Hard-wired for Hope in the Midst of Despair

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

Beit Shalom Synagogue, Adelaide South Australia

A few weeks ago, just around the time that parts of Queensland and New South Wales burst into flame, the ABC reported that not a single drop of rain had fallen on Queensland in the last 24 hours. Not in the parched south, not in the tropical north, not over the Great Barrier Reef. No one could recall when this had last happened. Queensland is so vast, so varied in its climates, that rain is always falling in at least one little corner. But not on that day. To use biblical language, the heavens had closed up tight.

Nobody likes to think about climate change. By nobody, I mean me. I have studied my own behaviour enough to identify a trusty two step approach in how I tackle the many news articles on the topic that pop up on my computer screen. Step one is to read the headline. Step two is to move on to a different news story. Every once and a while, I’ve come upon an article that is compelling enough that I am persuaded to read one or even two paragraphs before I look away. It’s not that I’m in any way a climate change denialist. But I definitely spend most of my time in denial. The news on the climate is so unrelentingly grim that if I spend more than a minute thinking about it, I feel myself start to go ever-so-slightly insane. And just when it seems the news can’t get any worse, it does.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a great deal to reduce my carbon footprint. I almost never eat red meat, and at least half the meals I eat in any week are either vegetarian or vegan. Last year I was pleased to be able to buy a small home close to public transport and within easy walking distance of shopping. I ride my bicycle to the synagogue at least once each week and often use the bicycle to travel within the CBD of Adelaide. At the same time, I appreciate that absolutely nothing that I as an individual do will have any meaningful impact on reducing the galloping rate of climate change. Even if I and my one hundred closest friends were to do everything we could to reduce our impact on our environment, it would still be meaningless. Climate change is threatening our future, and I feel as if I have no ability to slow it. So I change the subject instead.

I’m confident that I am not alone in adopting what is essentially an attitude of denial towards our most pressing problem. I note that whenever I post anything climate change related on my Facebook page, nobody seems to notice. I looked at the history of several Facebook friends who often post climate change articles. No likes at all, while a family photo might draw 50 or more votes of approval. To me that indicates that the people seeing those articles are doing just what I routinely do—they’re skipping over them to look at puppy videos.

None of this is making an impact on climate change or, significantly, letting our elected officials and industrial leaders know that this issue is crucial to us. And yes, this is the most critical issue of our time. We know it, and our children really, really know it. I grew up 10 miles away from the White House, which we all knew would be Ground Zero in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The air raid siren test on the second Wednesday of each month served as a regular reminder of just how vulnerable we were, how quickly we might just blink out of existence. I wonder now about the inner life of our children and young people, who are growing into a world that they know will grow increasingly inhospitable and unpredictable. I see how frustrated and infuriated they are when adults speak condescendingly to them, telling them their fears are exaggerated. We know from the data that is coming out that they are not exaggerating in the least. I am sure one thing young people need is to talk about their worries and fears, and I can only hope that we are available to listen to them.

Over the course of the last several years, I have concluded that one reason why it is so hard for any of us to engage with this subject is because we don’t have the spiritual language to do so. We can analyse the crisis from all perspectives, lay out the facts in intricate detail, provide modelling that is increasingly accurate. What we have not yet figured out is how to speak about climate change in a way that brings in our hearts and souls. I believe part of the problem is that we have unconsciously embraced a world view in which we expect to move from darkness to light, from despair to salvation.  Either we are moving towards an increasingly perfect world, or all is lost. This is true most of all of our religious language.

We will shortly reach the Eileh Ezkerah service. This service, known in English as the martyrology service, emerged in its original form during the Middle Ages, a time of great danger and tragedy for the Jewish people. European Jews were often presented with an impossible choice by the Christian Crusaders: convert to Christianity or die. Many chose death, and many more were never even given an opportunity to choose. Poets of the time found comfort in the legend of ten rabbis, martyred by the Roman empire for their failure to abandon the teaching of Torah. The tale of their executions was retold in vivid detail and thus connected the unwilling martyrs in medieval Europe with their ancient ancestors.

The liturgical poem or piyyut that tells this story formed the core of today’s martyrology story. Sadly, there are so many more episodes in our history, so many times when Jews became victims simply because they were Jews. Our service climaxes in some way with the stirring song of the Partisans–a defiant statement in the face of the overwhelming force of the Nazis.

But of course the service does not end on that note. It ends on a note of hope. Within our Jewish tradition, all roads lead to hope. Jews had the ability to hold on to hope even when hope seemed far away. Of course, our ultimate hope was to return to our own land–a hope of 2000 years. If we could see a Jewish state brought back to life, perhaps nothing was impossible.

Judaism speaks of hope not only as a community value but as an individual aspiration. Today, Yom Kippur, is the ultimate day of hope. Many of you will know that I treasure Yom Kippur above all other days of the year. On this day, we affirm our conviction that each of us has the potential to become our best possible selves. Despite or perhaps because of all of the disappointments and failures that lie behind us, we embrace the possibility for a better future for ourselves and for the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are essentially hard-wired for hope.

