17 April 2021

Shabbat shalom.

The parshiyot of Tazria Metzora, deal with leprosy, its identification and cure. Biblical leprosy is not a natural skin disease but a punishment for sin, including, but not exclusively, gossip and slander. Not the most promising material for an inspiring sermon, especially one looking back on a an important life. However, a rabbinic teaching caught my eye.

The Midrash notes a detail of the purification process:

The priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed.

The cedar is the largest plant the Israelites could ever expect to see. The hyssop is very lowly, never growing higher than a metre. The Midrash notes that while the cedar looks tall and impressive, and the hyssop short and modest, they have an equal place in the ritual of purification. What seems to matter externally is rarely the most important aspect in essence.

Last Shabbat we discovered that HRH The Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh had died, and today, as his funeral is about to commence in Windsor, we are thinking about his life and legacy. We recited a special memorial prayer and this sermon will consider his career of public service and his achievements. I began with this teaching of the cedar and the hyssop because I believe it was at the core of Prince Phillip’s contribution.

Although, like The Queen, he was a great great grandchild of Queen Victoria, and like her he was born the child of a prince and princess, in 1939 Phillip was rather more hyssop than cedar. He had to flee Greece as an eighteen month old infant after a military coup. When he was eight he was separated from his close family. His mother was consigned to an asylum with mental health problems, his sisters married and left home, and his father went to live in Monte Carlo. He soon found himself at Gordonstoun School in Scotland, run by a German Jew, Kurt Hahn. After commencing as a Royal Navy cadet he was briefly reunited with his mother in Athens, but was sent back to Britain and rejoined the Navy. His first posting was as a midshipman on HMS Ramillies, protecting convoys of the Australian Expeditionary Force in the Indian Ocean.

There he was at the outbreak of War. Fighting for the Allies, but effectively stateless, a midshipman, and therefore an officer but of the lowest rank, burdened with connections to brothers in law fighting for the Nazis. He kept being moved off ships because Greece was neutral, and was only allowed into a combat zone once Italy invaded Greece. But he made the best of the situation. He was mentioned in despatches for his role in the Battle of Matepan and fought bravely until the end of the War, which included a visit to Sydney.

He had been corresponding with Princess Elizabeth after they met when the Royal Family toured the Royal Naval College in 1939. The romance that followed, and which only ended last Friday after eighty two years, is most interesting in retrospect, because of the sacrifices it required on Philip’s part, and which he was prepared to make in the name of service, not to his homeland, but to his adopted country. On his marriage in 1947 He renounced his Greek and Danish royal titles, and with them one of the few remaining links with his parents, childhood and early identity. He officially left the Greek Orthodox Church and became an Anglican. His sisters were not invited to the wedding because they were married to German Princes. He became a Freemason against his will, but following the wishes of the King. His greatest sacrifice came in 1952 when he gave up his very promising career in the Navy, which might have taken him right to the top as First Sea Lord, or even Chief of the Defence Staff, like his uncle Lord Mountbatten. It might have been possible to continue in the Navy, and allow The Queen to perform her duties with less support and assistance, but Philip saw where his duty was and carried it out.

As a Duke married to a Princess, and then a Prince married to a Queen, he always walked two steps behind; not easy for a man of Philip’s sensibilities, someone we might consider an alpha male. He was destined always to be a hyssop next to a cedar: a spouse, a support, a comfort, but with no independent constitutional status and certainly no sense of equality. He couldn’t even pass on his name to his children, although the hyphenated Mountbatten-Windsor emerged as a compromise for some of his descendants. He once said bitterly ‘I am nothing but an amoeba’. But he did his duty. He spent his life supporting the woman he married and the institution he married into.

He was creative in finding ways to make his own contribution aside from accompanying The Queen on visits and engagements. I am not talking about recreations: polo, carriage riding, painting, flying, sailing, but rather hard work in different areas. I suspect that was very wise, because it meant that his personal fulfilment was not confined to his supporting role, but he could find and develop his own voice and interests. He carried out over twenty two thousand royal engagements and was patron of eight hundred organisations, but some areas do stand out. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was founded in 1956 and now operates in one hundred and forty four countries. Here in Australia, over twenty eight thousand young people commence the Award program each year, and almost eight hundred thousand have now completed it, including I am sure, some in this room. Although at first it was for boys, within two years it was extended to girls who went through exactly the same program. Philip was a modernizer. There was no need to join an organisation or wear a uniform, like Scouts. The Duke of Edinburgh Award is about building up individuals, not creating an institution. It is interested in people, not structures.

Another great passion was the natural environment and wildlife. He helped found the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1963 and was President of the World Wildlife Fund in the UK from 1961 to 1982. In a synagogue we should record his connections to the Jewish community. When briefly at school in Germany he defended a Jewish pupil who was being bullied by anti-semites.  His mother saved Jews by hiding them in her home in Athens during the Holocaust. Philip broke new ground as the first member of the Royal Family to visit Israel when he paid honour to her memory, and the memory of the six million, at Yad Vashem in 1994. He knew us better than we might imagine. He visited the Sternberg Centre, a Jewish facility in London in the 1990s and was shown the interfaith room, with his hosts telling him that they worked hard on Jewish-Christian relationships. “Really,” he replied, ‘and what about Jewish-Jewish relationships?’

The halacha is that in a eulogy one can exaggerate, but not too much. This is not a eulogy and I do not wish to exaggerate. The point is not that Philip was perfect, who is? He was capable of rather heavy-handed humour, although I don’t think he was ever malicious. He was certainly no bully. The first black British Archbishop, Dr John Sentamu paid tribute to his good natured teasing. Others have testified that he liked a good argument. He made his points but enjoyed hearing other perspectives too. Importantly, he was self-aware. In a speech to the General Dental Council in 1960 he coined a new word: ‘Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years’.

In a sermon looking back at a remarkable life, the question is what can we learn, and I think the answer in the case of Prince Philip is that duty and service matter and endure, that our causes have to come before ourselves, and that looking like you are number one is not a value in itself. God regards the hyssop just as He does the cedar, and our contribution depends only on the commitments that we make. Philip committed himself for over eighty years to the best of causes, and his contribution was immense. May his memory be a blessing and his example an inspiration.



Passover and the Meaning of Freedom

Pesach First Day, 28 March 2021 / 15 Nissan 5781

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia hard just before Passover 2020 and will recede a little after Passover 2021. On this Festival of Freedom, we have learned more about the different dimensions of freedom — and especially about how freedom is not a straightforward concept. The Jewish tradition never thought it was.

One of the most counterintuitive statements in rabbinic literature comes in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who lived in the Land of Israel around the year 250 CE. He quoted a verse from the Torah describing the two tables of stone Moses brought down from Mount Sinai containing the Ten Commandments: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved (charut) upon the tablets.” Said Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: “Do not read the word, charut, meaning ‘engraved’. Read it as cherut, freedom. There was freedom upon the tablets, for no one is free unless they are engaged in the study of Torah.”

