Chesed–Embodying Grace

Rosh Hashanah 5779

Even long-time Beit Shalom members may not be aware that this congregation has embraced five Jewish values as its core mission. They are chesed, Torah, tikkun olam, hachnasat orchim, and tzedakah. I have decided that this year I’m going to dedicate my High Holy Day sermons to these topics and what each of us might gain in the year ahead by working to embrace all of these values. Tonight’s topic is chesed. I’m specifically not providing a translation at this point in the sermon in the hopes of keeping you on the edges of your seats wondering when I’ll reveal the answer. Stay tuned!

It was a hot, steamy day in Washington, DC as my son Onyx, my father and I boarded the subway at the Bethesda station bound for a day of museum visits. We had just found seats when Onyx said to me, “Someone’s fainted.” I looked to the middle of the car, and saw a man lying on the floor. Now, you may know me as your humble neighbourhood rabbi, but I also have a secret identity as a first aide provider. Armed with the knowledge provided by occasional one-day first aide training courses, I strode confidently down the car and went to work. The man was thankfully breathing and was actually awake and talking a bit. I knelt down next to him, introduced myself, took his hand, and set about doing what we first aiders do best: reassuring the patient and waiting for the professionals to show up. A fellow passenger knelt on the other side of the patient and kept him company as well. Two other passengers were on the subway intercom, talking to the driver and letting her know what was going on. Another passenger passed over her bottle of water so that the man could have a drink, and yet another passenger watched over the man’s briefcase.

Help came just a few minutes later at the next subway stop. The driver announced that the train would stay at the station while this medical situation was tended to. My fellow first aider and I helped our patient very slowly to his feet and walked him out of the car and to the bench on the platform. We were met there by a Metro employee, who said she would watch over him until the paramedics arrived. The man was reunited with his briefcase. We helpers got back on the train and watched the man recede as the train started moving towards the next station.

It was only much later as I reflected on the episode that I understood that I had witnessed and also participated in an act of chesed. Chesed is a word which is too often translated as lovingkindess. The translation is problematic because there isn’t actually such a word. As I write this, “lovingkindness” is underlined in red because the word simply doesn’t exist. If you use google translate, it will tell you the plain meaning of chesed is “grace.” We Jews are inclined to think of grace as a Christian concept, but that’s incorrect. We have grace too. The Hebrew word is chesed.

Chesed is kindness freely given, with no expectation of ever being repaid or rewarded. There is a reason that many chevrot kaddishah—burial societies—have the word chesed in their names. Preparing the body of someone who has died for burial is the ultimate example of a kindness for which the recipient cannot possibly repay the favour. Very few people feel called to perform this particular mitzvah, but each of us have opportunities to perform acts of chesed nearly every day.

You’ll remember about twenty years ago there was a popular call to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The concept has not gone out of fashion even though the phrase has. Within a Jewish framework, random acts of kindness are known as g’milut chasadim. Another tricky phrase to translate, because the word g’milut doesn’t exactly mean “acts.” It’s a verb whose meaning is closer to “to deal with.” The expression implies that we have made the choice to deal with someone kindly rather than cruelly. It continues the message that human beings—like God—have the ability to gift acts of kindness to people completely at random and with no expectation that they’ll get anything in return. Simply the knowledge that they have done the right thing at the time.

There are two different categories of mitzvot—those that are between human beings and God, and those that are between one person and another. The first category covers religious mitzvot such as observing Shabbat, hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and wearing a tallit. The second category covers ethical mitzvot such as paying our workers on time, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick.

While performing g’milut chasadim is an ethical mitzvah, chesed itself is not a mitzvah at all. Chesed is not an action, but rather an attitude. Danny Segal, founder of the Ziv Foundation, points out that giving tzedakah is a mitzvah. It’s a religious obligation, meaning that we are required to do it whether we are in the mood or not. But surely giving from a place of chesed is the preferred way to give. Maimonides suggested that someone who donates in a grudging way is not as worthy of praise as one who donates cheerfully. So too for all the other mitzvot we do. The rabbinic classic Pirkei Avot includes a quote from Antigonos, man of Sokho: “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” There is a Jewish ideal that we should strive to give of ourselves to others not because we will be rewarded for doing so or even because it will make us feel good about ourselves, but simply because that is the right thing to do. We hope to act from the most selfless motivation possible.

I note here that true selflessness is increasingly rare in this age of social media. Facebook is crowded with videos of people engaged in acts of chesed while someone else films them for posterity. In this era when our phones allow us to record our significant moments, it can be too tempting to make sure that all of our friends and acquaintances are aware of just how full of chesed we are. It can be tempting too to turn these moments into Rosh Hashanah sermons…No one is going to sneak into our brains and explore whether our motivations for our actions are truly selfless. But Jewish wisdom suggests that the purest form of chesed is when it’s bestowed with no hesitation and with no thought of whether we’ll get more likes as a result.