Climate change has made me feel hopeless, but in recent weeks I’ve gotten back just a little bit of my hope. I participated in the climate strike on September 21. I know this demonstration was controversial; not everyone thought it was appropriate for students to miss classes a few weeks away from the end of the term. For me, our local event—which was small in comparison with other capitals around the word—was incredibly inspiring. The rally in Adelaide was by far the largest I’ve attended in my 13 years in the country. But what was really striking to me was the variety of people who showed up, brought signs, shouted slogans and marched jauntily up King William Street to Parliament House. There were lots of students—some in school uniforms, and a few even lugging their school backpacks. There were children in prams and pushers, teens participating enthusiastically, but also grandparents and great-grandparents. There were people of every imaginable ethnic background, people with a diversity of political views, people in three-piece suits, people in platform heels, people with wild hair colour, and people in hijabs. One memory that has stayed with me is of two girls in Pembroke uniforms, yelling themselves hoarse as they led the crowd in rallying cries. Another memory is of the signs, homemade by children and teens, exhorting those in charge to listen to them, to save the world before it was too late. Our time together felt like a bit of a watershed—it was that moment when disparate people who have felt isolated in their views join together to act. By the end of the rally, nothing had actually changed in the world. But something momentous had happened: we had begun to move together towards hope.

It would be a great error to mistake the hope that I felt on that day for a solution to the global challenge that is Climate Change. But as I’ve seen in recent years, an absence of hope is paralyzing. We can only move forward if we hold on to hope while remaining realistic at the same time.

I take inspiration in this work from the prophet we know by the name Deutero-Isaiah, whom I’m now going to call DI. DI is the mystery author of the last 26 chapters of the book of Isaiah, including the thunderous exhortation we heard earlier. That passionate call to righteousness is actually uncharacteristic of DI. Much of his message is focused on a single idea: hope in a time of darkness.

DI addresses a Jewish people who have survived a horrific trauma: they’ve seen their beloved Temple, built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonian army, and the beautiful city of Jerusalem lying in ruins. The Jewish leadership has been exiled to Babylon, where they now sit in their hopelessness. In the midst of this darkness, DI brings them light. Among his most famous words are those found at the start of his prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40, words that we heard just a short time ago as part of this service: Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God. Here is another passage from chapter 60: “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moon for radiance [by night]; For the Adonai shall be your light everlasting, Your God shall be your glory. Your sun shall set no more, Your moon no more withdraw; For  Adonaishall be a light to you forever, And your days of mourning shall be ended.”

DI has no ability to change anything tangible in the people’s lives. He has no more actual power than any of the other exiled Jews. But he shows us the amazing impact that words have to kindle hope where hope had been lost.

For several months, I asked colleagues both Jewish and Christian the same question: how do we find a spiritual language for climate change? Some people fled from the question, others pondered it deeply. No one felt that they had the perfect answer. Ultimately, I believe our challenge is to hold tight on to hope and to let that hope drive us to action. We cannot have one without the other.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about some of the ways we find meaning and purpose in our lives. At this point in our history, I believe there can be no higher purpose than making sure we preserve this beautiful world for our children and for all the generations after them. Each of us will need to find our own paths to action, whether it be acting in our own lives to reduce our climate footprint or joining in larger political movements to try to bring about change. All the while, let us hold on to our great Jewish gift—the gift of hope. Our Torah reading calls us to choose life–let us choose life for us and for those who come after us. May this new year be one of joy for us and all the world, and may hope inspire all we do. Shana tova!

A Special Request to the Jewish Community of Adelaide from the Adelaide Holocaust Museum and Steiner Education Centre (AHMSEC)

The AHMSEC museum would like to invite the South Australian Jewish community to contribute artefacts and personal documents from Holocaust survivors and historical family photos showing pre-war Jewish life and culture in Europe as part of the development of the museum’s resource archive. Please see PDF attached.

A Special Request to the Jewish Community of Adelaide 

Yizkor Memorial Book 2018

There are stars up above, so far away we only see their light
long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people that we loved–
their memories keep shining ever brightly thought their time with us is done.
–Hannah Szenes

This year, Beit Shalom will be publishing a Yizkor memorial booklet to honour our loved ones as part of the Yom Kippur Yizkor service. We will also continue our tradition of reading out the names of our loved ones as part of the Yizkor service.
We welcome your contributions to this booklet. If you choose to remember loved ones with 1/4 page or larger, you are invited to submit a photo to include. Also please do send along readings, songs, or other reminders of this person’s part in your life for larger listings. May the memories of those we have loved and lost be a blessing and a source of comfort for us.

