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In the Press: Reflections on the Chief Rabbi’s Visit

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As published in The Australian Jewish News

As Australia welcomes newly appointed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Rabbi Yaakov Glasman reflects on rabbinic roles generally and that of the Chief Rabbi in particular.

Australian Jewry is all the richer as we are graced with the presence of the recently appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. While Rabbi Mirvis will no doubt be visiting as many shuls and Jewish schools as his Melbourne schedule allows, if I may be so brazen as to suggest that St Kilda shul, whose rich history has been so remarkably influenced by Anglo tradition, and where Rabbi Mirvis will be spending Shabbat morning, is one of a small number of shuls that has enjoyed a unique affinity with successive Chief Rabbis over the years.

On April 2, 1921, exactly 50 years from our shul’s inception, the late Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz spent the Shabbat as a guest of the congregation while staying at the St Kilda Road mansion of St Kilda shul stalwart, the late Sholom J Slutzkin. In April of 1952, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie occupied with grace the St Kilda shul pulpit to address the congregation, and in November 1970 our shul was privileged to hear an enlightening sermon delivered by Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. Perhaps better remembered by younger members of Melbourne’s Jewish community was the visit of Chief Rabbi Emeritus Lord Jonathan Sacks in May 1992, when he too addressed the large St Kilda shul congregation during Shabbat services. To once again be privileged with the visit this Shabbat of newly appointed Chief Rabbi Mirvis to twice address the congregation, we at St Kilda shul are indeed exceptionally fortunate.

But historical milestones aside, it is wholly fair for a new generation of Jewish youth to ask: Why the need for a Chief Rabbi at all? Surely today, as many Jews seek to engage with their Judaism through means other than the traditional Hebrew congregation style of service, perhaps it is fair to ask whether a decentralised rabbinic leadership better meets the needs of our ever-evolving community?

To me, the answer is a resounding no.

More than ever before does Diaspora Jewry need religious leadership that possesses the profile and reach to affect the masses, not only in terms of “in-reach” style Jewish engagement, but also – and perhaps equally importantly – to become the “Ohr Lagoyim” (light unto the nations) that the prophet Isaiah envisaged. Today more than ever, when the international spotlight shines incessantly on Israel and the Jewish people, our nation needs a powerful voice to communicate the truth of the Torah, to bolster the Jewish way of life, and to counter the increasingly negative perception cast wholesale upon religious leaders around the world by the increasingly hostile scrutiny of evangelical anti-religionists.

It goes without saying that religious leaders must be held to a higher account than the general populace and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees. Irrespective of one’s field of work, leadership roles almost always entail privilege, and as such those occupying these roles will inevitably be scrutinised under a higher-resolution microscope than the people they represent. Simply put, the public expects a higher standard of performance from those in power, and if that applies to areas outside religion it applies manifold more within the orbit of religious leadership. And according to Judaism – so it should.

After all, all Moses did was hit a rock! But that cost him his life’s ambition of entering into his beloved homeland. Moses disobeyed God’s instruction and was meted out what would appear to have been a grossly disproportionate punishment, despite his decades of remarkable leadership. He beseeched God no fewer than 515 times to rescind the decree so he could live, and die, in Israel – but it was not to be. Moses died on Har Nevo never having entered the Promised Land.

Why? It was because, as the Talmud (Yevamot 121b) puts it, “God is exacting with His close ones to a hair’s breadth.” The righteous will always be judged at a higher standard.

More than ever before does Diaspora Jewry need religious leadership that possesses the profile and reach to affect the masses.

And while being a rabbi nowadays implies little of being righteous, there is no doubt that rabbis do represent something far greater than just themselves. The rabbi represents our faith. He is viewed as an ambassador of Judaism to the Jewish and wider communities, and his actions and inactions speak volumes by virtue of the position he occupies. To be sure, when he rises to the challenge he creates a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name); but when he stumbles it brings shame on the community and the damage, in some cases, is irreparable.

And let’s face it; sadly in today’s climate rabbis’ errors are broadcast at an infinitely faster rate than their achievements. When they serve their roles with distinction their efforts may well be recognised by their individual congregations, and if they engage positively with other communal and faith leaders then this in turn reflects well on the Jewish faith these rabbis represent. But when they do the wrong thing it makes world news within seconds. Promulgation of rabbinic solecism is achieved in many instances not by the predictably hostile media but, tragically, by our very own. When this occurs, all rabbis become tarred by the same brush.

And herein lies one of the most meaningful functions of the Office of the Chief Rabbi today – to proclaim a religious voice of faith to a world that’s lost faith in religion.

The Chief Rabbi’s position is not only one of the most senior in the Jewish world; it is also one of the most far reaching. The views of whoever has occupied this illustrious position have and continue to be sought on a plethora of issues facing contemporary society, not only by the Jewish community, but by the wider community as well. And with the advent of technology and social media, the unofficial spokesman of Commonwealth Jewry can disseminate a voice to an even more diverse and ever-expanding audience.

Of course, the Chief Rabbi’s office through its Beth Din also provides halachic guidance and hashkafic (philosophical) direction within the Jewish community, and this role too, is critical. However, in a secular environment often hostile to religion, we as Jews need more than ever a public figure that can harness the inestimable depth of our Torah and communicate through every available medium with eloquence and vivacity.

But as much as the position carries the individual, the individual carries the position – and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the 11th Chief Rabbi since 1704, has already proven himself eminently capable of rising to that challenge.

During his inauguration sermon and in the presence of the Prince of Wales (Chief Rabbi Mirvis is the first Chief Rabbi whose induction was attended by a member of the Royal Family), he so brilliantly articulated his vision and the goals he seeks to reach during his tenure. He spoke of three pillars enumerated in Ethics of Our Fathers – Torah, Avodah (divine service) and Gemilut Chassadim (acts of loving kindness). The first, Torah, would be achieved through excellence in Jewish education. The second, Avodah, would be achieved through building strong and active communities. With these two goals Rabbi Mirvis captured minds of his audience; but it was his third goal that captured their hearts.

He spoke with sincerity about the ultimate goal of Gemilut Chassadim; of fostering communities that care for their weak and vulnerable; of transforming disparate individuals into an interconnected group in which each person is an indispensable part of the communal rubric. He explained so eloquently that this could be achieved only when we perceive the inestimable value and sacredness inherent in every person, and live our lives not only according to the laws of the Torah but according to its spirit.

And of course, Chief Rabbi Mirvis shared his hopes that one day our brothers and sisters in Israel will live alongside their neighbours enjoying a true and everlasting peace. As the first Chief Rabbi to have been a product of Israeli yeshivot and to have been ordained in Israel, he discerningly noted that each of his three immediate predecessors took office during gripping times for the Jewish State: Sir Israel Brodie delivered his inaugural address in 1948 in the midst of the War of Independence; Lord Immanuel Jakobovits did same in 1967 only weeks before the outbreak of the Six-Day War; and Lord Jonathan Sacks ascended his inaugural pulpit just after the conclusion of the Gulf War, exactly 22 years earlier to the day that Chief Rabbi Mirvis took up the role.

In these hopes – bolstering Jewish knowledge, Jewish communities and Jewish values, and strengthen our connection to Israel – Chief Rabbi Mirvis has clearly articulated his mission statement for what will, please God, be a fruitful and successful tenure in office. Indeed we, in Australia, are all the richer for his presence.