Ask the rabbi

May 4, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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What I get out of being Jewish?….ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Every Jew has an attitude to Jewishness. For some it is negative; Heine said, “Judaism is not a religion. It is a misfortune.”

But those who are negative are today very few. The 20th century has seen to that. The Holocaust confronted Jews with an ideology which sought to annihilate them; the threat strengthened their Jewish consciousness and now they echo Emil Fackenheim’s words that it is forbidden to grant Hitler a posthumous victory.

The creation of Israel, the hope realised, the dream come true, has injected vigour and excitement into Jewish life. The result is an upsurge in Jewish consciousness everywhere.

Albert Einstein remarked, “I am sorry I was born a Jew… because it deprived me of the privilege of choosing to be a Jew”.

I think this is a tremendous thought. My Jewishness is an accident of birth, but I do not regret it in any way. Indeed I am grateful for it.

I am part of an ancient people.

I am descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; from Moses the lawgiver, David the poet-warrior, Solomon the sage, Isaiah who thundered against injustice; from Jews of faith and vision, courage and compassion; from martyrs and pioneers and leaders of thought – these are my people.

I have a rich heritage of culture.

My heritage is the Bible, the inexhaustible mine of inspiration; the Talmud, the literary civilisation and eternal mental stimulus; and classics of poetry and philosophy, theology and thought, literature, liturgy and law, each of which could occupy me for a life-time – these are my treasures.

I have a challenging ethical tradition.

My belief in God means that we all have a common father and I am a brother to every other human being. My models are Levi Yitzchak, who had a good word for every sinner; Yisrael Salanter, who missed Kol Nidrei because a crying baby needed to be rocked to sleep; the Chafetz Chayyim whose work was to teach people to guard their tongue – this is my ethical example.

Judaism brings poetry into my life.

I gain such richness from the weekly Sabbath-eve scene in synagogue and home, the family table at Pesach, the colour and aroma of the sukkah, the magnetic tremor in the synagogue at Ne’ilah – Judaism gives me ceremony and symbolism, melody and mood, laughter and tears.

Judaism is moral courage.

Judaism, said Leo Baeck, is the eternal dissenter. It cannot live at peace with a world where lands are filled with broken bodies, hearts and minds because of war, poverty, hunger and injustice. It must speak out. As the Perek says, “Where there are no men, you must be a man.” A Jew must stand up and speak up.

Judaism is intellectual satisfaction.

In the words of Edmond Fleg, “I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.” Judaism grapples with ideas and ideals, truth and falsehood, broad issues and narrow ones. Its intellectual rigour has created a tradition of reasoning that means, as the sages put it, that the disciples of the wise have no rest either in this world or in the World to Come. Judaism is an unending adventure of the mind.

It is hard to be a Jew, but good. I would not want it any other way.


Q. Why do we say, “Lord open my lips” before saying the Amidah?

A. The complete phrase, from Psalm 51:17, is “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise”.

The Psalmist has sinned. He fears he will be unable to face or pray to God. If however, the Almighty enables his lips to speak it will be an indication of forgiveness.

When the liturgy chose these words with which to approach the Amidah, it broadened the meaning to imply, “God, enter my mouth: help me to frame my prayers and to utter them sincerely”.

The person who prays dreads being tongue-tied and distracted. Without God’s help it may be too hard to pray. The result is a paradox – in our prayers God both speaks and is spoken to.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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