Our Worst Fears, Our Best Hopes

It’s made world headlines – Melbourne rabbi verbally abused in road attack. The ugly and vicious anti-semitic comments aimed at the rabbi were chilling, if not completely unsurprising. We know that even in tolerant, multicultural Melbourne there’s been an increase in anti-semitic incidents. Fortunately it’s not on the violent and frightening level of Europe. I can still comfortably wear my kippah in central Melbourne.

The world’s longest hatred continues unabated; Jew-hatred is endemic; an ever-mutating virus. It’s the stuff of despair even if we’re aware of the many theories of and reasons for antisemitism. Articles and books on this anathema fall as thick as autumn leaves on library shelves and crowd our inboxes.

I’ve been thinking about antisemitism in the context of last week’s parasha and the Talmudic debates we’ve been studying in our Daf Yomi this past week. Last week’s parasha was named after Moshe’s non-Jewish father-in-law Yitro (Jethro), a famous man who famously embraces the Jewish faith. Not many people merit to get a page in the Bible named after them and even fewer get a whole Torah parasha or portion in their name. Two other non-Jews have parshiot named after them: Noah of flood-fame and Balak, the ignomious king of Moab who hires Bilam to curse the Jewish people. Noah is a global man reminding the world of its worst impluses and best hopes. Out of the ruins of a flooded world he re-creates a life, he is gifted the rainbow of colourful optimism. He represents our common humanity.

Jethro and Balak have particular resonance for us as Jews. Balak is emblematic of an archetypal antisemitism, Jethro is a model of philo-Judaism, an admirer and friend of ours. It’s been quipped that he’s the equivalent of Donald Trump with his Jewish son-in-law… That’s probably where the analogy ends because Yitro was a remarkable spiritual seeker as well as a statesman.

Balak reminds us to be ever-vigilant of those who seek to harm us – especially with their vile words. He hires Bilam a motor-mouth to malign us, to spread his BDS and BS words about the new Jewish nation. As a king he no doubt called on his world UN cronies (the Midianites etc) to join his smear campaign. Balak and the craven anti-semites of today are like the non-kosher birds that the Talmud has been analysing this week. The treif birds are singled out for the way they attack their prey, they claw them and hold them in their claws as they devour them. They are cruel and merciless. One of these birds is named a ‘Raah’ which connotes seeing “because it sees exceedingly far… And it was taught regarding it that while standing in Babylon, it can see carrion in the land of Israel” (Chullin 63b). Now if that’s not an apt descriptor of an Israel-hater what is? They stand and broadcast in Babylon and Berlin, Paris and London about the rotteness they perceive in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem… Ultimately they are purveyors of propaganda, carriers of carrion.

Jethro, by contrast is a man who knows well that the people of Israel aren’t perfect. He is critical of Moshe’s management skills and presumably would have something to say about his PR too! He also is subtly critical of Moshe’s family relations. Nonethless he is able to appreciate the sheer wonder of this people Israel, their extraordinary resilience, the miracle of their survival. He is a true friend of the Jewish nation and a reminder to us that while our enemies may make us despair, our friends inspire us with their care. We have many enemies but we also have many friends among the nations of the world – and Australia is a shining example.

So yes, there’s animosity in Melbourne but there’s also amicability in Canberra. There are many non-kosher rapacious birds but there are also many kosher birds known for their beauty and agility. Let’s be sure to lift our eyes upwards and focus on the positive and productive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. 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 of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits 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 and two grandchildren.
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