Israel Folau: a lesson from the Torah

July 15, 2019 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Sydney’s The Great Synagogue’s congregation received a sermon on Shabbat from its spiritual leader Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton proffering his view on the message on social media from rugby giant Israel Folea that hell awaits member of the LGBTI community.

Rabbi Elton’s sermon:

Rabbi Ben Elton

“Last Tuesday the Prime Minister addressed the annual conference of the Hillsong Church, and he spoke out in defence of religious freedom. He said, ‘there’s a lot of talk about our freedoms as Christians in this country and they should be protected…Australia is a free country. There’s nothing more fundamental than the freedom of belief, whatever that belief might be, whether you have one or you don’t.’

I think that is uncontroversial, and a position we would all agree with. I am always concerned when I see restrictions placed on religious expression. Last month a ban came into force in Quebec against public employees wearing religious symbols. So a woman could not teach in a public school wearing a headscarf, and a man could not wear a kippah or a turban. That is an outrageous infringement of religious freedom, and if I was in Montreal I would be advocating civil disobedience to resist it, as my Quebec rabbinical colleagues are doing.

But the Prime Minister’s statement was not made in the context of the Quebec ban, but of our own Australian debate. It began in earnest at the time of the same sex marriage plebiscite, and it reached a peak when Israel Folau wrote that homosexuals were destined for Hell. He was fired for making that statement and his playing career is now effectively at an end. Rugby Australia asserted that Folau was dismissed for vilifying people on the basis of their sexuality, which is forbidden under his contract. Folau’s supporters retorted that he was the victim of religious persecution. He clamed he was merely restating the words of the bible, and that was the reason he had been sacked.

I had not intended to discuss the Folau incident and the question of religious freedom this week, or perhaps at all. But sometimes the parasha draws you back to current events and gives you a new insight. That, of course, is why we have the Torah, as the Rabbis say, turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.

In a famous incident we read this morning, the Israelites complained about a lack of water, and Moses was commanded to speak to a rock which would cause it to bring forth water. Instead, Moses lost his temper with the People, he castigated them: Listen up rebels!

Moses struck the rock, out of which water started to flow. God rebuked Moses, ‘because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’. God’s punishment was that Moses was banned from entering the Land of Israel.

God’s accusation is difficult to understand, because Moses clearly did believe in God, and he still managed to sanctify Him because a miracle did occur when a dry rock produced water. Rashi, our greatest commentator, makes a comment that seems to imply that Moses fell short because he could have made the miracle even more impressive by simply speaking to the rock. Rashi comments, that God was really saying to Moses:

For had you spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified before the whole congregation, for they would have said: What is the case with this rock which cannot speak and cannot hear and needs no maintenance? It fulfils the bidding of the Omnipresent God! How much more should we do so? 

Are we dealing here simply with the scale of a miracle? That is one interpretation, but a Hasidic teaching takes our understanding in a different direction. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was a founder of Hasidut in Poland, a friend of the first Rebbe of Chabad, and was active in the second half of the eighteenth century. He wrote a classic of Hasidic thought called Kedushat Levi, and in one essay he analysed the nature of Moses’ sin at the rock.

R Levi Yitzchak did not see Moses’ exclamation that the People were rebels, and his action in striking the rock as separate events, but as fundamentally connected, and that the second was the consequence of the first. He wrote that when you want to influence people in a religious sense, in a way that is connected to their souls and to God, there are two ways of doing it. A person can speak harshly, they can rebuke, castigate and condemn. To some extent that might even be effective. If you yell at a naughty child, or even beat them – God forbid – you might change their behaviour, at least in the short term. But the problem is this. You have not changed their essence, you have simply forced a schism between the inner state and the outer action, you have forced them into a state of self-alienation. They feel one way and they act another. You have coerced them, and their actions are against their will.