That is what happened on my eventful subway ride back in July. I was part of a sudden outpouring of chesed. Half a dozen or more passengers instinctively sprang into action and did the right thing, with no expectation of reward or thanks. And, as I said, there are opportunities for acts of chesed nearly every day. We may see that someone we care about—or even someone we barely know—is going through a difficult time and jump in with a listening ear or a helping hand. We may come upon someone who is clearly hungry and make sure they get a meal. Sometimes it’s just a small action, like introducing ourselves to an unfamiliar face at Rosh Hashanah services and inviting that person to sit with us.

Of course, Jewishly we strive to act with chesed because God acts with chesed. The word is everywhere in our High Holy Days prayers. We have just sung out our request that God act towards us with tzedakah and chesed and we will do so again at every service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Earlier tonight, we named God as gomel chasadim tovim–the One who bestows great kindness. In the morning prayer Sim Shalom, we pray that God will grant us chen, v’chesed v’rachamim: kindness, grace and compassion. As we celebrate the extraordinary gift of life at this time of year and count our abundant blessings, I hope we will feel called to give back to the world around us.

This time of year brings with it a spiritual vocabulary which is strange and often confronting. Many of us are disturbed by the suggestion that God personally decides each of our fates at this time of year. The workings of the universe are inscrutable and mysterious. But these Yamim Nora’im–these awesome days–affirm how much power is in our own hands. Gertrude Hildreth Housman wrote the essence of this in her poem “The Gift of Choice:”

I came into the world without being asked,

And when the time for dying comes

I shall not be consulted;

But between the boundaries of birth and death

Lies the dominion of Choice:

To be a doer or a dreamer,

To be a lifter or a leaner,

To speak out or remain silent,

To extend a hand in friendship

Or to look the other way;

To feel the sufferings of others

Or to be callous and insensitive.

These are the choices;

It is in the choosing

That my measure as a person is determined.

Shana tova–may we all be blessed with a year of sweetness and joy, of health and peace, and may each of us bring these gifts to one another and to the others we have the opportunity to touch. Amen.

The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

(pictured above: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the Tri-Faith Initiative.)

I haven’t uploaded a sermon in ages, so I’m going to make up for lost time by adding in several all at once. I hope you enjoy them. This sermon was written before it became apparent that we are most likely going to see more of the revolving door for prime ministers that has characterised these last ten years or so:


It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was a time when a newly-minted senator believed it was acceptable to stand on the floor of the senate and talk about how much better Australia was when everyone was white and Christian. And it was a time when nearly every other senator and member of parliament expressed their dismay and adamant disagreement. It was a time when that same senator could call for a “final solution” on Muslim immigration and a time when two members of parliament—one a Muslim man from the Labor party and the other a Jewish man and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from the Liberal party—could embrace as friends in the parliamentary chamber.

Not surprisingly, I’d much rather focus on why it was the best of times rather than the worst of times. On Wednesday night, I got to hear journalist and football tragic George Megalogenis speak at the Hawke Centre on his new book The Football Solution: How Richmond’s Premiership Can Save Australia. It was a very brave thing to come to the home town of the premier-losing Crows and talk about Richmond, but happily no one threw anything at him during his talk. The book itself is about how the Richmond football club finally realised after thirty years that its long-time practice of sacking coaches and captains as soon as there was a losing season was not doing the team any good. It took the club’s first woman president Peggy O’Neal to transform the culture of the club and especially of the board, and that was the beginning of a new approach and so an entirely different and better football team.

Megalogenis’ message is directed especially at our Federal government, and how it continues doing things exactly the same way with ever less impressive results. He argues for a change in how the government runs and especially in how it leads. I confess that I didn’t buy the book, but I was charmed by how he wove football and government together. Did you know that the Richmond football club has more members than the national Liberal and Labor parties combined? That football clubs around Australia are among the most trusted institutions in this land? News to me!

It was impossible for Megalogenis not to talk about Fraser Anning’s incendiary and offensive maiden speech, which he had delivered just hours before the lecture. He noted the splintering of Australian society, in which an estimated 40% of the population is now disinclined to vote for either of the major parties. Only about a quarter of that 40% embrace the agenda advocated for by Fraser Anning, Bob Katter and the One Nation party. But they are the loudest 10% and so the people who are most likely to be noticed. I’m also guessing that a lot of them are concentrated in the rural regions of Queensland, represented by people like Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton. Megalogenis was puzzled as to why the current government seems so concerned about appealing to this 10% that it is prepared to antagonise the remaining 90% of Australians. But the reassuring message is that only 10% of the Australian population hold these extreme views.

I was deeply moved by the outpouring of support for Australia’s vibrant multicultural identity. As Katherine Murphy wrote in The Guardian:A line has been crossed in Australian politics. At least we know a line still exists.” I thought Penny Wong’s speech to the Senate was magnificent, and it was so important that her resolution received backing from such a diverse range of parties. I was even a little amused that Pauline Hanson was offended by Darren Hinch’s comment that Anning’s speech was like Pauline Hanson on steroids. If something is too offensive even for Pauline Hanson, that’s really saying something.