Please open the PDF below, fill in and send to the office at bshalom@bshalomadel.com

Yizkor-Book-Order-Form-fillable-2019

The Power of Multifaith Connections

Early in the week, I was fascinated to see on Facebook a link to an article honouring the legacy of Rev. Clark Lobenstine, who had died a few months earlier. For more than 35 years, Rev. Lobenstine was the director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. This was an organisation that began by building bridges among Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities and ultimately ended up incorporating eleven religious traditions from around the world. In a celebration of his work, a former deputy Mike Coggin noted that previous interfaith organisations had been Christian in focus, tentatively reaching out from the comfort of their faith to extend a hand in friendship to others. The IFC was different. The religious faiths that were a part of this endeavour, and their affiliated congregations, were all seen as equals. Nor, as Coggin noted, was there any effort to simplify or whitewash the significant differences among faith traditions. Multifaith work was and is messy, and the only way that meaningful dialogue can happen is to acknowledge that truth.

This article was a source of particular joy to me because my late mother Naomi Kaminsky served as the first administrative assistant of the IFC. She went to work for the organisation when I was in year 9 and stayed on for four fascinating, sometimes challenging or even infuriating years. Working with religious leaders, some of whom were treated as royalty by their own congregations, was seldom easy, but my mother found the work tremendously rewarding. She was encouraged in her efforts by her rabbi Eugene Lipman, who himself was committed to the work of building multifaith relationships.

You will be surprised to learn that I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Following my bat mitzvah, I joined the Temple Sinai volunteer choir, where I became the youngest member by about twenty years. We sang mostly at the high holy days, but in the second year after I joined, we took on an additional project: we agreed to prepare two songs to sing at the inaugural Interfaith Thanksgiving concert a few days before that beloved American festival. The concert took place in a massive church in downtown Washington, DC, with at least a dozen choirs participating. We were the non-Christians, but the Christian diversity was astonishing, including some very straight-laced white church choirs, and just as many black gospel choirs. All these years later, and I still remember how the choir of Sts. Paul and Augustine African American Catholic church absolutely rocked my world. I’ve been longing to sing Jewish gospel music ever since.

These experiences of my teenage years forged me into a lifelong enthusiast for multifaith dialogue, in all its exhilarating, occasionally messy glory. I was able to find another outlet for this affection in seminary, where for two years I was part of a program run by the Council of Christians and Jews called Seminarians Interacting. Sadly, this program was limited only to Christians and Jews, but once again the diversity within these two groups was impressive. We rabbinical students from several denominations chatted, argued, and occasionally butted heads with students from Christian seminaries including Catholic, Greek Orthodox, evangelical, and eclectic African American. The program caught all of us at that point in our lives when we were most open to one another, and the relationships were transformative. I have never learned as much about myself as a Jew as I did in my dialogues with Christians.

It’s 25 years later. The world has moved on to a certain extent, but I have not. Attendance at meetings of the Council of Christians and Jews has been low. My efforts over the years to bring together people from different faiths have generally been unsuccessful. For many years, I have been dismayed to discover that very few people out there are prepared to take the risks to their own faith that true religious dialogue demands. I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne in 2009, an enormous gathering of people from every corner of the world and every faith tradition imaginable. It was deeply discouraging to see that the vast majority of the sessions consisted of people congratulating one another on sitting down together and celebrating their similarities. It was a lovely, warm environment, but there were none of the breakthroughs to true understanding that I’d seen emerge out of a place of courageous confrontation.

It is indeed a frightening thing to leave one’s comfort zone and interact honestly with the other. It happens less and less, and, not surprisingly, misunderstandings around the world seem to be increasing. My own experiences have convinced me that true peace comes only when we peacemakers are prepared to be changed by the experience. We need to be willing to let go of what we have believed to be unswerving truths. Clark Lobenstine did that, but in today’s world, such multifaith coalitions are becoming increasingly rare. I’m proud to be a part of the work of the Abraham Institute, which through its Pursuing Peace program in high schools, begins the lifelong process of teaching people to be open to the extraordinary possibilities that come when we truly encounter one another. Let’s hope this work flourishes in the future. Shabbat shalom!

 

Here is the original article about Clark Lobenstine: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/07/clark-lobenstine-had-pioneering-concept-interfaith-can-it-survive/?fbclid=IwAR31g9jjViJMjLZkqOcVmhkWfsU9Huwi4l8BHrY7pg2PCCKz5kCQtoivY9E&noredirect=on&utm_term=.f09672887b1c

Tikkun Olam–Yom Kippur morning

Over these High Holy Days, I’ve spoken about a number of the values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. Today I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repair of the world. We understand Tikkun Olam to be an imperative for us human beings to bring about the healing of a broken world. Although there are contemporary Jews who are impatiently waiting for the Messiah to come and fix all that is in need of fixing, Progressive Jews from very early in our history have rejected the idea of a personal Messiah. Instead, we have taught for several hundred years that redemption is up to us. It is an inspiring and timely message.

I recently received an application from a student interested in converting to Judaism who named the value of tikkun olam as one of the principle reasons why she was drawn to Progressive Judaism. And I feel the same way. Except that from an academic perspective, it is disingenuous to say that our current understanding of the term tikkun olam has any kind of grounding in ancient Jewish tradition.