But there is a different way of dealing with any situation when you want to have religious influence. And that is to speak gently, with love and encouragement. If you do so, then you do not enforce behaviour upon them, rather you change them internally. Or to be more precise, you release their inner nature which is to be good, and do good, and perform the Will of God. If you speak softly, there is no need to carry a big stick, still less to use it. According to the Kedushat Levi, Moses struck the rock physically because he had already struck the People verbally. They were two expressions of the same impulse. And they had an effect, but not in the beneficial and wholesome way that was the ideal.

According to R Levi Yitzchak this might be what Rashi meant when he talked about a rock fulfilling the bidding of God. In a deep mystical sense, not only people but everything in the world, whether animate or inanimate wants to do God’s will. They just need encouragement. If you do not believe that, you lack faith in God.

Had the rock simply been spoken to, it would have fulfilled its mission to perform the Divine Will, instead of being literally bludgeoned into it. The same is all the more true of people. At the most fundamental level there is no such thing as religious coercion, because while you can change external actions through force you cannot change the internal state. Preventing a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf or a Jewish man wearing a kippah is obnoxious but ultimately futile. You will not create a secular individual or a secular society. The remarkable spiritual and cultural resilience of indigenous peoples in Australia is testimony to that.

You certainly will not create a religious individual by telling them they will go to Hell if they do not change their ways. But you will create miserable and bifurcated individuals, and that is very dangerous. A few weeks ago a young Jewish man from South Africa killed himself during a trip to Israel, because he could not reconcile his religious and his sexual identity. That feeling was fostered by every hateful statement that boy heard and read, especially when it came from the Jewish community and its religious leaders. He was the subject of harsh words, of verbal blows, and they alienated him from himself, they created a fissure in his soul that he could not endure, and that is why he took his own life.

That is why the language used by Israel Folau, and all similar language, is inappropriate. It is futile, it is irreligious and it is dangerous. As people of faith, our hallmark should be speech with is loving, caring and compassionate, whoever we are talking to, and whatever we are talking about. That is the teaching of R Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and that is the tikkun, the correction, for Moses sin when he berated the people and struck the rock. He paid a high price in his generation, let us not pay a high price in ours.”


7 Responses to “Israel Folau: a lesson from the Torah”
  1. John B McCormick says:

    I thank Rabbi Elton for his sermon printed here on the subject of Israel Falou. I find this sort of thing interesting as I have been an employer and a union member with experience of employment law here in New Zealand.
    To me employment law is not the equal of freedom laws or freedom of expression law which tends to be a basic law or Bill of Rights law close to the constitutional set up of a country. As a bush lawyer I have put together a few cases for barristers in the employment sector and won everyone of them.
    The politically correct actions of the ‘Give a Little’ page outfit closing the Falou page have ensured he has the money he needs to take on Rugby Australia.
    I will defend the right of anyone to have his or her beliefs and to talk about them at a meeting or gathering or on places such as face book with in the Law. That is not to say that I have to agree with them. To the best of my knowledge Israel Falou has not broken any law in New Zealand or Australia but is in dispute with Rugby Australia who in his opinion have taken away his freedom of speech.
    On July 7 Aucklander Cameron Slater in his Whaleoil blog covered an English Court of Appeal case of Felix Ngole verse Sheffield University. The Blog headline being ‘UK Christian’s Court Win a Victory for Freedom’ The prosecution of Sheffield for Ngole was taken by the ‘Christian Concern and Christian legal centre.’
    The Ngole case is very similar to that of Falou being to do with him being expelled for his Christian beliefs to do with Homosexuality. Ngole was a Masters Degree student in social work. He was expelled by Sheffield not for his views but for expressing them anywhere, in Church,or in private. By expressing his views anywhere he risked being reported. He was reported and was expelled.
    The court noted that his views that were on face book were reported in an anonymous complaint. The court noted the “Snitch culture” encouraged by the University was like one of the grimmest aspects of Totalitarian regimes like East Germany.

    The Appeal court Judges in their judgement said the University failed to appreciate that it had taken a stance which was not in accord with HCPC guidance or common sense. The Judge went on to say ‘I hope that this judgement brings a return to common sense about what is exceptable for students and professionals to express on social media, in churches or elsewhere’.
    The court also noted that the Judgement did not ‘just apply to Christians but Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddists and members of other faiths’.