I wish I could say that I am sharing the universal Jewish view when I talk about how upsetting Fraser Anning’s speech was. But there is no one Jewish view. We live in an era when the prime minister of Israel extends an official welcome to the authoritarian, anti-migration Hungarian prime minister. When extremist rabbis in Israel and elsewhere regularly teach that Jews are biologically different to other human beings. Our own texts speak repeatedly of how Jews are different and holier than non-Jews. We Jews are just as susceptible to messages of hate and intolerance as other people. Such an easy way to unify us—by turning us against others who seem different.

One of the pieces of really good news from this last week was about the annual Tri-Faith Picnic in my sister’s home town of Omaha, Nebraska. The initiative was in large part a vision of Temple Israel’s now retired rabbi Aryeh Azriel. Along with Reverend Eric Elnes and Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi, Rabbi Azriel spent years pursuing his dream of a campus where Jews, Muslims and Christians could pray, learn and socialise. Today, a synagogue and a mosque share space on a re-purposed golf course. A church is under construction and will open later this year, and there are plans for a community centre to bring all three faith groups together. Each year, the Tri-Faith Initiative puts on a community barbecue. Attendees all bring a side dish, and everyone eats, chats and plays together. It is a simple but amazing thing. I note that the Tri-Faith memorandum of understanding was signed in 2006, but that the first completed building—Temple Israel—was not dedicated until seven years later. I would not have wanted to be in on the years and years of discussions that led the Tri-Faith Initiative to take shape, but I am in awe of the final result.

What is at the heart of this success is the appreciation that there is far more that unites us than divides us. It is also important to celebrate our differences rather than to believe that we can never find common ground. These are hard messages to hold onto in this era when our own elected officials are sometimes the source of divisiveness. So all the more gratifying when government and opposition, Greens and cross benchers, rise as one to affirm our vision of an Australia immeasurably enriched by our diversity. Shabbat shalom.

Our Recycling Challenge

As seems to happen at least twice each year, I spent a significant amount of time this week cleaning out the Cheder classroom. So much accumulated rubbish! I tossed out two large boxes of brochures about services for the elderly that were leftover from a Bagel lunch last year. I also tossed out dried-out paintbrushes, old construction paper, broken pencils–you name it. Some of the discarded stuff went into the red bin, but a great deal of the rubbish–especially all the papers–went into the yellow recycling bin.

A story on ABC’s website from March 3 of this year reported that in 2014-2015, Australians recycled 60% of our waste. That’s an amazing and inspiring statistic, but all that it means is that 60% of our rubbish went into the recycling bin rather than the red bin. Where that recycled rubbish ends up is only now coming into sharper focus. As we have learned, what happened up until the beginning of the year was that most of that potentially recyclable material–a whopping 600,000 tonnes–was being loaded onto cargo ships and sent to China. Now China has announced that it will no longer accept Australian recycling; around the country, warehouses are filling up with our discarded bottles, cans, paper and especially plastics. It turns out that Australians are very faithful about placing our recyclables in the right bin, but not prepared to think more deeply about our responsibility for dealing with those items after they’ve been thrown away. Now is that time of reckoning we’ve managed to avoid for so long.

The revelation that simply throwing recyclables into the correct rubbish bin does not magically cause it to be recycled has been quite an unpleasant revelation within my own family. I remember an episode within the last year in which I threw a plastic milk bottle into the regular rubbish. I think this might have been because the recycling bin was full and no one had bothered to take it out to the much larger bin outside, but that is another story. At any rate, both of my sons treated this incident with such severity that you would have thought I’d committed the original sin. Recyclables need to be placed in the recycling bin, they lectured, because then they are recycled.

It occurred to me at the time how neatly the action of placing items in the yellow bin absolved us for throwing it away. My sons earnestly believed that using recyclable items–especially plastics–meant that no waste was involved at all. Somehow they had conjured up a recycling system which operated with 100% efficiency. This meant that even though our yellow bin was full pretty much each time the recycling was collected, none of us bore any blame for increasing the amount of rubbish thrown away and the amount of raw products used.

And now we know that isn’t true at all. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because now we need to see ourselves as accountable for all the rubbish we use, whether it’s theoretically recyclable or not. That same ABC article cited an estimate from a European Union report that production of virgin plastic will account for 20 per cent of global oil consumption and 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. I invite you to collect all of the plastic that you discard in a single week and contemplate just how much plastic each of us are putting into the environment every year. In recent weeks I’ve been monitoring my own plastic use, and it’s appalling, even as I carry around my own water bottle and use reusable plastic containers to store food. I buy milk in plastic bottles, cheese in plastic sleeves, produce in plastic bags–and on and on and on.