What does freedom have to do with Torah study? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi lived in a province of the Roman Empire which oppressed its Jewish inhabitants. By any political measure, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi couldn’t be considered free. He lived as a member of a persecuted population under a brutal and autocratic regime. Yet, because he was a scholar and teacher of Torah, he understood that he was free. Because his life was dedicated to what he knew was of most meaning and most importance in the world, he was a free man.

Freedom is not just about — indeed, it is not even primarily about — being able to go where we choose and do what we like. Freedom is achieved when we live connected to the values that we cherish the most. Servitude is when, for all the latitude we seem to enjoy, we are restrained with invisible but powerful chains.

I think of my semi-namesake, Elton John. In the 1970s and 1980s he seemed to be living with the greatest freedom one could imagine. He toured the world; he enjoyed the adulation of thousands of fans at his concerts; he earned a fortune. There seemed no limit to his freedom. But he also had to take cocaine every four minutes, he suffered from eating disorders, he tried to kill himself. If we look at him today, by crude measures he is less free. He is in his seventies, no longer touring, married to the man he has been with for almost thirty years, he has two sons, aged ten and eight. In normal times he does the school run, and in the past year he has been home-schooling like so many other parents. He lives with so many obligations that restrict his ability to do what he wants, when he wants to do it. Yet he has found freedom, because he is living in a way that brings him health, happiness, and fulfilment. He is free because he is now who he wants to be.

The first modern Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, discusses the concept of freedom in his commentary to the Haggadah, the service for the Seder on the first nights of Passover. He defines freedom as living on the basis of one’s inner truth, being faithful to one’s inner self. A person can be living under Roman subjugation in the third century, or Soviet oppression in the twentieth century, but if they do not betray their convictions and their principles, they remain free.

If you think back to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the hero, or anti-hero, Winston Smith, is arrested by the Party but he remains free even in prison because he still loves Julia. But after he is finally broken in Room 101, he goes back into the apparent freedom of the outside world. Now, however, he no longer loves Julia; he loves Big Brother instead. Winston was free while in prison, but he is a slave walking the open streets, because he has given up what is dearest to him.

Over the past year we have all had to endure limits to our freedom. We all know about the restrictions of lockdown, and of the prohibitions that remain in place. They meant that there were no services in this or any other synagogue in Australia last Passover — the first time that has been the case in The Great Synagogue since we opened in 1878. We cannot travel outside the country and people overseas cannot travel to Australia except under special circumstances. Does that mean we are not free? I don’t think it does. Partly that is because we live in a democracy, led by people chosen by the population, and we have a strong commitment to the rule of law. But much more fundamentally than that, we have remained free throughout the past year because we have lived as a society faithful to our values: mutual responsibility, the importance of public health, and concern for the most vulnerable. Because whatever restrictions were put in place came from the people we are, and the people we wish to be; because they are an attempt to represent our best selves, they are an expression of our freedom and not a limitation of it.

That takes us to the ultimate meaning of Passover. In Hallel, the verses of praise we recite in the morning, we sing hallelu avdei Hashem, “give praise you servants of the Lord”. That is a strange verse to sing as we celebrate our liberty. The verse should read instead “give praise you free people”. But the Talmud comments, in a very matter of fact way, “originally we were servants of Pharaoh; now we are servants of God”. The Israelites were not redeemed from Egypt so we could do whatever we wanted when we wanted. Jewish life is framed with numerous obligations and prohibitions. We were redeemed so that we would live lives of value and meaning, in harmony with our ideal selves, achieving the fullest realisation of ourselves, transforming ourselves into free people in a way that no external force can ever alter.

Every Passover we leave Egypt again; every Passover we are given renewed ability and strength to align our outer and inner selves, to renew our fidelity to our inner truth. Sometimes we have to take the time to rediscover that inner truth, but it is there, and it is the most important element in every one of us. Carl Jung said that “the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are”. It is the privilege of a lifetime and the opportunity of Passover. Let us grasp it with both hands.



Vaccines and Judaism, Parashat Tetzaveh

27 February 2021 / 15 Adar 5781

On Sunday Jane Malysiak, an eighty four year old care home resident, was the first Australian to receive a Covid vaccine. The official vaccination rollout began on Monday and in New South Wales alone the government hopes that thirty five thousand front line workers will be vaccinated in the first three weeks. The first person vaccinated at 7.30 on Monday morning was a quarantine hotel cleaner and we all hope that these first series of vaccinations will seal the quarantine facilities so there are no more leaks and we can keep the rest of Australia Covid-free until we are all vaccinated.

Waldemar Haffkine and the Cholera Vaccine

What is the Jewish view of vaccinations? First, it is worth observing that Jewish scientists have been at the forefront of vaccination research and development. Waldemar Haffkine was born in 1860, the son of a Jewish schoolmaster from Odessa. In 1889 he joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He decided to focus on developing a cholera vaccine, to combat one of the most dangerous diseases of the nineteenth century, and the cause of five terrible pandemics. In 1892 Haffkine performed the first human test of the vaccine on himself. It was a success and he travelled to India where he vaccinated half a million people in 1902-03. In 1907 he again used himself as the first human subject for a vaccine test, this time for bubonic plague. By the turn of the twentieth century four million people were vaccinated in India alone.

Notably, later in life Haffkine became a committed Orthodox Jew, and he argued that scientific progress was made possible by basic Jewish religious insights. He wrote in 1916:

Science itself would not have existed were it not that Jewish piety, learning, and unrivalled penetration and clarity of thought have freed the mind of man of the condition in which the phenomena of nature appeared to him actuated and thus explained by the free-will of separate independent deities.’

In other words, if you think that every natural phenomenon, from the rising and setting sun to the arrival and disappearance of disease is caused by an individual god, you will never look for the systems that underpin all natural phenomena, and make it possible to control them, by, for example, developing a vaccine. In Haffkine’s insight, science is not opposed to religion, it is actually made possible by sophisticated, monotheistic religion, which was brought into the world by Judaism.

Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

The other remarkable Jewish vaccination scientist and humanitarian I must mention is Jonas Salk who was born into a Jewish family in New York City in 1914. He went to medical school, became a researcher and in 1941 became interested in virology. In the 1950s he concentrated on developing a polio vaccine, which he also tested on himself and his family, and in 1955 it was launched. To give you a snapshot, it is estimated that between 1988 and 2013 the polio vaccine prevented thirteen million cases of paralysis. Famously, Salk refused to patent the vaccine. He said ‘there is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’ Salk may have lost $7 billion by failing to seek a patent. He simply gave his vaccine to the world.

There is no question, then, that vaccines, have good Jewish connections, and we should be proud of the part that Jews have taken in their development. But what about vaccines themselves? Should we accept a vaccine when it is offered? Maimonides tells us in his Code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah:

It is a positive commandment to remove, guard against, and warn against any life-threatening obstacle, as it says: “Take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously”. If he did not remove the item but rather left dangerous obstacles in place, he has violated a positive commandment and transgressed a negative commandment, “Do not bring blood-guilt on your house”.