The term tikkun olam first appears in the third paragraph of the Aleynu, when it speaks of a future time when God will l’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai—repair the world through the sovereignty of God. Our prayerbook Mishkan T’filah briefly traces the history of the term tikkun olam through the hundreds of years that have passed since the Aleynu was written: “Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu, composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.”

My understanding of tikkun olam was shaken out of me four years ago at the Limmud Oz conference in Melbourne. One of the presenters was Rabbi Danny Schiff, an affable trouble maker whom I’ve known since my Pittsburgh days. Rabbi Schiff—whom everyone calls Danny—is a Melbourne native who delights in slaying sacred cows. On that particular day, the cow he intended to slay was tikkun olam.

Danny began by pointing out that the last thing on the minds of the 16th century kabbalists was social activism. For a brief, brilliant two year period, Rabbi Isaac Luria was the head of the Tsfat school of kabbalah, and during that time he developed what is now known as Lurianic kabbalah. It was he who conceived of a completely new creation myth: the idea that God intended to construct a perfect universe, formed of vessels which held divine light. But the vessels proved unable to withstand the power of God and so shattered into an almost unimaginably large number of shards. Those shards became embedded in the world we know today. They yearn to be reunited with their Creator. The way to redeem those shards is through the performance of ritual mitzvot, such as focusing intently while reciting prayers so as to do so with the proper intention. As is the case for much of kabbalah, the exercise of tikkun olam can only be carried out by strictly Orthodox Jewish men who also have an understanding of these obscure and esoteric teachings.

So how did tikkun olam—a mystical concept—come to be transformed to mean healing the injustices of our contemporary world? It seems entirely possible that Progressive Judaism basically made up a whole new definition. Rabbi Schiff is frustrated that our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam is so broad and ill-defined that basically any cause can be brought under its umbrella. So, for example, one person might argue that eliminating the use of coal is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than saving the environment? And someone else might argue that preserving the coal industry is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than preserving jobs and the dignity for those workers who otherwise would be left with no means of support?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi for whom I have enormous admiration, agrees with Rabbi Schiff’s concerns that the concept of tikkun olam is far too wishy washy, and most certainly too malleable to be truly useful. In an article for Commentary magazine, Rabbi Salkin complained that, as someone who considers himself a political centrist, he often feels shut out by others within the Jewish world who use traditional Jewish language to make it appear that only left-wing approaches are Jewishly acceptable. One particular example he cites is one that happens to be particularly close to my heart: the idea of welcoming the stranger: “Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.

But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy…“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.”

I am quoting from Rabbi Salkin the morning after giving a sermon last night in which I suggested that welcoming both legal migrants and refugees could be considered forms of welcoming the guests. Most of you will also know that I was arrested in a civil disobedience action a number of years ago in which I used explicitly Jewish language to protest against Australia’s practice of keeping children in offshore detention. I’m pretty sure I talked an awful lot about our responsibility for loving the stranger. Should I now abandon this approach because the biblical understanding differs from our contemporary situation?

The larger question is whether we should discard the concept of tikkun olam because our understanding of it represents a departure from the traditional definition. What the Progressive movement has inadvertently done is what is called a chiddush—an innovation. We have transformed a concept that began life as a legalistic term and then much later grew into a spiritual idea. Now, in this age of urgent social and environmental needs, we may choose to claim tikkun olam as a call for each of us to do what we can to remake the world as a more just and hopeful place. In case you cannot guess, that is what I am advocating.

Just because tikkun olam has not previously been understood as healing the world doesn’t mean that this concept is entirely absent from Jewish tradition. Far from it. Each year, I celebrate the rabbis’ radical choice of haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Rather than providing a soothing text about how good we are and how praiseworthy our fasting efforts, the rabbis instead chose a prophetic call to justice from Deutero-Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share you bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet here calls for individual acts of modest assistance—clothing the naked and sharing our bread with the hungry. But there is also an overarching call for a more just society—one in which the shackles of injustice are unlocked and the oppressed go free. He does not use the language of tikkun olam, but the message is the same: to live fully and completely as a Jew means to work for a more fair and equal society. This makes the rabbis’ decision to choose this as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning all the more significant. There are plenty of readings about the detailed fulfillment of ritual commandments, but that’s not we are to remember on Yom Kippur. Rather we are to keep our eyes on a larger vision, entirely separate from the ritual realm.

Deutero-Isaiah, whose actual identity is unknown to us, spoke to a Jewish community in exile in Babylon. This was not a people who have any kind of power over their own lives, nor did they have the authority to bring about institutional change. The prophet exhorts them to transform the world around them despite their powerlessness to do so. If that is the case for them, then how much for so for us living as free people in this land?!

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon an article that someone had written about me for an online Orthodox website. The author excoriated me for standing up for asylum seekers from Muslim backgrounds. He insisted that my primary, in fact my only responsibility should be to work on behalf of the Jewish people. If I wasn’t doing solely that, I had no right to call myself a rabbi.