It is an unpleasant truth that Judaism in the past did not have a particularly good track record when it comes to environmental advocacy. It is comforting to appreciate that this is true of just about all the world’s major religions, which mostly came about in eras when human beings usually had negligible impacts on the world around them even when they tried really hard. The good news is that, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan memorably noted about Judaism, “The past has a vote—not a veto.” It is possible to chart a new course, and Judaism has done just that in recent decades. Standing up for the environment takes us all the back to the second chapter of Genesis, in which God admonishes the first human to tend the garden in which he’s been placed. At the moment, we are doing the exact opposite of tending our garden. Another imperative to environmental activism comes through Judaism’s highest mitzvah: the saving of life. We see now that our lives are inextricably tied up with the health of the sea, the air and the land. So our highest calling is to save the earth, and our own lives with it. As I’ve said often, doing so will be difficult and will require much of us, but it is so important to do so. As the rabbis said, “It is not for us to complete the work, but we are not free to leave it to others.” Shabbat shalom!

Australia’s first Jewish same-sex wedding in a synagogue!

Okay–so this clearly isn’t a sermon, but it’s such a gorgeous moment recorded for history. (And the photo is from a renewal of vows, but still fits the theme.) L’chaim!

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex wedding

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex weddingWATCH: Ilan Buchman and Oscar Shub made history when they stood under the Chupah at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue on Wednesday. Dayenu Sydney Australian Marriage Equality Aleph Melbourne#MarriageEquality #YESvote LGBTQ@Facebook

Posted by Plus61J on Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Anzac Day 2018

This last Wednesday, I spent much of my day doing Anzac Day activities. No sleeping in for me! I didn’t get to a dawn service, but did go to the Torrens Parade Grounds at 9:30 for the march. This was only my second time at the march and my first time standing next to the dignitaries’ platform. That meant that I got to spend much of the two hours watching them. If you haven’t been situated here, I’ll tell you a bit about it: high-ranking representatives of the Army, Air Force and Navy were standing at attention on the platform as the veterans and their family members walked by. The governor Hieu Van Le and Adelaide lord mayor Martin Haesse stood as well. Marchers are required to face the platform, and I really enjoyed hearing even some elderly veterans bellowing at the top of their lungs, “15th Air Squadron…Eyes…Right!” There are so few World War II veterans left, and even fewer still able to walk the parade route by themselves. But for sure, those who can, do. I imagine these gentlemen, all well into their 90s, waiting each year for the opportunity put on their best suits, pin on their medals, and walk as erectly as possible down North Terrace and King William Street. I was very moved watching them march, but was also moved watching the governor watching them. I saw him wipe away tears numerous times during the morning as these elderly men passed by, but also as several dozen South Vietnamese veterans marched proudly in formation, smiling broadly at our governor. What a privilege to have this experience!

In the afternoon, I headed over to the Dunstan Playhouse for quite a different Anzac Day activity. Country Arts SA was staging a read-through of a new play Mewei 3027 by Glenn Shea. The theatre was pretty well packed out despite very little publicity other than an article in InDaily, which is how I found out about it. The play tells the story of a true but unlikely friendship between Roland Carter, a World War I digger from Ngarrindjeri country, and Leonhard Adam, a young German Jewish ethnologist. Carter was wounded in the shoulder and taken prisoner by the Germans early in 1918. Adam, who had been permitted to meet with soldiers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, began to interview Carter and learned a great deal about his language, his people, and his country on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. Over the months they spent together, they became friends. The play’s name comes from the Ngarrindjeri word for “soul” along with Carter’s prisoner number 3027.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Leonhard Adam was stripped of his registrations and eventually fled to the UK in 1938. Labeled an enemy alien, he was shipped to Australia on the notorious Dunera in 1940. He lived out the remainder of his life in Australia, where he taught anthropology at the University of Melbourne. For his part, Roland Carter returned after the war to his home community of Raukkan, where he opened a movie house and dance hall. His daughter and other family members continue to live there, and the first read-through of the play took place in Raukkan a few days before the reading in Adelaide. Sadly, the two men never met again, although a beautiful letter of friendship from Carter to Adam was preserved and read out at the end of the play.

The day was a sobering reminder of the costs of war. I wondered at the stories locked inside the many thousands of veterans I saw march on Wednesday. How many watched friends die? How many displayed heroism in the face of absolute terror? How many shared their stories with their loved ones? How many have never spoken of what they witnessed? And also, How many formed unlikely friendships with people that they would never have met under other circumstances? But at what cost?

Early Friday afternoon, I spent an hour with 94-year-old Kitty Anderson. She showed me a photo of her first boyfriend John Asher. There they were as seven-year-olds on Kangaroo Island, arm-in-arm. Asher enlisted in the Australian navy and was one of only 21 soldiers killed during the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney Harbor in 1942. That photo of the two of them as children is the only picture Kitty has of him. Seventy-six years later, the loss still stings.

This week as we remember the many wars and conflicts that Australia has been a part of in the last one hundred years, we continue to pray for a time of peace—of shalom. I have often noted that the Hashkivenu prayer which calls on God to protect us with a sukkah of peace is impractical—a sukkah is the last place you’d want to be during an air raid. Shalom is more than simply the absence of war. We imagine a peace so great, so all-encompassing, that war is no longer conceivable. We are far from the vision. Let us continue to work for it. Shabbat shalom!