Maimonides is talking specifically here about real obstacles around the home. You should not allow easy access to dangerous areas of the house. Live wires should not be left dangling, rooves should have guardrails, knives should not be left lying around. That is a positive obligation on every Jewish person. If it is not done, then everyone who comes into the house is in danger, and the guilt if they harm themselves falls upon the negligent householder.

Should we take the vaccine?

The parallel with receiving a vaccine is clear. If we do not take a vaccine when it is offered, then we are allowing the virus to remain a danger to ourselves and our families, and indeed anyone we come into contact with. This is not just a personal decision. As the Queen reminded us this week, when it comes to the vaccine we have to think of others as well as ourselves. To work effectively for entire populations, there needs to be a high take-up of a vaccine. Unless a large majority of people are vaccinated it is impossible to build up herd immunity, to cover both those who aren’t vaccinated, for whatever reason, and those who are vaccinated but do not develop immunity, as is the case with a small minority of people with any vaccine.

We have seen that when take up of a vaccine drops below a certain level, there are outbreaks leading to death and injury. In the 2008 measles outbreak in New York, most victims were children, who were either too young to be vaccinated, or whose parents had asked for exceptions for their own reasons, but not recommended by a doctor. Those children were not victims of measles; they were victims of neglect or abuse.

The importance of vaccines is so significant and clear that the great medical halacha experts of the twentieth century, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg permitted accepting a vaccination on Shabbat if otherwise the chance to be vaccinated would be lost for some time.

The safety of the vaccine

Of course, all of this is based on the premise that a particular vaccine is both safe and effective. All the evidence suggests that this is true of the Covid vaccines. As the vaccine has rolled out in the UK, the number of infections dropped by over 16% in a week, the number of hospital admissions dropped by 21% in a week and deaths by over 27% in a week. Some of that is due to the lockdown, but the data is growing that the vaccine not only protects from serious illness, it also reduces transmission.

In the United States, where the lockdown is much less severe but vaccinations are being delivered, there has been a 25% drop in the seven day average of infections. According to Israeli data, the Pfizer vaccine is 98% effective in preventing breathing problems or fever and 89.4% in preventing infections, whether symptomatic or not. In terms of safety, about half of people feel rotten for a day or so after being vaccinated but then recover, and there is no link between the vaccine and any death, even though now millions of Covid vaccines have been delivered worldwide. This is all extremely encouraging, especially given the known risk of contracting Covid.

When I saw the first person in the world to be vaccinated, Lyn Wheeler, on 8 December 2020 I felt a surge of hope and relief, and when I saw Jane Malysiak receive her vaccine in Australia this week, I felt the same. I am delighted that my parents are now vaccinated. Hinda and I will take the vaccine as soon as possible. I will make the blessing Hatov veHametiv, on God who is good and does good, and who has brought benefit to myself and to others through my taking the vaccine.

If it is not yet obvious I will encourage everyone else to do the same, unless they have specific medical advice to the contrary. That is why the Shule is inviting everyone to celebrate their vaccine with an honour during the service.

In the Jewish physician’s prayer, the doctor addresses God and says:

You have blessed Your earth, Your rivers and Your mountains with healing substances; they enable Your creatures to alleviate their sufferings and to heal their illnesses. You have endowed man with the wisdom to relieve the suffering of his brother, to recognize his disorders, to extract the healing substances, to discover their powers and to prepare and to apply them to suit every ill.

We must therefore thank God, and the scientists and doctors who have developed the means to keep us alive and well in the face of this terrible virus. We know that all health and help comes from heaven, but that God wants us to assist Him in the act of bringing them down to earth. That is what this vaccine does, and we should accept it with humility and thanksgiving, and look forward to better days.



Reconciliation Shabbat, Parashat Nasso

6 June 2020 / 14 Sivan 5780

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shocked America and the world. Floyd was stopped by police on suspicion of buying cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. When police found him, Floyd was sitting in his car. He was removed at gunpoint, although it has not been explained why it was necessary for police to draw their gun. Floyd was compliant, but when he was put in a police car he complained of claustrophobia. He was pulled out of the car and fell to the ground, handcuffed and face down. Derek Chavin, a police office, placed his left knee between Floyd’s head and neck, while other police officers also pinned him down. Floyd said at least sixteen times he could not breathe. Floyd called for his mother and begged for his life. Chavin did not move. After almost nine minutes of this treatment Floyd became unresponsive. He was taken to hospital unconscious and pronounced dead an hour later. Chavin and other officers have been charged with murder and other offences.

Since then, there have been protests, riots, looting. Police have been using tear gas and rubber bullets. The mainstream media and social media are now covering the aftermath minute by minute. There are some voices going so far as to justify not only the anger, but even the violence and lawlessness. President Trump has fanned the flames, by quoting far right slogans, such as ‘when the looting starts, the shotting starts’, by using extreme language and threatening to call out the army. While Trump has raised tensions, other leading figures have tried to bring some calm. George W Bush issued a statement that has been much praised. Here is some of what he said:

It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans are harassed and threatened in their own country. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society?

Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.

It is also true that this particular crime should not distract us from the most prevalent problems. Deaths in custody are not the most common aspect of racist police action. Disproportionate stop and search, arrest and imprisonment are all present at a much higher rate for African Americans than white Americans. Concentrating on deaths like George Floyd’s is not enough by itself. And this brings us to the moral demands of the moment, which I think boils down to one principle: don’t take the easy way out. This is such a serious and complicated problem, that it is incredibly tempting to do what is easy rather than what is right, but that is a temptation we must resist.

Let me give some examples of the easy way out. One is adopting simplistic prescriptions, pretending we are dealing with a straightforward situation. Another is shouting down or shaming those who disagree, as though that makes them racists or unconcerned. It is too easy to look indulgently on violence and looting when the perpetrators are not tearing up your neighbourhood or ransacking your business. It is lazy to write off those turning to violence as mere thugs. As an Australian commentator said, if you have you knee on a man’s throat for three hundred years, can you really be surprised if he responds violently? That is not to justify violence, although if we are honest and consistent we know that on some occasions we do justify violence, whether carried out by state or by individuals. It is always easier to look away, to avoid the pain and discomfort, and try to carry on with life, which as we all know, is already a lot more difficult than it used to be. One final temptation that we must avoid is to see institutionalised racism as someone else’s problem, as some other country’s problem, as not something that we need to worry about here.

This Shabbat falls at the end of National Reconciliation Week. That is why the Aboriginal Flag is on display in the Synagogue this morning. It is now twenty years since the reconciliation walks of 2000, and Australians can look back on two decades of concentrated work on reconciliation between aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples, and other Australians. This year as every year, National Reconciliation Week marks two landmarks in the story of righting the wrongs perpetrated against indigenous peoples: the 1967 referendum, which made aboriginal people part of the political system, and the Mabo decision which recognised indigenous land rights.

We have certainly made progress, both in actions and attitudes. I am sure what I am about to say will not be taken as a criticism of a revered predecessor, but as I was researching an article I am writing on Rabbi Porush, I saw that he claimed in a sermon in 1970 that ‘no foreign foot has ever invaded Australian shores’. I am sure it felt differently if you on the beach looking out at the ships sailing towards you when Captain Cook arrived in 1770. If a good man like Rabbi Porush could say fifty years what it would be impossible to say today, look how far we have come.