On the other side of the world, dozens of my colleagues, including the rabbis of prominent American synagogues, have been arrested in recent months. They have been protesting the American government’s intention to deport illegal aliens who have lived in the US since infancy and have never known another home. They have proudly employed the language of loving the stranger in their actions and believe deep in their souls that what they are doing is a legitimate expression of Jewish values. I’d like to think Deutero-Isaiah would agree with them. We have so much work ahead of us, but if we all join together, by this time next year we can celebrate the extent to which our world is a little less broken because of our work of Tikkun Olam. I wish you well over the fast, and may our hands bring about a world closer to Deutero-Isaiah’s vision. Shana tova!

Tikkun Olam–Yom Kippur morning sermon

Over these High Holy Days, I’ve spoken about a number of the values that are a part of Beit Shalom’s mission. Today I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repair of the world. We understand Tikkun Olam to be an imperative for us human beings to bring about the healing of a broken world. Although there are contemporary Jews who are impatiently waiting for the Messiah to come and fix all that is in need of fixing, Progressive Jews from very early in our history have rejected the idea of a personal Messiah. Instead, we have taught for several hundred years that redemption is up to us. It is an inspiring and timely message.

I recently received an application from a student interested in converting to Judaism who named the value of tikkun olam as one of the principle reasons why she was drawn to Progressive Judaism. And I feel the same way. Except that from an academic perspective, it is disingenuous to say that our current understanding of the term tikkun olam has any kind of grounding in ancient Jewish tradition.

The term tikkun olam first appears in the third paragraph of the Aleynu, when it speaks of a future time when God will l’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai—repair the world through the sovereignty of God. Our prayerbook Mishkan T’filah briefly traces the history of the term tikkun olam through the hundreds of years that have passed since the Aleynu was written: “Tikkun olam…originally (2–3 century) referred to rabbinic legislation to remedy social ills or legal injustices. In the Aleinu, composed about the same time, it represents acts by God to replace this imperfect world with the legal and moral perfection of divine rule. Sixteenth-century kabbalistic thought applied the term to human action, shifting the responsibility for perfecting the world onto us.”

My understanding of tikkun olam was shaken out of me four years ago at the Limmud Oz conference in Melbourne. One of the presenters was Rabbi Danny Schiff, an affable trouble maker whom I’ve known since my Pittsburgh days. Rabbi Schiff—whom everyone calls Danny—is a Melbourne native who delights in slaying sacred cows. On that particular day, the cow he intended to slay was tikkun olam.

Danny began by pointing out that the last thing on the minds of the 16th century kabbalists was social activism. For a brief, brilliant two year period, Rabbi Isaac Luria was the head of the Tsfat school of kabbalah, and during that time he developed what is now known as Lurianic kabbalah. It was he who conceived of a completely new creation myth: the idea that God intended to construct a perfect universe, formed of vessels which held divine light. But the vessels proved unable to withstand the power of God and so shattered into an almost unimaginably large number of shards. Those shards became embedded in the world we know today. They yearn to be reunited with their Creator. The way to redeem those shards is through the performance of ritual mitzvot, such as focusing intently while reciting prayers so as to do so with the proper intention. As is the case for much of kabbalah, the exercise of tikkun olam can only be carried out by strictly Orthodox Jewish men who also have an understanding of these obscure and esoteric teachings.

So how did tikkun olam—a mystical concept—come to be transformed to mean healing the injustices of our contemporary world? It seems entirely possible that Progressive Judaism basically made up a whole new definition. Rabbi Schiff is frustrated that our contemporary understanding of tikkun olam is so broad and ill-defined that basically any cause can be brought under its umbrella. So, for example, one person might argue that eliminating the use of coal is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than saving the environment? And someone else might argue that preserving the coal industry is tikkun olam, because what could be more important than preserving jobs and the dignity for those workers who otherwise would be left with no means of support?

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi for whom I have enormous admiration, agrees with Rabbi Schiff’s concerns that the concept of tikkun olam is far too wishy washy, and most certainly too malleable to be truly useful. In an article for Commentary magazine, Rabbi Salkin complained that, as someone who considers himself a political centrist, he often feels shut out by others within the Jewish world who use traditional Jewish language to make it appear that only left-wing approaches are Jewishly acceptable. One particular example he cites is one that happens to be particularly close to my heart: the idea of welcoming the stranger: “Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israelites probably needed this cajoling. In the words of the late biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz: “A history of alienation and slavery, the memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

Let us assume the righteousness, and even the sanctity, of this idea. Let us also remember that, in the postbiblical world, the sages applied the notion of loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) not to resident aliens within a Jewish polity—which was the biblical emphasis—but to converts to Judaism.

But let us also acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for immigration policy…“Loving the stranger” says nothing about the proper disposition toward those who are neither residents in a Jewish polity nor converts to Judaism.”