International Women’s Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a day which is gaining increasing recognition around the world. Strangely enough, I first learned about International Women’s Day while studying for a year in Beijing. In 1984, this day wasn’t observed at all in the United States but was absolutely huge in China where, of course, there was a high level of systemic and cultural discrimination against women. This year’s Women’s Day packed quite a punch in the light of the #metoo campaign being waged around the world.

I was reminded of a program I participated in last winter which was sponsored by the Women’s Auxiliary of Ahmadiyya Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims come almost entirely from Pakistan and India and believe that the messiah has already come. In short, kind of Messianic Jews, only Muslims. Their motto is “Love for all, hatred for none” and as a result, they run a multifaith program each year. Last year’s topic was the role of women in religion, and speakers from seven faith traditions shared our views. I was last.

I listened in to all the other speakers with more than a little cynicism. Each speaker talked about how progressive her faith group was when it came to the role of women. I was not convinced that Islam, or Sikhism, or even Buddhism had historically achieved equality of the sexes. It was then that I had a sudden revelation: I realised that the only reason why I was able to stand before this group as a woman rabbi was that Judaism had been through a reformation. It was a little more than 200 years ago that a group of male rabbis in Germany decided that the time had come to transform Judaism from a religion that had changed little in the last thousand years to one that mirrored the society in which it was practised. The early reformers introduced German—the spoken language of the land—into the service. They allowed men and women to sit together. They borrowed the concept of a sermon from their Christian neighbours, allowing the rabbis to speak on topics of current importance as well as on more traditional texts. They paved the way for later dramatic changes in Jewish life, including most significantly a far more public presence for Jewish women as rabbis, cantors, but also as active and involved members of congregations. Today at Beit Shalom, baby girls are welcomed into the community exactly the same as boys are. Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are identical. We are truly an egalitarian community.

That wasn’t the case for the whole of the Jewish world. Jews living in eastern Europe, north Africa and eastern Asia never saw a reform unfold. For them, Jewish practice continued as it always had been. Nor did the lives of Orthodox women and girls change significantly in western countries until just a few decades ago. I still regularly encounter women who grew up in Orthodox homes and never had the opportunity to attend Cheder. Their parents reckoned that since their only religious obligation would be to keep a kosher home, there was no need for them to learn to read Hebrew or study Torah. Their brothers went, and they stayed home. For many decades, only a small minority of Jews anywhere in the world enjoyed the benefits of Judaism’s reform. Now that’s all changed. Girls across much of the modern Jewish world are well educated, and there is a whole generation of modern Orthodox Jewish women who are out there making sure that girls learn as much as the boys.

But none of this would have happened without the Reform movement. Those rabbis of the early 19th century made it possible for the generations that followed to put every belief and practice of Judaism under the microscope. Sometimes the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as happened in 1885 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when the fifteen men who comprised the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared the following: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation. And elsewhere: We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But that baby can always be rescued, and in 1999, the CCAR met once again in Pittsburgh—this time several thousand strong. Its members adamantly affirmed their support for the state of Israel and endorsed the idea that kashrut could be a way to elevate the act of eating.

Only two religious traditions have ever experience a reformation: Judaism and Christianity. Without reform, without renewal, change is slow or nearly impossible. We see that with the resistance from the Catholic church to very sensible changes that will keep children safe. We see it in the Muslim world when women’s rights are affirmed in theory but not always upheld in practice. And, sadly, we see it in the strange world of haredi Judaism, in which women are increasingly literally erased from view. Indeed, our present day sees the very real danger of decades of reforms for women rolled back—not only within our houses of worship, but in our working and family lives. Women in developed countries continue to struggle to achieve equality with men, while women in developing countries deal daily with huge economic and cultural disadvantages. Perhaps once a year for International Women’s Day is not often enough. We should be working each day for that time when all human beings can achieve their full potential regardless of their sex.

This week’s Torah portion is especially apt to the occasion. As work begins on the Tabernacle—the Israelites’ Temple in the desert—women join in the effort to create sacred objects of lasting beauty. It is the only instance in the Torah in which women are invited to work alongside men—to contribute their own unique gifts to the effort. I find it deeply meaningful that all Israelites who had talents to share were invited to be a part of this moment in the lives of the people. So may all women always have a place at the table, and may our voices ring out loud. Shabbat shalom!


The Daily PersianAdar 5778

Titillating news from the palace! The official spokesman for King Ahasuerus has reluctantly confirmed that the rumours are true: Queen Vashti has banished her king from the harem after learning of his ill-conceived affair with long-time harem manager Asha Farouz. The official also confirmed that Ms. Farouz is pregnant with the king’s child. Speculation has raged that King Ahasuerus facilitated Ms. Farouz’s recent transfer to the harem of the chief finance minister Haman. Were there such a thing as a corruption inquiry here in Shushan, one would surely be launched. Sources close to Ms. Farouz have revealed that the king has cut off the affair with her after learning of the pregnancy and so has ended any possibility for her little bundle of joy to make a claim on the throne. Shushan is abuzz with the anticipation that the king will soon be back on the market again.

