Am I a Jew? Australian? Both? - opinion

I was a full-time Jew and a full-time Australian – at one and the same time.

Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/FILE PHOTO)
Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017

There is a gap between the role of the rabbi in Israel and the Diaspora. On the whole, the Israeli rabbi is more of a Talmudist and teacher and less of a mentor and minister. The Diaspora rabbi tends to be a professional, concentrating more on people skills, ministering to a congregation and representing Judaism to the host society.

I was an incarnation of the second concept. Forty-five years in Diaspora pulpits molded me into an ecclesiastic and ambassador. Commencing my career in the United Synagogue in London, I spent 32 years in Sydney as chief minister of the Great Synagogue. Early on, I had a meeting with the synagogue’s Board concerning the role of the rabbi. I said I seemed to have two full-time jobs – congregational minister and community ambassador. I felt I was competent to do either and asked the board what they preferred. Rather pragmatically, they said: “Both!”

So “both” it remained. I know I wasn’t the perfect rabbi: nobody was or could be. But somehow the combination of roles evolved over the years by previous rabbis (not always in consultation with the lay leaders) seemed to work, and that’s the way things were and remain. Occasionally I asked myself a philosophical question: when I got involved in matters of national debate was it as a Jew or an Australian? Once again the pragmatic answer was “both!”

The question actually arose constantly. Interviewed on TV in the 1990s (billed as “one of twenty leading Australians”) about the future of the British monarchy in Australia, did I speak as a Jew or an Australian? When I spoke at the national Sea of Hands event at Bondi Beach to advocate reconciliation with (and an apology to) the Aboriginals, was I there as a Jew or an Australian? When I helped the Uniting Church to get its first female military chaplain, was my involvement as a Jew or an Australian? At times I stood up for the Muslim, Chinese and Roman Catholic communities; I addressed conferences of politicians, judges, journalists, nurses, naval chaplains, teachers and child care workers. What was I – a Jew? an Australian? I addressed large audiences on national occasions like Anzac Day and Australia Day – as a Jew? as an Australian? I can’t be sure, but I think the answer was “both!”

I felt deeply about the quality of Australian society (and still do), about the cleanliness of Australian streets, the decency of Australian democracy, the right of every Australian to a place in the sun, and a range of other issues of our time. I wanted Australia to be a good place for every Australian. I heard from various sources that I was regarded as a sound thinker and a good speaker. A Freemason even said I was the wisest man he had ever met – the greatest compliment I ever received.

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

A newspaper columnist pondered the possibility of my being governor-general of Australia. He thought it would be complicated though, and he probably had no idea of technical aspects like kashrut, mezuzot and Shabbat.

Every now and then there were nasty people who called me names, like the yobbos who trailed my wife Marian and me one evening along Park Street in Sydney with a sneering “Jew!” How clever of the yobbos to identify me. I couldn’t escape my Jewishness and didn’t want to. It was because I was a Jew and a rabbi that I came to public notice. I am sure that it was because my thinking was molded and informed by my Jewishness that I had things to say on Australian issues.

The national chief justice phoned and asked for a biblical verse for the new High Court building. Cabinet ministers (some Jewish, some not) wanted quotations from Jewish ethical writings for their speeches. The Defense Department made special kashrut arrangements for me, and so did Government House. I gave addresses at church synods and on public platforms, and wrote media “op-eds.” I was a full-time Jew and a full-time Australian – at one and the same time. Both? Yes, but it seemed to work.

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

When we say that this is the only Jewish State in the world, the claim is true, but does this show Israel as anything other than a place inhabited by Jews? We know about eternal issues but what about the internal dimension of Israeli life? Where is the Jewish thinking that could influence our political, economic, cultural, intellectual and scientific ethos, even in our sporting life? We talk about the size of the prime minister’s kippah but do we ask how far the Torah tradition could affect the look of Israel? I know many Israelis are scared that the state will become too “frum,” but the Israeli Declaration of Independence expects the state to follow the principles of the prophets and the sagacity of the sages – or is this just motherhood?

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