But there is still a massive amount of work still to do. The death of George Floyd should remind us that since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody submitted its final report in 1991 with more than three hundred and thirty recommendations, over four hundred aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people have died in custody. Indigenous Australians are still the most incarcerated people on the planet, there remain pockets of endemic racism and a massive and continuing legacy of social exclusion and disempowerment, the result of two centuries of colonisation, which perpetuates and further embeds inequality and disadvantage.

This is our religious duty. Our parasha this morning is unequivocal that when we do something wrong, we admit it and we make amends:

אִישׁ אוֹ־אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל־חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּה' וְאָשְׁמָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת־חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realises his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution.

In the early Rabbinic commentary, the Sifri, Rabbi Natan claims that that passage establishes a general principle, that the first step in rehabilitation of the sinner must be their confession of having committed the offence. That is true on a societal as well as an individual level, especially if we are not doing enough to fix the problems. You admit what you have done and then you put it right. That is the essence of reconciliation, whether between us and God or us and other people.

We should be so grateful for National Reconciliation Week and the whole work of reconciliation. Just before COVID struck, and as a result of a highly successful Friday night dinner for the Jewish community and indigenous communities here in the Israel Green Auditorium, a new group of Jews and aboriginal people began to meet. Our first meeting was on the premises of an aboriginal organisation and the second, which was not able to take place, was to have been held here. What a privilege it is, and what an act of graciousness and forgiveness, that aboriginal Australians want to address the injustices they have faced by sharing a Shabbat dinner,  welcoming us to their premises and coming to ours, to talk and work together. The long term alternative to that is the violence we have seen in the United States, but the only way such peaceful methods can be vindicate is if we really do address the racial problems that still plague us in Australia.

This National Reconciliation Week, in the shadow of the murder of George Floyd, we have to rededicate ourselves to action, that is not only peaceful but also effective. There is more that we could be doing, and we have to understand how dark the alternative could be. Let us seize the opportunity we have to make a better future.



Address at the 2020 Law Service

Chief Justices, Chief Judge, Attorney General, members of the judiciary, President of the Law Society of New South Wales, members of the legal profession, parliamentarians, mayors and councillors, representatives of the Australian Defence Force, academics and scholars, rabbinic colleagues, faith and communal leaders, friends all.

It is always an honour to host this service and we are delighted to do so again. I also acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, thank them for caring for the land on which this synagogue stands and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and to all indigenous Australians here today.

On the front page of your Order of Service, it says in Hebrew:

סדר תפילות לראש השנה למשפט

That literally means ‘order of prayers for the new year for law’ or ‘the new year for justice’. There are several words we use Hebrew for law and justice, but one is Mishpat. On the High Holidays we refer to God as Hamelech hamishpat ‘the King of Justice’. A modern Israeli court is called a Beit Mishpat, a house of law, or justice. When Jewish Law is studied as an academic pursuit it is called Mishpat Ivri, Hebrew law.

If you want to understand a Hebrew concept the best way to begin is to examine how the word which denotes that concept is applied in classic Hebrew sources, above all the Bible. The way the word Mishpat is used in the Hebrew Bible reveals the essential elements of law and justice from the Jewish perspective. These positions have become part of our shared understanding and regarded as important and valued by all of us. I want to share three with you this afternoon.

We begin with the dawn of monotheism. Abraham was called by God to abandon his family and his homeland and to settle a new land with a new consciousness of the One God. Central to this new awareness was God’s Omni-beneficence, that He is all good, that He establishes and acts according to justice and righteousness. That was not an obvious concept in the ancient world. The Greek, Roman and Germanic gods were essentially just very powerful and immortal people. They shared many of our weaknesses for pleasure, jealousy and anger. Asking Zeus, Neptune or Thor to behave according to objective standards of justice would have been pointless; that is not what they were interested in.

The gods that Abraham abandoned and denied in his civilisation, were equally imperfect. Even the chief Sumerian god Enlil, who was supposed to be supremely just, sent a flood to destroy all of humanity because they made so much noise they stopped him sleeping. I am sure parents of small children can empathise with Enlil, even if we would not condone his methods. He should have tried sleep training.

All this is to say, that a God Who upholds a perfectly just order was entirely new, and a God Who can be held to the standards that He has created was revolutionary. Yet this is exactly what Abraham did. When God determined to destroy the cities of Sedom and Gemorah for their wicked behaviour, Abraham could not believe at first that all the people in those cities were sinful, and so he said this to God:

הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט?

Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice, not do Mishpat?

That is a stupid question to ask to a pagan god, but not to the One God, because He guarantees that justice is real, justice exists, justice is independent of any other person or Being, even as it turns out, God Himself. Justice may have its source in the Divine, but God can still be held to account by reference to what is objectively just. That is exactly what Abraham did, and God was not angry. He conversed with Abraham reasonably and only when it became clear that the cities were entirely guilty did their discussion end.

And so the first element about the Jewish idea of justice is that it is not just a function of power; that it is freestanding of individuals whoever they may be; that it is no respecter of persons. We are all accountable to objective and independent laws and the standards of justice. While it may be difficult to discern or determine what they are in all cases, our task, in particular your task, is to discover them and apply them, without fear or favour.

For the second element we move from the age of Abraham to the career of Moses, the Lawgiver, the prophet who received and transmitted the Ten Commandments. Just after the revelation of the Decalogue, and when more of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah are about to be transmitted, the verse states:

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם

These are the laws, the Mishpatim, that you shall set before them. Set before the Children of Israel.

Jewish tradition divides Torah laws into two broad categories. There are chukim, which are not rational in their particulars. For example, the Jewish dietary laws. There is no reasonable basis for being able to eat a salmon but not a sturgeon, or a cow but not a camel. The dietary laws exist to inculcate self-discipline and obedience to God’s command. They have a determined purpose, the service of God, but their details are arbitrary.

That is not true of the Mishpatim, laws which govern inter-personal relationships and establish a functional civil society. The prohibition on stealing, false witness, corrupt weights and measures. The obligation to provide for the poor, visit the sick, bury the dead. These are all based on what is reasonable, sensible and are designed to produce beneficial social outcomes, and every detail is rational. They should apply to almost any society, and that is why most systems of law and ethics end up in more or less the same place on the major issues.

In way the Jewish tradition regulates the way we interact with each other, law is rational. It can be investigated, debated and understood, in fact it must be. There are no mysteries and nothing is sealed away from analysis. Large swathes of the Talmud cover not ritual but civil law, matters of damages, of property, of business transactions. If you wander into a yeshiva, a centre of Talmudic study, you are as likely to hear an animated debate about the laws concerning lost objects or false witnesses as any matter of kosher or non-kosher food. And while those discussion are rooted in the biblical sources, but also are filled with logical argumentation.

This is precisely the same basis for many of the workings of secular law. That is why there are published judgements, appeals on matters of law, the work of legal academics. ‘These are the Mishpatim, these are the laws which you shall set before them’ – set before them to think about and discuss. Laws which exist in the realm of reason, and which can be subjected to the work of our minds.

