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Major sermons by Rabbi Elton

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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

Mon, 22 October 2018 13 Cheshvan 5779