I am quoting from Rabbi Salkin the morning after giving a sermon last night in which I suggested that welcoming both legal migrants and refugees could be considered forms of welcoming the guests. Most of you will also know that I was arrested in a civil disobedience action a number of years ago in which I used explicitly Jewish language to protest against Australia’s practice of keeping children in offshore detention. I’m pretty sure I talked an awful lot about our responsibility for loving the stranger. Should I now abandon this approach because the biblical understanding differs from our contemporary situation?

The larger question is whether we should discard the concept of tikkun olam because our understanding of it represents a departure from the traditional definition. What the Progressive movement has inadvertently done is what is called a chiddush—an innovation. We have transformed a concept that began life as a legalistic term and then much later grew into a spiritual idea. Now, in this age of urgent social and environmental needs, we may choose to claim tikkun olam as a call for each of us to do what we can to remake the world as a more just and hopeful place. In case you cannot guess, that is what I am advocating.

Just because tikkun olam has not previously been understood as healing the world doesn’t mean that this concept is entirely absent from Jewish tradition. Far from it. Each year, I celebrate the rabbis’ radical choice of haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Rather than providing a soothing text about how good we are and how praiseworthy our fasting efforts, the rabbis instead chose a prophetic call to justice from Deutero-Isaiah: “Is this the fast I look for? A day of self affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Adonai? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share you bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The prophet here calls for individual acts of modest assistance—clothing the naked and sharing our bread with the hungry. But there is also an overarching call for a more just society—one in which the shackles of injustice are unlocked and the oppressed go free. He does not use the language of tikkun olam, but the message is the same: to live fully and completely as a Jew means to work for a more fair and equal society. This makes the rabbis’ decision to choose this as the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur morning all the more significant. There are plenty of readings about the detailed fulfillment of ritual commandments, but that’s not we are to remember on Yom Kippur. Rather we are to keep our eyes on a larger vision, entirely separate from the ritual realm.

Deutero-Isaiah, whose actual identity is unknown to us, spoke to a Jewish community in exile in Babylon. This was not a people who have any kind of power over their own lives, nor did they have the authority to bring about institutional change. The prophet exhorts them to transform the world around them despite their powerlessness to do so. If that is the case for them, then how much for so for us living as free people in this land?!

A number of years ago, I stumbled upon an article that someone had written about me for an online Orthodox website. The author excoriated me for standing up for asylum seekers from Muslim backgrounds. He insisted that my primary, in fact my only responsibility should be to work on behalf of the Jewish people. If I wasn’t doing solely that, I had no right to call myself a rabbi.

On the other side of the world, dozens of my colleagues, including the rabbis of prominent American synagogues, have been arrested in recent months. They have been protesting the American government’s intention to deport illegal aliens who have lived in the US since infancy and have never known another home. They have proudly employed the language of loving the stranger in their actions and believe deep in their souls that what they are doing is a legitimate expression of Jewish values. I’d like to think Deutero-Isaiah would agree with them. We have so much work ahead of us, but if we all join together, by this time next year we can celebrate the extent to which our world is a little less broken because of our work of Tikkun Olam. I wish you well over the fast, and may our hands bring about a world closer to Deutero-Isaiah’s vision. Shana tova!

EMANUEL SOLOMON 1800 – 1873

(Presented at the May 17 meeting of the SA Council of Christians and Jews by Merrilyn Ades)

Emanuel Solomon arrived in Australia at the age of 18 on the ship Lady Castlereagh, with his younger brother Vaiben Solomon, as convicts in 1818. Both had been convicted of larceny and transported to the colony. After serving their sentence of 7 years, Emanuel married fellow convict Mary Wilson in 1826. She had also been convicted of larceny and sentenced in the Old Bailey with life imprisonment.

With the arrival in Sydney of the brothers’ parents and many family members, Emanuel and his brother Vaiben set up a business in Sydney as merchants, until Emanual left Sydney for Adelaide in 1837 where he solidly established himself as a respectable citizen.

The brothers had accumulated property and land in Sydney and Bathurst but Emanuel bought a share in a South Australian land grant and became the resident partner in Adelaide for the company with most of the trade carried between the two cities by their brig the “Dorset”.

They employed their nephew Judah Moss Solomon to work on the Dorset back and forth from Sydney to Adelaide.

We don’t know what happened to Emanuel’s first wife, but at the age of 44 he married his second wife, Cecilia Smith, Given that Cecilia was an Irish Catholic from Cork, they were unable to be married in a synagogue or a catholic church so the autumn ceremony took place at a Presbyterian Church. By that time, they had more than one baby and eventually, Cecilia bore Emanuel two boys and four girls, amongst them Elizabeth, who married her first cousin; Julia, who eloped in 1864 and became the matriarch of an important Darwin dynasty; and Rosetta, who married the proprietor of the Monster Clothing Palace in Hindley Street, Adelaide. There were multitudinous grandchildren.