If the second element of the Jewish idea of justice is that it is a matter for rational inquiry and human understanding, that leads inevitably to the third element I want to describe, law as organic.

As the Israelites were travelling in the desert a man called Tzelofchad died and left only daughters. As inheritance law stood at that time, as determined by Divine command, only sons could inherit. The daughters of Tzelofchad complained that they would be unfairly excluded and their father’s family would lose everything, through the mere accident of only having daughters.

It is fascinating that Moses did not reject their complaint out of hand because it was inconsistent with the revealed law. Instead this happened:

וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָן לִפְנֵי ה'

Moses brought their Mishpat, their case, before God.

Even more remarkably, God replied, ‘The plea of Tzelofchad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’ An existing law was shown to have unfair outcomes, and so it changed, it evolved, it expanded to meet a wider range of circumstances. The organic nature of the law, its need to renew itself in order to remain just in its effects is the primary lesson of this episode, and introduced that central idea which is still cherished by all modern legal systems, especially those based on Common Law.

And so as we gather to celebrate the beginning of Law Term, the Rosh Hashana LeMishpat, the new year for law and justice, as Jews and non-Jews coming together we can recognise and honour the Hebrew jurisprudential inheritance, grounded in Mishpat and felt today: law as an external and objective standard to which we are all held accountable; law as rational; and law as organic.

Members of the legal profession: as you go about your important work over the next year, I know you will be guided by these principles, which you, more than all others, recognise and cherish. May Almighty God guide you with wisdom and judgement, for the benefit of all the citizens of this nation, and for the honour of Heaven. Amen.



Sermon for Australia Day 2019

Today is the opportunity we have each year to celebrate and give thanks for our country, the land, the people and the institutions that make up Australia. I believe we are all lucky to be here, because this is a wonderful country. We enjoy extraordinary countryside and scenery, amazing wildlife, people with a warm, friendly and welcoming disposition, unrivalled opportunities for personal advancement, a culture that promotes sport and fitness, delicious and abundant produce, a successful economy, world class cities, arts and scholarship, safety, fully functioning legal, democratic and civic institutions upholding human rights and liberties, Australian Defence Forces safeguarding peace and freedom around the world, access to education and health services, sunshine and the most successful multicultural society in the world. We should be grateful to God and to our fellow citizens, to those who built up this country in the past and those who do so today, for all these blessings, and we should dedicate ourselves to sustaining them into the future.

Today is also special for us as Jews specifically. We may be the only Jewish community in the world that can date its establishment exactly, when those Jewish convicts staggered off their boats and onto the shore on 26 January 1788. This nation has been a place of refuge, protection and opportunity ever since, and we still receive so much support from Government and solidary from other Australians that we should recognise that we are one of the most fortunate Jewish communities in the world.

As Jews and as Australians, or in the case of Hinda and myself people who hope shortly to become Australians, who have an Australian child and who enjoy the advantages of living here, this is a day for pride and appreciation. But we have to recognise and confront the fact that 26 January does not have the same resonance for all Australians, in particular those who descend from the first Australians, the indigenous peoples who were here before Captain Cook landed and before the First Fleet docked. Before the arrival of Europeans there were people here for sixty thousand years or more. That makes the line in the National Anthem ‘for we are young and free’ problematic to say the least. In 1788 the population was probably between three hundred thousand and three quarters of a million, divided into two hundred and fifty nations with many peoples making up those nations. For example, this synagogue stands on the land of the Gadigal People of the Eora nation.

The story of indigenous peoples after 1788 was a tragic and a terrible one. The impact of European diseases, the seizure of natural resources, the destruction of the food sources indigenous people had relied upon, massacres, slavery, the attempted eradication of indigenous culture, exclusion from citizenship, restrictions on democratic participation and all forms of discrimination combined to wreak the most terrible effects on indigenous peoples. That impact has not entirely disappeared. Life expectancy for indigenous Australians is over ten years shorter than for non-indigenous. Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be unemployed and fifteen times more likely to be imprisoned. They endure a higher rate of sexual violence, of disability and face enduring racism. I saw only this week that a bar owner in Darwin instructed his staff not to serve aboriginal people and to find some subterfuge to exclude them from his premises. A month or so ago I walked past a demonstration by the Archibald Fountain which highlighted the tragically high levels of deaths in custody amongst indigenous people, including in the very recent past.

To some extent improvements have come and injustices have been acknowledged. We can welcome improvements to life expectancy, education levels and employment over the past few years. The Mabo case recognised indigenous land title. Bob Hawke, John Howard and other Prime Ministers made some progress towards reconciliation, and Kevin Rudd issued an apology to members of the Stolen Generations. At public events we follow what is now widespread practice and offer an Acknowledgement of Country, naming the traditional owners of the land and paying respects to elders past and present. Although some dismiss that as meaningless or tokenistic, I believe that if done thoughtfully and sincerely it inserts a due element of respect into our relationship. What is undeniable is that legacy of the past two hundred and thirty one years is and will continue to be, a long and difficult one.

We are, however, in a genuine dilemma. As painful as the date 26 January is to many people, moving it would be equally painful to others. If a person was born or came here, is not from an indigenous background but regards this as their only home, repudiating 26 January may feel like repudiating them, asserting that they – we – have no genuine right to be here. On a human level, that is a very bitter pill to swallow. This is our country, and we love it and we are proud of it, as it exists in 2019, even given the totality of its history, however problematic. It would also be disingenuous for us to suggest otherwise, because there is no intention, desire or even possibility to return to the situation in 1788. There is no serious campaign for that because it is impossible. The alternative has been reconciliation, which has had its stronger and its weaker phases, but I believe must continue to create a country at peace with itself.

As we go about that work, I want to present a conceptual framework which might assist, which was developed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and is relevant to the parasha we read this morning. The underlying principle in the relationship between God and the Jewish People is covenant. There were individual covenants, with Noah and with Abraham, but there were two covenants with the Jewish People: one covenant when the Israelites left Egypt and a second when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai. At the time of the Exodus God said:

I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be your God


That established the covenant of Egypt. The Covenant of Sinai was created with these words, which open the Ten Commandments:

I am the Lord your God.


However, Rav Soloveitchik makes a distinction between the two covenants. When we left Egypt, when we were rescued from slavery, God established a covenant of fate. As Jews our fortunes are bound up together. We suffered together and we were delivered together. That is why on Seder night we imagine as if we too are leaving Egypt. But at this stage we were still lacking purpose, a fully worked out, positive program associated with being Jewish. That came at Sinai, when we were given the Torah and in it a guide on how to live. The covenant of Sinai transcended mere fate, it was a covenant of destiny, to create a better and holier individual within a redeemed world. Both covenants are necessary, and the first must come before the second, even though the second takes us further and higher.