These last months have not been easy ones for the king. His poll numbers have plummeted after the news broke of what is now commonly known as Shushangate. Shushan residents were appalled to learn that he had thrown a six month-long party that was so extravagant that it consumed the entire education, health, and infrastructure budget for the year. What really rankled the good citizens of Shushan was that they were not invited. Concerns were in no way eased when a shadowy benefactor named Haman the Agagite suddenly appeared to offer a loan on very reasonable terms. He insisted that the king present him with the plum appointment of the finance ministry as a token of the kings’ appreciation for Haman’s generosity. Many Shushan residents regard him with suspicion and worry that he’s up to no good. All of these various news items have been greeted with a sense of resignation by the good people of Shushan, who realise that they have little alternative other than to tolerate the king’s eccentricities.

There is no need to speculate about what has happened to Queen Vashti. Although she is clearly the victim in this unhappy affair, the king’s law is the law. She was told to clear out her desk and tossed out without getting to take any of her gowns. She has also signed a non-disclosure settlement with the king, and so this reporter sadly is unable to report on further details. Plans are just now taking shape for the king to search up a replacement. More news as this story develops!


For better and probably for worse, I am a Facebook user. I have a ridiculously large number of friends, including a few that I’ve never met and, embarrassingly, people I knew 30 years ago whom I don’t remember but who remember me. I have friends in Indonesia and Israel, but for the most part, about half of my friends live in Australia and the rest in the United States. On Thursday, there was a clear split between the two groups: Australian friends had painted their Facebook feeds rainbow colours and were crowing about the extraordinary vote in Parliament. The image of those four, barely visible MPs hunkered down on the “no” side of the House is now etched pretty indelibly on my brain. But the American, Israeli and even Indonesian side of my feed was all about Jerusalem.

Moshe Manakha, a proud Jewish leader living a humble life as an English teacher in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, posted, “To Trump who bravely recoqnises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to his act of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: From the bottom of my heart I salute you.” My high school classmate Nigel Spier (yes, I do remember him!), living a modern Orthodox life in Florida, wrote, “I don’t need or want the least credible, most socially reprehensible, morally corrupt president ever to pronounce that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to exploit my people for the sake of the evangelical vote and to distract from his money laundering scandals. As the saying goes…”with friends like that…” For a bit more guidance, I looked to my rabbinical school classmate Sue Fendrick, who sometimes seems to spend all of her time posting and reposting on Facebook. She included this quote from Fordham School of Law professor Jed Shugarman: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel today is not accidental timing. It is a political act to stabilize the Christian evangelical base in the middle of disastrous Russia conspiracy news (especially Flynn and Deutsche Bank), and also to bolster Roy Moore. It is a pure wag-the-dog, but worse: create a foreign policy crisis to distract, but also to mobilize religious zealotry.”

Outside of Facebook, the commentaries raged as well. On ABC’s Breakfast program, Palestinian representative Mustafa Barghouti declared that Trump should not have recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because it was the capital of Palestine. His wording was extremely unhelpful, but explained in a few words why Trump’s move was so incendiary. Long-time Middle East observer Thomas Friedman wrote a column for The New York Times entitled “Trump, Israel, and the Art of the Giveaway”–riffing on Donald Trump’s huge bestseller The Art of the Deal. Friedman wrote that never had a world leader given away so much in return for so little. He wrote, “Every Israeli government since its founding has craved United States recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every United States government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now. Today, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?” Friedman went on to discuss how Trump should have first demanded of the Israelis that they stop building settlements outside of the two areas in the West Bank already generally understood to be land that will be ceded to Israel in a final peace deal. After all, the more Jewish settlements are built in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, the further away we drift from a two-state solution. Mustafa Barghouti noted that the United States can no longer claim to be an impartial mediator working towards a two-state solution. President Trump’s unilateral and unprovoked endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital takes America out of the bargaining process, and that is really a shame. Who else can step in who will take act with impartiality towards Israel but also give the Palestinians a fair deal?

Of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as anyone who has visited the country knows. It has been the capital of Israel since 1948. The Knesset was built in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. Foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, but most countries have a residence for their ambassadors in Jerusalem to save them the constant commute. And of course for the last 69 years, and especially since 1967, subsequent Israeli governments have lobbied the international community to recognise the reality. So you would expect me to rejoice at this endorsement.

But I do not. I worry, along with my friends living in Israel, that the American announcement may lead to renewed violence and terrorist attacks in Israel and beyond. Our gates are closed today for just this reason. But yielding to threats of terrorism is not a good enough reason. My greatest concern is that President Trump’s announcement plays directly into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who is himself currently the target of a number of very serious corruption charges. I know that Mr. Netanyahu has a lot of fans, but I am not one of them. I fear that his government, which is now in its ninth year, is coming perilously close through a variety of policies towards passing the point of no return both for the peace process and for the future of Israel as a democracy. Netanyahu does need the United States to obey its every whim and command. It needs the United States to look at the challenges facing Israel as well as the Palestinians and provide much-needed balance. That no longer appears possible.

