(Precis of Rabbi Smukler’s address at the Year 12, 2022 Graduation; inspired by Rabbi Lord J Sacks z ‘l)
As we approach Rosh Hashana, it is a time for us to reflect on our lives as we commence the new Jewish Year. It is time for us to reflect on where we came from and where we are going.
Yes, as a Jewish nation, and sometimes as individuals, we have a history of ups and downs, with glorious times, and times of persecution. By and large, the 19th and 20th centuries were tough times of our Nation. We experienced pogroms and systemic anti-Semitism, all the way up to, and inclusive of, the Holocaust, and the expulsion of Jews from many Arab lands. Due to these experiences, there seems to be the emergence of two major approaches in Judaism, albeit, neither of them new or novel.
The first approach is the assimilationist approach. Jews who engage with the world at the cost of disengaging from Judaism. The assimilationist approach believes that we can solve anti-Semitism by disappearing or by attempting to blend in and be unnoticed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we have seen that the assimilationists were wrong, and they were still recognised and reviled, whether it was in 15th-century Spain, or in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Assimilation doesn’t work. To quote Rabbi Sacks z ’l, “Non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism”.
The second major emerging approach is segregationist Judaism, engaging with Judaism at the cost of disengaging from the world. Segregationist Jews believe that the only way to deal with the world and anti-Semitism is to shun it, turn inward, and become insular. Similar to the Ultra-Orthodox or Chareidi movement. Yes, it’s impressive how the Chareidi movement has rebuilt communities and families after the decimation of the Holocaust, however, when you have little to do with the world, you fail to understand it, you fail to influence it, and essentially, you leave yourself defenceless against it. Segregationist Judaism may work for an individual, but not for the community or for broader society.
I would postulate and argue, and I hope that the majority of our community would agree, as Rabbi Sacks z ‘l said, “The world needs the Jews, and the Jews need the world”.
This gives birth to the third, more balanced, synthesised approach of living our lives as Jews; being ambassadors. Providing a living tutorial of the values that Judaism first brought to the world. The third approach is Judaism that unabashedly engages with the world.
Noah, Lot and Avraham
To illustrate these approaches, we can use the parable of three Biblical characters (actually, all three character’s lives overlapped), Noah, Avraham and Lot (Avraham’s nephew).
Noah the Segregationalist
Noah is described in Hasidic literature as a ‘Tzaddik in Peltz’, ‘a righteous person in a fur coat’. The reference is to a cold room, there are two ways to become warm. One is to don a fur coat, then you are warm and everyone else in the room remains cold. The second is to light a fire, to warm yourself together with everybody in the room. Noah was given more than 100 years notice of the impending flood, the total obliteration of the world and life as it was then known. He was told to build an ark to preserve humanity and animal-kind. Instead of extending himself and going on an outreach and culture behaviour and change program, instead of attempting to influence people to repent and change their ways, Noah adopted a segregationist approach to life. He looked after himself and his family, whilst he prepared for their preservation. This approach definitely did not work. The world was destroyed, de-creation occurred, and Hashem started over again.
Lot the Assimilationist
The second character I’d like to look at is Avraham’s nephew, Lot. Lot separated himself from Avraham’s household and his shepherds where he grew up. He sought wealth, comfort and honour, and he travelled to the city of Sodom, a place devoid of values, where he became embedded in the upper echelons of society. He amassed material wealth, and his very own daughters married local Sodomites. He was promoted to become a judge, to reinforce the perverted values of Sodom. In fact, when push came to shove, and the angels came to warn him of the impending destruction of Sodom, and he invited them in as his house guests, the people of Sodom gathered around his home and they said, “Look, this stranger thinks he’s a judge amongst us!”. Lot’s assimilationist approach did not work. They never accepted him, and ultimately Sodom was destroyed.
Avraham Ha’Ivri – The Other Sider – Unabashed Judaism
Along came Avraham, the very first Jewish person. He discovered faith; monotheistic faith. He stood up to injustice when he saw innocent people taken as hostages in an unfair battle. Avraham entered the fray with his household and his servants, and he freed them. In one of the boldest most chutzpadik prayers of all time, Avraham prayed for the wicked people of Sodom and their neighbouring cities, despite the fact that he knew of their perverse values. Yes, Avraham fought to free the hostages and he audaciously prayed for Sodom, but he did not become like them; he didn’t imitate their values and beliefs. Avraham remained, as the Torah refers to him, as ‘Avraham Ha’ivri’, Avraham, the ‘Other Sider’. Avraham behaved in a countercultural manner. He was iconoclastic, willing to challenge the idolatrous practises, injustice and the violence of society around him. Avraham embodied the third balanced approach of Judaism, being an Ivir – Other Sider, unabashed Judaism.