The same year that Cecilia died, 1852, he married Catherine Abrahams, who was a 25 years old Jewish girl (they had seven children) .

Through the financially disastrous years of the early 1840s, Solomon was one of the few businessmen who maintained faith and held firm in the city, and noting that the city had no theatrical or dramatic performance hall, he built his Queen’s Theatre, the first purpose-built theatre in the mainland colonies. It opened with a performance of Othello by a Sydney company in January 1841 and crowds picked their way through the mud of the streets to get there. Emanuel Solomon did everything he could to encourage the enjoyment of entertainment in Adelaide, outlaying large sums of money with little return; but by the end of 1842 – the year that South Australia became just another Crown colony – the theatre had to close.

On behalf of the 48 Jewish citizens living in Adelaide in the early 1840s Emanuel applied to the government for a grant for a synagogue on the same footing as his Christian brethren, but there is no reference to a grant being given in the following years for a synagogue to be built. He had built a tavern at the side of the Queen’s Theatre, where weekly religious services were held and on 10 September 1848, 44 Jewish men met at Emanuel Solomon’s Temple Tavern and agreed to form the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and eventually build a synagogue.

The grand sum of £5/7/3 was collected for the purpose of rendering assistance to the poor and needy and Emanuel founded the Adelaide Hebrew Philanthropic Society in 1852 for the purpose of supporting Jews in distress or needing monetary assistance.

A collection was then taken up for a permanent place of worship from which £103/4/0 was received. It was proposed at that time that the sum expended for the building of a synagogue not exceed £400. The land was purchased, and consecration of the first synagogue in SA was held on 5th September 1850. At the consecration, a toast was proposed to Emanuel Solomon for obtaining a grant from the government for a section of the West Terrace Cemetery for the burial of Jews. Emanuel then donated 21 guineas for the purpose of hiring a rabbi or minister as that first number of 48 Jews in Adelaide in the early 1840s grew to 360 by 1860.

Solomon developed property on blocks in the city and was a shareholder and board member of the South Australian Mining Association, involved in the Burra copper mine. Later, as citizens drawn by Victorian goldfields left Adelaide, he subscribed to a fund for exploration for gold in South Australia. The region, however, proved all-but devoid of the fabled element.

In the State Library, there is a book of some 127 letters that Emanuel wrote to his brother Vaiben and other family members during the period of trading between Adelaide and Sydney on his ship Dorset. These letters certainly indicate that he liked to micro-manage the business.

The correspondence tells the story of ruthless competition between rival ship-owners, each striving to eliminate his rivals and obtain a monopoly of the inter-colonial trade, and it throws

light on sharp practices which are as old as commerce itself—secret rebates, rings of buyers at auction sales, and collusion between merchants tendering for Government contracts. And of course there are complaints in the letters of pilfering by sailors and wharf labourers, especially of cargoes of beer.

In one of his letters he writes: “We have down here premises worth 20,000 but there is no demand for selling or letting them at present. If you make up your mind to carry on the business I will suggest one plan, that you sell my land on the Parramatta Road, sell my premises in Liverpool Street and you must do the same. Our merchants down here are very few & nearly all have been insolvent and have not the premises to carry on the business – I owe very little having no bill or paper out with my name on – the only liability I have is about 200 to the Bank which was 500 before I reduced it more than one half.”

In his letters Solomon unwittingly paints his own portrait, and though one recoils from a certain ruthless and vindictiveness towards his rivals, it is clear that he possessed in good measure the experience, vigour, and decisiveness necessary for success. He was tireless in his search for profitable openings and was quick to seize every opportunity that offered. He traded in a multitude of things, importing from Sydney things such as toys, musical instruments, snuff, sets of chessmen, playing cards, babies’ bonnets, parasols, spectacles, peppermints, candle snuffers, beer engines, castor oil, and handcuffs. Nothing was too large or too small for him to handle.

In one of his business letters, he inserts just one sentence of a private or personal nature amongst business: “P.S. I feel much surprised that strangers here should know what is going on in our family better than myself I understand that Judah & Isaac are both married yet I have never received any notice at all of it – I wish you to let me know how boots & shoes will sell. Also do not send any more champagne cider as we go can get it here for the same price. There will be a quantity of things to go from here as well as grain of which there will be plenty as a great deal of our wheat is already in ear.”

To read these letters is to share the hopes and fears, successes and disappointments of one of our pioneer merchants, and to see at close quarters, the fabric of commercial life during a momentous period of South Australian history.

Emanuel somehow seemed to manage to keep his convict start in Australia a complete secret as he was a Member for the House of Assembly for West Adelaide (1862-65) and Member for the Legislative Council (1867-71). In between his stints on the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council, in 1866 Solomon was badly injured when he was knocked down by a vehicle. He never really recovered; yet he influenced affairs in his adopted territory almost to the last. Skilfully negotiating the narrow pass between genuine benevolence and ostentation, Solomon expressed his pride of place in 1871, by inviting more than five hundred pioneers of the colony to a grand banquet at the Town Hall celebrating the 35th anniversary of the foundation of South Australia. Some of the guests at this banquet included Sir John Morphett, Sir GS Kingston, Captain Hart and the Hon Henry Ayres. The papers reported “never before have we seen gathered together in the colony such an assembly.”