If you’ve been coming to Beit Shalom for a while, you’ll know that I almost never speak about Israel. The topic divides Jews in a way that no other issue does, and for me Shabbat is not about division. Today I am seeking to state my opinion so that no one will make assumptions about my views because I am a rabbi and care about Israel. In Judaism we have a concept called Shalom Bayit–peace in the home. The idea is that family harmony is so important that nearly any concession is acceptable in the cause of peace. I would argue that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is even more precious because it touches so many lives. I see the events of this last week as an obstacle to that peace, and I am deeply concerned. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat, and the same for those we love in Israel.

Panorama of Jerusalem, Israel. View from the Mount of Olives.

The Same Sex Marriage Survey

by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky


It’s been a little over a week since we heard the announcement of the result of the Same Sex Marriage Survey. As several observers have noted, the results demonstrated exactly the same level of support for same sex marriage as polls have been showing over the last couple of years. We now look to the Parliament to finally legislate the same access to marriage to same-sex couples as is offered to heterosexual couples. Hopefully moderate voices will prevail and the conservatives who are threatening to employ every dirty trick to delay the inevitable will be shouted down. The Moetzah–the Council of Progressive Rabbis, which was meeting when the postal survey results were announced, issued a statement noting that they rejoiced at the result and looked forward to the legislation that would soon follow. I missed that meeting, but feel exactly the same way.

I went along last Wednesday to the gathering organised by the Yes campaign in Hindmarsh Square and awaited the results along with hundreds of others. It was a wet, windy and cold morning, and we all huddled under umbrellas as we watched Australia’s chief statistician slowly working his way through his statement. When he finally came to the main point: that nearly 62% of those who had cast votes had supported same sex marriage, there was a loud cheer from the crowd. But looking around in the minutes that followed, I was struck by how few people continued to smile. Most faces were sombre. A woman near me quietly wept. A friend of mine posted on Facebook how devastating it was to her to see that 38% of Australians had voted against equal rights for same sex couples. Other friends of mine shared how painful these recent months have been as they have felt all of Australia judging their long-term relationship to determine if it was worthy of recognition. It is the opposite of helpful that their own Christian denomination, which is liberal in many other realms, has no pathway for a religious affirmation of their love for each other.

I am so thankful that, for the most part, this has not been the case in the Australian Jewish community. Of course, both the Union for Progressive Judaism and the Moetzah were proactive in reminding our members that we have been on record for some time supporting marriage equality. The Moetzah has permitted its members to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies for nearly ten years, and some of us are champing at the bit for the opportunity to perform same-sex marriages that are legally recognised.

But the general endorsement for same-sex marriage has come from far beyond the ranks of Progressive Jews. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Victoria—the RCV–issued a statement in early September calling on its adherents to vote no in the postal survey. Within 24 hours, a backlash began. Seven rabbis, including the president of the RCV, distanced themselves from the statement and made it clear that the statement had been adopted without everyone’s endorsement. Then the Executive Council of Australian Jewry—the peak body of Australian Jewish organisations—declared that the Rabbinical Council had acted in an alarmist fashion. ECAJ president Anton Block said, “The RCV statement was issued without proper thought or understanding of the way Australia’s Constitution and legal system work”, Mr Block said. “Religious marriages are outside the scope of the Marriage Act, which relates only to civil marriages. It is alarmist to suggest otherwise, and wrong for the RCV to use its authority in religious matters in this way. All people are entitled to have their dignity respected, regardless of their ethnicity, religious affiliations and beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or any disability.”

Ultimately, The Australian Jewish News ran a front-page story about the whole affair, with the headline “Same-sex Marriage statement rocks rabbinate” after Rabbi Ralph Genende, one of the best-known of Melbourne’s Orthodox rabbis, resigned from the Rabbinical Council to protest the statement. RCV president Daniel Rubin was quoted as saying, The statement has caused immense anger and pain and has alienated many who already feel isolated within the community. I deeply regret the hurt that has been caused and as president of the organisation I sincerely apologise for this.”

It is very gratifying to see what a transformation has taken place around this issue within the larger Jewish community. Who could ever imagined that many within Australia’s Orthodox Jewish world would condemn a statement seen as divisive and hurtful?! I wanted to share a bit of the text of the original statement with you, but when I visited the RCV’s Facebook page, I discovered the statement itself was nowhere to be seen.

Of course, there is so much work still to be done. I acknowledge that these recent months have seen quite a lot of hurt inflicted on members of the LGBTQ community, and I am sorry. I acknowledge that the postal survey is only one step on a journey that has already been going on for twenty years. I’d like to share what my friend Kathy Kaplan posted on her own Facebook page. It speaks powerfully to me, and hopefully will to you too:

To my LGBTQI friends … I’m sorry.
I’m sorry the validity of your relationships was publicly debated.
I’m sorry you were the target of hateful advertising.
I’m sorry your families were attacked.
I’m sorry your abilities as parents was questioned.
I’m sorry you had to go through the experience of ticking a box in an attempt to try and secure your equal rights.
I’m sorry so many politicians didn’t do their jobs to ensure the rights of all Australians are upheld.
I’m sorry some Australians voted for those politicians.
I’m sorry… you deserved better.
You deserve better.