I think that may be a way of thinking about 26 January 1788 and 26 January this year and every year to come. In 1788 a covenant of fate was established on this island amongst all who lived here or who would live here. Our futures became unavoidably bound up together from that point onwards, and certainly now, there can be no going back. What was done cannot be undone. But what we can do this Australia Day, and all future Australia Days is to create a covenant of destiny, a shared commitment to a better Australian future, but the benefit of all of its people, of whatever background.

We can commit to working together to eradicate discrimination, inequalities in health, education and opportunities, to acknowledge the stories and struggles of others and establish an atmosphere of mutual respect. That should be done symbolically, for example through the Acknowledgement of Country, but also practically through the provision of appropriate services, with necessary funding, for struggling communities. There is also the work we can do together to protect the country itself. I am sure you have read about the blue green algae that has killed ten thousand fish in the Darling River, mostly native species and some decades or even a century old. That algae grew so rapidly because of the agricultural chemicals that have been flowing into the river with too little control or restraint. That is just one aspect of the devastation that is being inflicted on our unique natural environment, from the bush to the barrier reef. The needs of farmers have to be balanced against the wellbeing of the land and sea, otherwise we will so poison the earth and the water we depend upon that living here will become impossible anyway, or at least transformed for the worse beyond recognition. Tackling that problem, and many others, is something all Australians have to do together, and we will do it all the more effectively if we adopted indigenous values of caring for country.

So on this Australia Day, let us celebrate, let us take pride in what Australia is and has become, let us face without flinching all aspects of Australia’s story, let us embrace the shared fate that unites all Australians and then us renew our covenant of destiny through which we will work together to create the best possible Australia for all its people. Amen.



Memorial Address at the Communal Vigil for the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

31 October 2018

Archbishop Davies, Bishop Brady, members of parliament and councillors, faith leaders, communal leaders, rabbinic colleagues, dear friends.

We gather this evening overwhelmed by grief at the loss of eleven holy souls, murdered in the worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States. It has shocked the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, and we are grateful for the presence of our non-Jewish friends here with us, sharing our sorrow and giving their solidarity.

We come together in a synagogue, which should be a place of peace, of prayer, of love. The Tree of Life Synagogue was just such a place, but it was transformed by a man filled with hate and rage into one of pain, suffering and death. A moment of joy, the naming of a new child, became a time of the greatest sorrow.

Who were the victims? A retired gentleman who helped a friend’s daughters with their tax returns every year, a ninety seven year old grandmother with a youthful spirit, a married couple in their eighties, a pair of brothers with intellectual disabilities who handed out prayer books as worshippers arrived, a man who became a grandfather only a year ago and whose grandson will never really know him, a widow who had looked after her husband’s students like a second mother, a devoted family doctor who volunteered with the Chevra Kadisha, a man called ‘the religious heart of his congregation’,  a youth baseball coach. Eleven good and innocent people, all slaughtered.

Through the tragedies of history the Jewish People has become accustomed to mourning. Tonight we echo Jeremiah’s lament at the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem: ‘Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people’. When we mourn for the two Temples every year on the anniversary of their destruction we recall other times when Jews were murdered simply for being Jews. We recite elegies written at the time of the First Crusade, when violent bigots burst into synagogues, armed with weapons, and put the defenceless worshippers to death. That was in the eleventh century, and here we are, almost a thousand years later, witnessing new atrocities in an old pattern.

As we prepare to mark the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in this synagogue in a few days’ time, the scourge of anti-Semitism is still alive, potent and deadly. At every service in this synagogue and many others, as well as at schools and other communal facilities, an armed guard stands outside, and because they are friendly, warm, affable people, it is easy to forget that they are there for a truly terrible and terrifying reason.

Now is not the time to engage in an analysis of the twisted psychology of anti-Semitism, but having acknowledged its existence, we have to determine how to deal with it. We need practical measures, and I pay tribute to the police and our own Community Security Group who put themselves in danger to keep us safe. I want to thank the State and Federal Governments who generously assist with funding for our communal security needs, and I express our appreciation for our community’s leaders who make our case and advance our cause.

But protection is just a means to an end, and that end is the continuation of a vibrant Jewish life. When a group of Jews near Lublin was ordered so sing by a Nazi commander in 1939, they lacked the energy or the will to do so, until one of their number improvised new words to an old melody, and called out mir veln zey iberlebn ovinu shebashomayim, we will outlive them, our Father in Heaven. And we shall. We will continue to worship in our synagogues, send our children to Jewish schools, manifest every form of Jewish activity, as well as taking a full part in the life of wider society. We will endure, we will survive, we will flourish.

The name of the synagogue desecrated with the blood of its faithful was Tree of Life, a quotation from the Book of Proverbs: ‘It is tree of life to those who grasp it, and those who take hold of it are fortunate’. Jewish life is a source of more vitality, more energy and strength than any evil that can come to confront it. Let us rededicate ourselves to that spirit, and in the words of Deuteronomy, let us choose life, and defeat our enemies through life. Although the name of their synagogue might seem cruelly ironic, for those murdered in Pittsburgh it was anything but. Their faith and their congregation made their lives richer and fuller. They loved going to their synagogue, they were there right at the beginning of the service. It was a tree of life for them, and should be for us.

May the memory of the holy martyrs of Pittsburgh remain with us and be a blessing, may the Almighty send comfort to the bereaved and healing to the wounded in body and in spirit, and may we join together to create a world without hatred, without prejudice and without bloodshed. Amen.





Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5779

Shana tova umetuka! Hinda, Lizzie and I wish the whole congregation a happy, healthy, sweet and successful New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of a long and good life, and know only content and fulfillment in the year and years ahead.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who have contributed to the Synagogue over the past twelve months, and who I know will continue to do so: our chazan, Rev Weinberger, Rabbi Richter who leins and runs the Children’s Service and blew shofar today, the Choir conducted by Justin Green, Rabbi Philip Kaplan who is leading Shacharit over the High Holidays, Joe Gluck who is also assisting with the service, everyone running the youth programming, Rabbi Daniel Hoffman who was Visiting Rabbi earlier this year while I was on parental leave, my wife Hinda, who supports the work of the shule in endless ways, the President, Executive and Board, Steven Schach our Gabbai and Toby Hammerman Gabbai Sheini, the office staff, CSG who keep us safe, our volunteers, the Women’s Auxiliary, all those who attend on Shabbat, Yom Tov and weekdays, and everyone who belongs to the Synagogue, and provides our purpose and our future.

As Jews, we always begin a new year by reviewing the past. We do that individually and we should also do that communally. How should The Great Synagogue look back on 5778? The last year has been a stride forward, showing growing strength and success in every area of our work, and pointing us towards what we need to tackle and achieve next.

We have now welcomed almost one hundred and seventy new members in the past three years; that’s more than one a week. Our services throughout the week are better attended. We have more simchas booked into our calendar than for many years. Our pastoral care, from the Ministers and volunteers is compassionate and effective. As I always say, we continue to rely on the information we are provided, so do let us know if you or someone you know is unwell. There are more events, from the Women of Worth Weekend, to the monthly communal lunch, to the Book Club. The Museum has been re-energised, and the Library renewed. There are events for tiny tots, for children, teens, young adults and the entire age range beyond. We have a lot more work to do but we are going in the right direction.

