Ralph Genende
Ralph Genende

It’s not too late to build a better world

When I was a young boy, the Beatles burst onto the world stage and challenged and changed the lives of so many. Their lyrics became part of our lives and still resonate with vigor and energy. Can you imagine the world without John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, and maybe you still want to cry out love is all we need? Or perhaps in these dreadful times all you want to shout out is “It’s a hard day’s night”. Hopefully we’re getting by with a little help from our friends…

Which one of the songs speaks most to you during these times? Well, I know one that spoke  to me so loudly and profoundly on that  most loud and profound of our days, Yom Kippur. It’s Eleanor Rigby:
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

The world is awash with lonely people and loneliness, solitariness and solitude are eroding the human spirit. It’s killing communities it’s damaging our Jewish community and it’s a threat to our Jewish continuity. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls it the bowling alone phenomenon. Once young people used to engage in fraternities,organisations and societies – be it the Masons, Rotary, Bnai Brith, Boy Scouts or bowling clubs. Now these organisations are struggling and people prefer to go it alone, do it alone, bowl alone. We are losing what he calls social capital, that’s the shared interactions, social support and fellowship. The very elements that made societies strong, created community and held families together.

Jonathan Sacks in his final and memorable book called Morality said we are replacing ‘we’ with ‘me’; ‘us’ with ‘I’. Individuality and the individual spirit are things we value as Jews and are pretty good at it; we are aggressively ambitious and tiresomely singular. But then, we also value the power of two, of me and you and our collective plural strength is legendary. The Afrikaners, for all their sins, had a wonderful expression “Eendracht maak macht-In unity is strength’’, in togetherness is potency, in connectedness is powerfulness. Our rabbis had a wonderful way of putting it Chavruta or Mituta – If you can’t give me a friend you give me death! Kol Yisrael Areivim -we are all responsible for one another. Of course, they were only echoing the most basic and essential commandments of the Torah: love your neighbour, reach out to the poor, hear the voice of the distressed. Create a society in which inequity is banished.

Einstein’s evocative words don’t come out of nowhere:
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.

But for all this, I worry and wonder how many Jews are thanking their lucky stars today for being Jewish. How good are we at building a community where there is a place for all kinds of Jews; for the same and the different, the like and the unlike -and the like for the disliked? For all our talk of unity, we seem to make an art out of who we don’t accept in our communities and this is especially so in our Orthodox congregations. As Jonathan Sacks once cynically observed, we are the only people who multiply in division.

Just how many people are walking amongst us who feel isolated and excluded – those who have married out and who we just won’t engage with, those who are LGBTI who we can’t really accept, those who aren’t quite as smart as us, those who just aren’t as sophisticated or as rich or as cool as we are. And those Jews who we won’t sit down and talk to because they aren’t Orthodox.

It’s time for a collective Al Chet, the Yom Kippur confession for the sins that we have sinned, for the people we have rejected…
On Yom Kippur it’s an appropriate time for us to ask for forgiveness of all the Jews we have barred and mocked, for our sins of presumption and superiority, for the arrogance of those in the religious community that “since we keep Shabat and we keep kosher we are therefore the chosen, entitled Jews”. And on the other side the secularists need to seek atonement for the Jews who are contemptuously dismissed because they are religious. We all need to seek atonement for our simplistic thinking that you’re either in or you’re out; for our failure to accept the maddening complexity of life.

I wonder what God would think about all the lonely people that we don’t see, the hurting individuals that we overlook, all the wounded souls we have rejected?

If we are (in that tired phrase) living in unprecedented times, then let’s do something unprecedented to move Judaism forward, to keep Modern Orthodoxy alive, to keep this wonderfully rich thing called Judaism alive and relevant. It’s time for Orthodoxy to unfreeze our conversion processes, to rethink our attitudes towards women rabbis, to reinvent our response to the gay community, towards racism and climate denial, to refugees, the non-Orthodox and the irreligious,

It’s time to openly acknowledge that the world is simply not the same as it was before this pandemic, to resolutely recognise we are living through an information technology revolution. The world will never be the same again. We have a chance to reshape and to remake it, to become more accepting, inviting and inclusive. It takes courage, it takes boldness-qualities which are doubly hard in a time of uncertainty and unpredictability a time when we want to retreat and seek old certainties.

But now is the time – just look around at all those lonely people, just look at all those people seeking connection, just look at all those Jews who are longing and yearning to be accepted. I want your children, I want my children and grandchildren to say of their Judaism – It’s mine. I’m not trying to make all Jews more religious; I don’t need them to be more frum (although that would be very nice). But I do want you and your children who aren’t religious to feel connected, to feel that they belong to an amazing people, to recognise that this Torah is just as much yours as it is the guy’s down the road who wears a streimel or black hat, the frum lady with the beautiful wig or snazzy snood.

It’s tragic that we still define a good Jew only as one who observes Shabbat and keeps kosher or who may put attending a minyan above the price of a human life. It’s tragic that we don’t also define a good Jew as one who doesn’t lie, doesn’t evade taxes, doesn’t have a secret sense of superiority; as one who watches and guards their words, who reaches out with the same generosity and a smile to a fellow Jew and to the desperate migrant in the limbo of a temporary visa (seeking asylum and refuge from persecution).

And if you think I’m just a bleeding-heart liberal do me a favour, remember the words of Rav JB  Soloveitchik that the reason we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, is to remind us that we are part of a global community. Do yourself a favour and read the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah of the day:

Shout out loud, do not hold back; raise up your voice like a ram’s horn. … Day after day they search for me… They say that being close to God is all that interests them. Why do you fast and you do not see, you don’t get it when you do not acknowledge even on your fast day that you focus on your own interests exclusively, you oppress your labourers ,contending and fighting each other? You fast while you beat with the fist of evil…. Is this what you call a fast? No, this is the fast I choose. Stop, loosen the bonds of evil, break the slavery chain, those who are crushed release to freedom, share your bread with the starving across this world, bring the dispossessed into your home, do not avert your eyes from your own family …

This may be a desperate cry of despair, a cri de coeur . But I also know that deep down we can and we shall overcome. We are not a people of hope for nothing. We are not a people of vision for nothing.Yom Kippur is a frightful and frightening day, fearsome and awesome in its demands that we become better. But a frighteningly wonderful visionary day that says we can do better!

That same prophet who excoriated us for all our falsity and futile fasting proclaims: God will answer when you cry out, He will say I am here if you cast away the chains of slavery, the angry racist and ruthless words, if you give of your soul to the starving and answer the hunger of souls oppressed. “Then your light will shine out in darkness and your night itself will also shine … will fortify your bones, you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that flows with never failing waters.”

Friends, it is not too late to build a better world, it is not too late to become better people, it is not too late to become better Jews, it is not too late,..

Rabbi Ralph Genende

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist and they have three children – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.