Siren sounds

There’s nothing quite like a siren to wake and shake you up. A siren sound is alarming and unsettling. Last week ago three siren calls caught my attention and disturbed my equilibrium.

The first was the sound of the siren at the end of the riveting Matilda games. The second was the report of the missing siren sounds on the devastated island of Hawaii. The third was my own siren –sounded again this morning.

The first, like the original mythical song of the sirens of the sea, was a siren sound of both allure and disappointment.

The win of the Matildas united Australians in a remarkable and affirming way. It was a moment that captured the imagination of the nation and distracted us from our usual troubles and conflicts. They brought us together with their dedication, spirit, mateship and female power . What a reminder of the sheer joy that comes with the communal celebration of the good things that we do!

The subsequent losses of the Matildas may have been deeply disappointing but the Australian team won the hearts of Australia and enhanced the role and perspective of women in sport.

How good it was to celebrate the strength and spirit of the women of Australia! An important moment to reflect on how far we have come in the recognition and empowerment of women in this country, but also a reminder of how far we still have to go. The depressing statistics of abuse against women every single day in this country, the egregious wage -gap between men and women, the pressures on single parent mums and single women are all reminders of the work to still be done.

As a Jew, it also got me thinking of the long road we still have to travel for the empowerment and appreciation of Jewish women. Jewish women may have achieved remarkable success in politics and business, the arts and the sciences but it is in religious life that the road is still so rocky: While some Jewish women, especially in what’s called modern or centrist Orthodoxy religious life, have achieved status and success, others are still held back by their leaders and communities. The recent moves of the emboldened religious right and ultra Orthodox in Israel to curtail women’s rights are most worrying. Secular Israeli women have been abused because of their dress, females being told to sit at the back of the bus; women soldiers are being sidelined, many women ( including religious women)are treated with disdain by the Rabbinate’s religious courts and women are seriously underrepresented in the current government with its strong religious representation. A theocracy, in my mind,  has never been a Jewish ideal although a nomocracy has-a government based on the rule of law rather than arbitrary will or terror. Let the benighted rulers of Iran and Afghanistan claim they are the purveyors of theocracy, let not the enlightened leaders of Israel go down this twisted road.

The second siren (or rather it’s absence )to catch my attention was on Hawaii. Maui Emergency chief deliberately chose not to use sirens to warn the residents of wildfires supposedly because of mixed signals like where to escape to.

He resigned abruptly after saying he had no regrets about not using the sirens. While the use of sirens in this awful catastrophe may be debatable, the siren call of a climate change emergency is both audible and compelling. The Torah is unequivocal in its condemnation of our abuse of the environment and unsurpassed in its advocacy of our environmental responsibility. At the very start of the story of our planet in the Book of Genesis God calls on us ‘lovdah uleshomra’ to cultivate and to be custodians of it. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it simply and profoundly: let’s not play roulette with our children’s future! The siren call of our wounded earth is a moral voice . There is an awful aching silence in the images of devastation from Maui. A numbed and dumbed landscape of human agony and earthly tragedy. Frank Kafka reflecting on the Greek myth ( made famous in Homer’s Odyssey)of half- human sea creatures with alluring voices who entice hapless sailors and then let them drown remarked: ‘Now the sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely, their silence… Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never’. I am terrified for my grandchildren by the silence of a scorched earthscape….

This morning I sounded my own siren – it’s called a shofar or ram’s horn. During  the month of Elul and we blow the horn which will continue until month’s end which in turn heralds the beginning of the new year, Rosh Hashana. The shofar like a siren is a warning signal , a wake-up call , a Divine alarm clock reminding us to examine our lives ; to look back at our actions over the past year, to think about how we can do things better in the coming year.To meditate on my personal goals, to consider my relationships with others, to consider my responsibilities to my environment, to meditate on my connection to my God.

I will not ask for whom the shofar blows as I know it sounds for you and me.

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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