Shabbat shalom!

Searching for an Ethical Phone


by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

In my handbag is my trusty Sony Experia phone. It is small, lightweight, and has served me well over the last three years. It is also obsolete and rapidly becoming unusable. It has a tiny amount of internal storage and so no longer has space to update its software. It is prone to freezing up, even when phone calls roll in. I need to replace it.

This is not a difficult task to accomplish. There are dozens of different brands on the market–especially if you’re prepared to shop outside of Australia. Phones are readily available within my budget of $300 or less that will take fabulous photos, navigate me to my destination, allow me to check and send emails, and even make and receive phone calls.

However, shopping for a phone becomes far more complicated when I attach ethical conditions to my purchase. My demands at first glance would not appear to me particularly tough: I’d like to own a phone that I know was produced without inhumane labour practices. It’s that simple. And it has proven virtually impossible to accomplish.

I only buy fair trade coffee, and I try to purchase chocolate from fair trade or UTZ certified manufacturers as often as possible. It can be onerous for coffee and chocolate producers to trace their production line all the way back to the farm, but it’s by no means impossible. Coffee contains one ingredient. Chocolate contains a few, but only the cocoa beans tend to be sourced from plantations where the workers may be mistreated. But mobile phones contain dozens of components, and those components are supplied by dozens of different manufacturers. Tracing the ethicality of each and every component is incredibly challenging, and phone companies are not exactly falling over each other to make it easier. The vast majority of consumers are just not asking the questions. If we can have cool new phones with lots of bells and whistles for a remarkably affordable price, we tend to stay silent.

Mobile phones are the most ethically fraught possessions we own. They contain rare earth minerals which are, well, rare. It’s been a number of years since journalists revealed that these minerals were being dug out by labourers in the Congo with their bare hands. They’re still digging, often 12 hours each day for a daily wage of perhaps $5. Australia has rare earth minerals too, but that’s not where mobile phone companies are sourcing them. With little ethical scrutiny directed their way, these companies are unlikely to change their suppliers any time soon.

Mobile phones from all producers are overwhelmingly assembled by one enormous subcontractor: Foxconn. The company has dozens of factories in poorer countries all over the world. At least 1.3 million Chinese are employed by their twelve factories in China. Brian Merchant managed to sneak in to Foxconn’s largest plant and has recently published the results of his investigation in the book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. He interviewed workers regularly putting in 12 hours shifts and living in company dormitory rooms that slept eight people. Wages are low, working conditions are stressful and suicide, sadly, is very common. Chances are excellent that your phone was assembled here or in a similar plant. Overwork is the industry standard. The vice president of phone manufacturer Xiaomi was asked about working hours and replied, “Our company working hours are 9.30 in the morning to 9.30 in the evening, and that’s just the regular working hours, plus one hour for lunch. But show up in our office here at 11pm and you’ll see that 80% of the people are still around often because they’re working on something that they feel is so important that they need to spend extra time on it.”

One phone company, Fairphone, has attempted to produce a 100% ethical phone. It has one phone, which is priced at 580 euros. It is currently unavailable. Other phones are graded from C to F for their ethical records, but the truth is that this information is just really difficult to obtain. These producers know they have us over a barrel. Ten years ago, none of owned a smartphone. Now, none of us could imagine getting by without one. So we just don’t ask questions or even display much curiosity about one of the most important things we own.

In the end, I deputised my younger son and official geek Nadav to investigate. He learned that many companies offer phone recycling services–not because they’re necessarily interested in sustainability but because it’s much easier and cheaper to extract rare earth minerals from old phones rather than obtaining new supplies. (My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black has chimed in to suggest that companies encouraging recycling also so that they can take those phones out of circulation and prevent them from being reconditioned and sold.) Nadav discovered a company Qualcomm that is one producer of the CPUs that are at the heart of our phones. Qualcomm has an entire area of its website dedicated to issues of sustainability and governance. I can’t guarantee they’re abiding by these claims, but at least they’re going through the motions. So too with the tech giant Lenovo, whose website promises us that they are looking after their employees and trying to be good corporate citizens. With very little additional information to go on, I ordered a Lenovo phone with a Qualcomm CPU. Following my son’s sage advice, I also tried to buy a phone with a powerful CPU, a lot of RAM and a lot of storage so that itt would last for as long as possible. I am very much hoping that I won’t have to draw on further precious resources any time soon. Of course, in this day and age, five years is a long time. I’m shooting for ten.

This week’s Torah portion includes one of my very favourite passages in the whole Torah. An outraged Abraham challenges God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, shouting, “Should not the judge of all the world act justly?!” From his righteous anger comes my conviction that we Jews have a proud heritage of standing up for what is right. It is not easy to do, and at times it seems almost impossible to do the right thing. But I don’t feel that excuses us. We must continue to try in all areas of our lives. Including our smartphones. Shabbat shalom!