The Future Fight
Both segregationists and assimilationists are in truth, fighting battles of the past, of our history. Our challenge is to fight the battles of the future. As Rabbi Sacks z ‘l observed, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism”, and he commented, “By being who only we are, we contribute to the world what only we can give.”
I believe this is the only way we can adequately answer the questions: ‘Did we have Jewish grandparents, and will we have Jewish grandchildren?’ Every one of our children is a daughter or a son of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Laya, our forefathers and mothers. Every one of our children has the potential of being Ivrim, ‘Other Siders’. To have the positive chutzpah to defy the unjust and to stand up and influence, thereby making a difference.
Chutzpah + Pride = Ivrim
The secret is to couple that chutzpah with an authentic Jewish pride.
In the past couple of weeks, I heard of two magnificent royal encounters. The first story is told of a Professor, an Orthodox Rabbi, who was given an honour by the Queen, in England. Prior to receiving the honour, he had a dilemma, should he or should he not shake the Queen’s hand? Even though he was Shomer Negiah (i.e. he did not have physical contact with any woman outside of his own marriage), his dilemma plagued him for many days. He did not want to insult the Queen. Perhaps it would be bad for the Jewish people if he didn’t shake her hand. Plus, she was wearing gloves after all, it wasn’t real contact. Finally, the day arrived and the Queen was shaking hands with the long line of people receiving honours. It came to the Rabbi/Professor’s turn and he impulsively stuck out his hand to the Queen. With a cheeky smile, the Queen said, “I thought Rabbi’s don’t shake hands with women,” and she kept her hand by her side.
The second story was told to me by a couple here in Sydney. They were involved in a philanthropic organisation that was chaired by the then Prince Charles, now King Charles. Many years back, they were invited to a dinner with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace, to which they were delighted to travel and attend. The Palace sent them a royal telegram asking if they had any specific dietary requirements. The couple adhered to Kashrut at home, but when they went out, they did eat vegetarian or fish. So they wrote back, “Can we please have vegetarian or fish?” A short while later, a letter arrived back with the Royal seal. The letter said, “Dear Mr and Mrs X, would you like to have kosher cuisine?”
All we need to do, is simply be proud of who we are and of our values.
On Sunday, 27 June 1976, Air France, Flight 139, travelling from Tel Aviv to France with 259 passengers, unbeknownst to them, had a series of Arab and German terrorists onboard the plane. The terrorists hijacked and diverted the plane, eventually landing it in Entebbe, Uganda, an unstable regime. The demands of the terrorists were US$5 million (approx. AUD$40 million today), and the release of 53 terrorists being held in Israeli prisons and in countries around the world. Then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin, and Defence Minister, Shimon Peres, had a horrible dilemma. As Peres describes in his memoir, “If we give in to the hijackers’ demands and release the terrorists, everyone will understand us, but no one will respect us. The opposite, however grim a result, if we conduct a military operation to free the hostages, it is possible no one will understand us, but everyone will respect us.” Despite Peres and Rabin being old military and political adversaries, Rabin had adopted the bold move of appointing Peres to the most influential position of Defence Minister. Peres progressed, behind Rabin’s back, to call a secret meeting with the commanders of Sayerat Matkal-Elite Forces, to plot a daring rescue mission to liberate the hostages. Rabin listened to Peres and decided to take the risk. The elite forces flew six planes, more than 3,500km, under 40 metres from the ground to avoid radar detection. They rescued the hostages. In the process they lost one commando and three hostages.
In hindsight, we can ask, was it the right decision? We may be tempted today to say ‘yes’, simply because it was a success. But what if it actually failed? Like the Iran hostage crisis between Iran and the US? That rescue mission was actually fashioned after the Entebbe rescue mission, and it was a failure.
The Entebbe lesson, in hindsight, is not that daring military operations are the best option, but rather, as Peres describes in his memoir, “Daring thinking about one’s options is always the better course”.
So, the third approach and most effective approach to Judaism, in my opinion, is the Ivrim approach, the ‘Other Siders’ approach, to be Chutzpadik, to think and to act, daringly, courageously and boldly. Coupled with being Jews who respect and are proud of their Judaism; not succumbing to being assimilationists, or segregationists. Rather for each and every one of us to claim our heritage as sons and daughters of Avraham and Ha’Ivri, Avraham, the ‘Other Sider’. To go out and make an impact on the world as only young, proud Jews can.
This is the point of a Moriah education. This is what we need to revisit and think about as we are about to embark on a Jewish new year. To reinforce to our children that we have faith in them, that we’re proud of them and that we as their parents, grandparents, families, their teachers, and their community are bent on producing young people who are going to boldly lead us into the future, with pride.
Wishing each and every single one of you and your families Ketivah V’Chatimah Tovah, Shana Tova U’metukah, may you be inscribed and sealed for a sweet and healthy New Year.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.