    The court noted that Christian Concern,(CCCLC) its co founder Pastor Ade Omooda MBE tried to talk to the University in several meetings to resolve the conflict. They supported what the Pastor said and agreed with his description of the Universities position, “The University was insisting that Felix cannot express his Christian beliefs on Homosexuality in any forum except at a private setting” yet as we see elsewhere a snitch at such a private meeting could be used against him. The court went on to say “It is unfortunate that at no stage did the University grasp the olive branch proffered by Pastor Omooba”.

    I hope that Australian Judges take note of the words such as ‘commonsense’ and ‘elsewhere’ and note that the English ruling by more than one Appeal court judge covers student and Employment law.

    Rugby Australia should make an out of court settlement and meet the demands of Israel Falou. I don’t think they have a leg to stand on.

    Also I hope Rabbi Elton brings the UK case of Ngole v Sheffield University 2019 to the notice of his rabbinical colleagues in Quebec. A court case there will show that employment contracts and agreements with clauses that restrict religions and free speech within the law of the land have no standing.

    John McCormick

  2. Paul Winter says:

    I must, with respect, beg to differ.

    Talking of love is fine and should be any society’s ideal. But our history tells us that such talk is useless. People who accuse us of killing Jesus or using the blood of children in making matzah do not accept love and forgiveness or logic or decency. Neither do those who claim that we murdered their prophets and we are the descendent of pigs and apes.

    Israel Falau’s assertion on a private page that homosexuals and several other sinners will go to hell if they don’t repent and accept his saviour is his private view which he is entitled to hold. It is in fact a message of love in a peculiar way.

    The message of damnation is inherent in both of the world’s major religions, Christianity and Islam. The followers of those faiths are entitled to hold those in the same way that I am entitled to reject their beliefs. In the same way all but one of the other sinners that Falau claimed would go to hell ignored his comment. The one that took offence was the homosexual group, the same one that mocks religions in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

    And here we come to the crucial point of Rabbi Elton’s sermon. He suggests that we should self censor because somebody might get upset and harm themselves. That is completely unacceptable and his comment that we turn the Torah again and again demolishes his argument. No Jew has ever committed suicide because his or her interpretation of a section of the Torah was disputed and here I am thinking of agunot and those whose conversions are disputed.

    • Marcus G says:

      I wholeheartedly agree, Paul. We cannot ever hold back the truth – and that’s simply the motive behind what Israel was doing. He was telling the truth out of love and not hatred.

      The Israelites themselves were told on numerous occasions about the curses that would befall them if they refused to obey. I think this is the very same issue we’re discussing today.

    • Eleonora Mostert says:

      Sorry Rabbi Elton, I don’t agree with everything you wrote most is spot on. However you did not address the problem this world is creating for itself. You disagree with Israel Folau when he was quoting facts. I didn’t hear him yelling, screaming using harsh words in that sense. Nor do you acknowledge that Israel referred to other problems within society. Mr John B McCormick makes that very same error of honing in on the Homosexual aspect you and many others do not address the problem that society is now forcing everyone to cater and appease the minority and remove morality from this earth and become a lawless “Hell Hole”, no love, no truth, no morals. I’m with you Mr Paul Winters.

    • Michael Barnett says:

      “Israel Falau’s assertion on a private page that homosexuals and several other sinners will go to hell if they don’t repent and accept his saviour is his private view which he is entitled to hold. It is in fact a message of love in a peculiar way.”

      A public Instagram page for a prominent brand ambassador is anything but private.

  3. Michael Barnett says:

    In my opinion, the logical extension of this argument is to treat everyone equally, to say we are all of equal worth, and to ensure no one is advantaged over anyone else.

    It might be a complicated journey for some to get to this point in their minds, but if they want to get their badly enough, they just need draw on the wisdom of Rabbi Elton:

    “That, of course, is why we have the Torah, as the Rabbis say, turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it.”

  4. Gary Inberg says:

    Brilliant as usual!

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