The renewal of a community

September 13, 2018 by  
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Recently I returned  from a sabbatical in Israel which gave me time for introspection and reflection…writes Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks.

Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks

At Rosh Hashanah, our time of renewal, I want to share some thoughts on the renewal of our community.

In Israel there were many highlights. But there were some low points. The one most relevant to us right now is the alienation felt by Diaspora Jewry towards Israel.

After millennia of horror, Western Civilisation has realised that the best way to avoid such horror is to allow everyone maximum freedom to do whatever they will so long as they cause no harm to others. ‘Live and let live’ is the foundation of modernity. A modernity in which Jews are great beneficiaries.

Whilst so much has been going on in Israel there have been some positive developments in Melbourne where we, as a community, are seeking to address one of the greatest challenges for Jewish life  – ‘marrying out’.

Until recently the approach was the stick of punishment . A Jewish man can’t be called to the Torah if he marries out.  A non-Jewish parent is excluded from standing under the Chuppah or on the Bimah during family smachot. And, the most negative, when they came before the Beit Din to seek to convert they faced very high, almost insurmountable, walls.

Now to the positive part.

Over the past year there has been a real change in the attitude of the local establishment religious leadership. They have arrived at the same conclusion that many in the community have been espousing for a long time. Should we not, when approached by someone with a genuine desire to become a religious Jew, have the greatest imperative to do what we can to assist rather than alienate them?

To effect positive change, you need to know facts, which is why a review of the Melbourne Beit Din process was undertaken. Recent opeds in the AJN by Rabbis Genende and Glasman and an article on the work by Rabbi Mirvis provide a backdrop to this positive development.

A few weeks ago we read Parshat Shoftim  which unlocks the mystery of Jewish continuity and the power of the Torah in a way that guides our attitudes today in a most profound way. The Torah says that when you have a query concerning the application of the law or need for arbitration you should go to the judges of the cities who will be in those days. (Devarim 17:9)

Rashi explains that these  words suggest that even though your contemporary judge pales in comparison with the judges of earlier days, you must obey him — you have none else but the judge that lives in your days (Rosh Hashanah 25b).

This interpretation is an absolute revelation and, when actually applied today, which I truly believe it must be, will have ramifications of epic proportions. The revelation is that the Torah in its infinite wisdom not just identifies, but highlights, the need for a judge to be contemporary even if at the expense of historic wisdom and righteousness.

Of course not all contemporary rabbis are to be followed. The Torah clearly stipulates the required qualities of judges of the day. Wisdom and righteousness are required but not enough. The central requirement is the strength and integrity to judge without bias. ‘You shall show no partiality nor take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise’. (Devarim 16:19)

There is one further requirement – do they take seriously the charge to ensure that the Torah is being interpreted appropriately for their time?

It must be applauded that rabbis have found ways to make changes over the centuries. We do not have to kill all men, women, and children belonging to Hamas and Hezbollah even though they are surely no better than the Amalekites or the seven other nations whom we are explicitly instructed to annihilate when we enter the land. (Devarim 25:17, 20:16) They found a way and we are supremely thankful for that.

And now they, indeed all of us who are Orthodox rabbis, must focus on dealing with a major crisis – the crisis of ‘The Vanishing American Jew,’ (Alan Dershowitz) really the vanishing Diaspora Jew.

Remarkably, and testament to all who have come before us, many care so deeply about their Jewish identity, culture and religion that when the partner comes into the Jewish orbit he/she feels drawn in and wants to adopt Judaism as their own. But until now, they were met with harsh, negligent, and deeply suspicious responses to their request. So many turned away.

It is to the credit of the Melbourne Beit Din that last year it undertook a comprehensive review of its conversion program.

And what they found was something I have been advocating from the day I decided to work through an esteemed, independent Orthodox Beit Din in Israel led by Dayanim who were themselves responsible for penning the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s conversion program. Conversion candidates yearn for warmth, a sense of inclusion, transparency, to have a sense of what to expect (to the extent that is possible), readily available assistance, and generally not be forced to complete a doctorate on top of a master’s degree.

It is an exciting new development in the Jewish Life of Melbourne Australia. There is real hope now that the recommendations will have the desired effect that will help curb the tide of oblivion whilst immensely enriching our community with the diversity, intelligence, and sensitivity that converts bring.

We will have a situation where our children who wish to create a Jewish family are no longer turned off or turned away but are taught, guided, inspired and embraced for their genuine desire to lead an Orthodox Jewish life.

Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks is the Senior Rabbi at Melbourne’s ARK Centre

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