I believe we have succeeded so far, and we will continue to succeed, because we are driven by our values. I think those values are well-known by now, but I will never stop talking about them. They are relationship, inclusivity, warmth, welcome, acceptance, care for individuals, valuing all generations and the bonds between them. They exist alongside an intelligent, thoughtful and relevant approach to our faith, expressed through inspiring services and educational programs for all ages. That is our guiding vision, and if we keep our eyes fixed upon it, we will build the beautiful community we all want and will all enjoy.

If Yom Kippur is the time for deep personal introspection, then it is prefaced by Rosh Hashanah, which is when we come together as a community, and make joint resolutions for our shared future. A text traditionally studied between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance. He reassures us that we all have a share in the World to Come, the only question is how great and how pleasant a share. But there are exceptions:

אלו הן שאין להן חלק לעולם הבא... הפורשין מדרכי צבור

These do not have a share in the World to come…[among them] those who separate themselves from the community.

Detachment from the community, from its successes and its challenges is not an option for us. We never seek to inquire for whom the bell tolls; as individuals we stand or fall along with the community. This has been an important year for those who want to understand how our community is faring, and what we need to do in the future to ensure that it continues to flourish, because it saw the publication of the Gen17 Report. Almost nine thousand Jewish individuals were surveyed in Australia including almost four thousand in New South Wales. The exercise was not perfect, but neither can we ignore its findings.

One of the most remarkable trends in Sydney Jewry over the past decades has been the growth of Jewish day schools. Over half of Jewish children now attend a Jewish day school, which is a very high proportion compared to communities overseas, and a huge blessing for our community. The most common reason given for sending children to a Jewish school is to strengthen Jewish identity. In other words, we want our children to identify strongly as Jews. But what does Jewish identity mean to us? It is interesting to look at how Sydney Jews define the most important elements of their Jewish identity. First comes remembering the Holocaust, then upholding moral and ethical behaviour, then combatting anti-Semitism and fourth is sharing Jewish festivals with family.

These are all important, indeed essential, to the current strength and future vitality of our community, but I cannot help noticing what is missing. We can imagine a scenario in which all of these boxes were ticked, all of these elements of Jewish identity were observed, and yet there was an important piece missing. Our community does so much, so well, but I do think we need to add. We need more that is specifically Jewish in content. This is the point in the Rabbi’s Rosh Hashana sermon in which he exhorts the congregation to greater religious observance. I suppose that’s the job, but on this occasion I do so not just because I want people to do more mitzvot for their own sake. I believe deeper Jewish involvement is vital for our individual and communal future, and as Maimonides taught us, those two elements are inextricably intertwined.

There is an argument that only the adoption of full halakhic observance by increasing numbers in the community can ensure a successful future. I am not so sure. I would love to see more people who are entirely Shomer Shabbat, Shomer Kashrut, who daven three times a day, and I hope that transition will happen in individual cases. But I don’t think that is necessary for the future of the community. I don’t think we need total observance, but I do think we need a thickening of our Jewish experience.

I say ‘we’ because we are speaking here amongst ourselves, and in my three years here I have come to know and love this congregation. We are not a synagogue of the wholly and exclusively observant, but we are not secular or detached either. We are middle of the road, traditional Jews. It is the Judaism of my parents, of the shule I was brought up in, it is how I was raised. But our position is somewhat precarious. We could go one way or the other. For the most part the strictly Orthodox are safe, although there are always exceptions. Sadly, many secular Jews are going to slip away, unless something unexpected happens, as sometimes it does. But our fate is the most in the balance. We are what our sources call the ‘beinonim’, we are the ones in the middle, which makes our choices especially significant.

I have total confidence that the Sydney Jewish community will survive. But there is a different question: will our children and grandchildren be part of that future community? In fifty years’ time there might be forty thousand Jews, as there are today, or perhaps ten thousand Jews, it is most likely that the figure will be somewhere in between. There will be a Jewish community, but it remains undecided whether our families be part of it. That is not something God will determine, it is something we can determine.

You would be astonished how often I am contacted by someone with one Jewish parent or one Jewish grandparent who wants to reintegrate into the community. Very often when tourists come to visit the Synagogue one of the party will reveal their Jewish ancestry. There are people of Jewish ancestry everywhere, who may be technically Jewish, or not, but they do not live as Jews in any sense. Our task today is to ensure that our descendants are Jews, and not people of Jewish ancestry. Accepting that challenge would be one of the most important responses to the Gen17 report.

Jewish life is like an old-fashioned clock. You are either winding it up, or it is winding itself down. the task of each generation is to wind up the clock. In the past that was done by successive waves of Jewish immigration to Sydney: Holocaust survivors and refugees from Communism, and British Jews in the 1940s and 1950s, South Africans in the 1980s and 1990s, a proportion of the Jews who came from Russia after 1991. There are descendants of each of those waves in shule today, and this shule, like every shule would be significantly poorer without them. But I do not think there is going to be another wave of immigration. Now it is up to us.

So let’s put more Judaism into our Jewishness. Let’s show our families that it is worthwhile being Jewish – distinctly, practically, tangibly Jewish. Let’s take whatever we do at present and enrich it. The key is always to do more, to wind up the clock.

What could this mean in practice? Take the elements of existing Jewish identity: We should commemorate the Holocaust, but let’s do it with our families in Yizkor as well as at secular commemorations. We should live ethical lives, but let’s discover how our morality is deeply rooted in Jewish sources. We should combat anti-Semitism, but remember that the motto of the CSG is ‘To Protect Jewish Life and Jewish Way of Life’, so let’s deepen our Jewish practice, as well as preserving our physical safety, let’s give CSG more people to guard as they stand outside our services. Finally, let’s enjoy our family meals on the Festivals, but let’s make Kiddush, and Hamotzi. And on Simchat Torah, let’s bring our children to dance with the Torah, their eternal inheritance. We could find examples across the whole of Jewish life. Let’s find something extra to do, and do it. Let’s thicken the Jewish experience of ourselves and our families.

This Shule, and its Ministers are here to support you every step of the way. To be Jewish is to have faith in our God and ourselves. Together I am sure we can build the Jewish future that we all want, to make us stronger this year, and every year. Shana tova.



Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5779

Today is the third anniversary of my introduction to Australian politics. You will recall that in 2015 on the first day of Rosh Hashana we had a Prime Minster, but by the second day we have a different one. Out went Tony Abbott and in came Malcolm Turnbull. A couple of days after Yom Tov I received a letter from the Prime Minister welcoming me to Australia and my new position, except it was from Mr Abbott. He was Prime Minister when the letter was posted, but he’d already left office by the time it arrived. A few weeks ago when there was another spill, and Mr Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison, I saw the outgoing Prime Minister speak with disapproval of the disloyalty and the manoeuvrings of those in his own party who brought his Premiership to an end, and I thought that was a peculiar complaint to make, considering the means by which he had reached the highest office in the first place. I am not making a partisan point, or an anti-Turnbull point – he has always been a faithful supporter of the Jewish community and of Israel – but I am seeking to make a wider observation.