Although Emanuel achieved so much for South Australia he is mainly remembered for providing refuge to the sisters of St Joseph and the nun who became Australia’s first saint.

Toward the end of 1871, when Mary MacKillop was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, her Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart were ordered to vacate their home immediately. Thinking fondly, perhaps, of his deceased Catholic wife, Emanuel Solomon stepped in to provide the Sisters with two Flinders Street properties in which to live, rent free. He insisted that their good work must continue.

It is a twist of history that sees Solomon remembered primarily, now, for this act of kindness – one of many magnanimous gestures in the course of his long life. Happily, however, on the occasion of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation in 2010, the owners of the Solomon brothers’ charming painted portraits, offered to lend them to the Mary Mackillop Gallery. They can be seen hanging now, adjacent to the woman Emanuel Solomon helped because he could – rather than spurning her because her faith was different from his own.

(Nephew Judah also had a political career: Alderman, Gawler ward 1852-54; M.H.A. City of Adelaide 1858-60; M.L.C. 1861-66; M.H.A. for West Adelaide 1871-75; mayor of Adelaide 1869-71. He acted as a coroner, and was the first President of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He died of cancer in August 1880 in Adelaide and was survived by 7 of his 16 children from his 2 wives. One of his sons, Vaiben Louis Solomon was treasurer of S.A. and in 1899 became the shortest serving Premier of South Australia (7 days) He was a member of the first Federal Parliament until 1903. Quite an upward progress for the Solomon family after such a felonious start in Australia!)

 

Ode to the Smartphone

Let me now sing a hymn of praise to the smartphone—surely the greatest object known among humanity. In this blog post, I will endeavor to tell you all the different ways that my smartphone proved absolutely invaluable on my recent trip to Indonesia:

–Google translate: it’s not perfect, but I used it multiple times a day, and for me it was a brilliant way to reinforce the many words I learned in the last two weeks. It is a terrific bridge between peoples, and hopefully a contributor to increased intercultural understanding and world peace.

–Google maps, which we used primarily to navigate the mystifying traffic in Bali, but which also helped us get to where we needed to be in Jakarta and Jayapura. It was much less helpful in Timika, where very few roads appear to have names. It was also a source of amusement, such as in Jakarta when it announced, “increased traffic is ahead. Recalculating arrival times.” At times, Google maps became an additional passenger in our car, making its own contributions to our appreciation of the country. (He’s not an app, but I’d like to give a huge shout out to the amazing Benjamin Verbrugge, whose superb driving skills got us everywhere, and always in one piece!)

–Recording apps: I used these in Jakarta and Timika to record basic Torah cantillation patterns, and in Timika to record verses of the Torah for two of the women to learn. How amazing to be able to leave my voice behind to help them in their quest to read from the Torah.

–Tikkun Korim: This is a free app which does one thing: it presents the weekly Torah readings in Hebrew, with vowels and cantillation. Tap the screen once, and the vowels and cantillation disappear, allowing you to practice the Torah reading as it appears in the actual scroll. I loved seeing the delight from the Timika teens as they watched the vowels disappear. The app is small—only 2 MB—so easy to download even when your phone plan is quite modest.

–Facebook and Messenger: I love it and hate it. I love it for how it allows me to stay connected with the people here who have become a part of my life even though our lives are so far apart. I hate the overt ways it digs into my private life and lets me know in multiple ways just how intimately it’s come to known me. I leave Indonesia with at least half a dozen new friends from among those I’ve met on this trip. I’ve let them know that if they have any questions, they are more than welcome to ask them, and I’ll answer as best I can. And I know that I’ll get to see their photos and read their news from far away.

–Google, and all the places it takes you: I found a synagogue website that provided a terrific online resource for learning to read Hebrew, and I sent the link on to students in Timika and Sentani. I found batik stores, restaurants, relevant newspaper articles, and oh so much more. What an extraordinary thing to live in such a connected world.

So I call on all of you who carry your smartphones around and forget how wondrous they are to appreciate this truly magical object you have in your possession. It makes our world smaller, and brings other people so much closer. What an amazing age we live in!

Kristallnacht Commemoration

 

Thursday 9 November was a special night as Jews and Christians gathered at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht—seen by many as the start of the Shoah. The Beit Shalom choir was enriched by the addition of Zachary and Alex Knopoff, as well as guest singer Paul Oppenheimer, and its beautiful sounds filled the space. This was a special and sacred evening for those who attended, followed by a lavish Jewish-themed supper provided by the Catholic Archdiocese. The evening of reconciliation and prayers for a more hopeful and united future lifted many hearts in an age when the news is often dark.