There is a striking story in the Ethics of the Fathers which describes Hillel walking along a river, when he saw a floating skull. Hillel declared ‘because you drowned others, you were drowned, and those who drowned you will also drown’. What did he mean? Was he simply saying that what goes around comes around? Was he pointing to the concept of mida keneged mida, that God’s justice is so precise that we are punished in a way that exactly corresponds to the manner in which we transgressed? Perhaps, but I have a different suggestion.

It is inevitable that we will live within the cultures that we create. The real reason Turnbull resigned is not his political performance or the polling numbers. No, it is the ruthless culture of spills and counter spills that began in 2010 and has been created equally by both major parties. We have had seven Prime Ministers in the last ten years, five in the last five years. Turnbull went because Abbott went, because Gillard went, because Rudd went. If the political culture in Canberra were different, Malcolm Turnbull would still be Prime Minister, whatever the other political facts on the ground.

That is what I think the story of the skull means. It is not that someone who kills their victim by drowning will be sentenced in the heavenly court to death by drowning. Rather, in a culture where murder is common, where drowning is the chosen means, the perpetrators will soon become the victims. It is always the case with the courts and entourages of tyrants that the people who organise the purges, the show trials and the executions almost always, and eventually fall victim themselves. Our ability to create a culture, or rather the fact that the choices we make and the actions we perform inevitably create a culture, places an extra burden of responsibility upon us for our behaviour, because we will all be forced to live under that culture.

I will give a contrasting example. Hinda and I don’t have much time to watch television, and most recently even less, but we did make a wonderful discovery this year: Australian Ninja Warrior. For those who haven’t seen it, there is an insanely difficult obstacle course which competitors have to cross without falling. If they do, they splash into pools of water beneath the obstacles.

Now, it would be possible for the spirit to pervading Ninja Warrior to be one of schadenfreude, literally enjoying seeing people fall, seeing the tall poppy being cut down, but that is not the case. There is a heart-warming ethos of mutual support and celebration. There is an eclectic mix of contenders, old and young, fitness professionals and amateur enthusiasts. Most remarkably, as well as those who are fully abled, there have been people with significant challenges. One man who lost a leg in a motorbike accident took part this year. Everyone who takes part received the unreserved support of the presenters, the audience and the other competitors. There is no pleasure or gloating when someone falls into the water, only commiseration and a genuine celebration of the extent of their achievement. Australian Ninja Warrior has become a pleasure to watch not only because of the astonishing physical skill on display, but because of the manner in which it is carried out.

That achievement proves is that it is possible to create a culture, and if it is possible to create it is also possible to recreate, or as Rav Nachman of Breslov taught us, ‘if you believe that breaking is possible, believe that fixing is also possible’. There was a moving moment last week in the United States, when Senator John McCain was laid to rest. He had competed with George W Bush for the Republican nomination for President in 2000, and lost to Obama in the 2008 campaign, and yet these were two men McCain asked personally to give eulogies at his funeral. At a time when American politics is more divided, more intemperate and more unpleasant than for many years, by inviting two politicians from opposing parties, who had both been his rivals, to share a platform in a common cause, McCain was trying to start the process of recreating a political culture for the better.

What are the cultures that we are party to that we want to change, or we should want to change? There are cultures in families, in friendship groups, in businesses, in charities, in synagogues as well as in parties and parliaments. Each has its own particularities but ultimately, we are always talking about the same thing, a group of people trying to live and work together. It always comes down to human beings trying to get along with each other, and therefore all positive cultures will have much in common.

Two of most powerful lines in the High Holiday liturgy were both recited shortly before we read from the Torah this morning. At the end of Shacharit we all sang together the last line of Avinu Malkeinu

אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ חָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּֽנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּֽנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶֽסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ

Our Father our King, be graceful to us, and answer us for we are without good deeds, act towards us with righteousness and kindness and save us.

The perplexing part of that line is the juxtaposition of righteousness and kindness. If God is perfectly righteousness, as He is, if everything He does is fair, at least in the long run, why do we need to ask for chesed, for kindness? Because a world which was only based on what was strictly fair would be a much less happy place, because it would be a less kind place, and kindness is what makes life worth living. We don’t just want, we don’t just need, God’s righteousness; we also need His chesed, His kindness.

The other line I want to point to, is the Thirteen Attributes of God’s mercy, which forms the core of the penitential prayers of the High Holiday season and which we sang three times before we removed the Torah scrolls from the Ark.

ה' ה', אֵ-ל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה

The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in kindness and truth; keeping mercy to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and pardoning.

The only word that appears twice in this list of God’s attributes is chesed, kindness. If we take our cue from the Torah and from the prayer book, and if we follow the instruction to walk in God’s ways and to walk in His path, then above all God wants us to be kind, and to create a culture of kindness. Sad to say, we do not live in a very kind culture. I will give just one example, the incidence of bullying, the statistics are horrifying. A quarter of Australian students are the victims of bullying, almost nine out of ten times while others look on. Young people are the victims of lies, teasing and physical violence, and of course bullying takes place in workplaces and families as well as schools. We have created a culture in which this is all possible and prevalent, a culture in which there is not enough kindness.

But the Psalms tell us, ‘olam chesed yibaneh’, ‘the world is built on kindness’. Kindness is what endures, kindness is how we are remembered, after our other accomplishments have been forgotten or superseded. I recently visited a very elderly member of the congregation who remembers Rabbi Cohen, who died in 1934. Being interested in history I asked her what she remembered about him, and she said ‘he was very kind to us children, he gave us lollies after services. Rabbi Cohen was a man of many and wide achievements, but among those who remember him a century after his greatest days, that is how his memory endures, as a kind person. And the same will be true of us, if we decide that it will be.

That is even true of God and the Jewish People. In Mussaf we with quote the prophet Jeremiah:

כֹּה אָמַר ה', זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ

So says the Lord, ‘I remember the kindness of your youth’

When we followed God through the wilderness, with pure trust and love. We bring this memory before God each and every Rosh Hashana when we are being judged for the new year, because He still reckons the kindness which we showed towards Him’. That sustains us as a people and as individuals three thousand years later and will continue to do so into the future. God remembers our kindness and is calling us to create a culture of kindness.

Becoming kinder as individuals, as groups and as whole societies is a simple idea, but it is a perpetual challenge. It is easier, more self-protective to be cold, to be cynical or detached. But everything that is good in the world is rooted in kindness, and begins with the kindness we show, to those nearest and dearest to us – which can often be the most challenging – to those we work with, those we meet and interact with.

At this most sacred time of the year, we invoke God’s kindness again and again, to stir kindness within in ourselves, because when God sees our kindness, He is moved to treat us and our loved ones with kindness, and that is what we are all praying for.

There is a story about a new academic at an Oxford College who asked a senior Fellow for his advice. The older colleague responded, ‘don’t try to be clever, we are all clever here; just try to be kind’. Let this be a year when we just try to be kind, of a renewed culture of greater kindness for us, for all we know, for all Israel and the entire world. Amen.



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, 30 May 2024 22 Iyar 5784