Take some nice Cheesecake or ten of these tablets…

If you were offered a freshly baked, deliciously alluring slice of cheesecake or taking ten tablets which you are told will keep you in good health which would you choose?

I suspect that if we were asked the question in public, most of us would give the noble answer -the tablets of course. In reality I think most of us would go for the cheesecake. After all, it’s real, it’s here right now and it’s simply tantalising. We may well know that taking the tablets is probably a better and more rational choice, but we humans are guided in our decision making, more by the primitive part of our brains than our higher cortical thinking. Nobel laureate, the Israeli Daniel Kahneman, has illustrated and proven this through his research that shows how we are more likely to be directed by our hearts than our heads when it comes to making choices.

The heart, is a fine instrument and an essential one for the symphony of the human spirit .However, it can be a devious distorter when it comes to making moral music,choosing the right values and leading a principled life. Truth is,becoming a learned ,refined and principled person, takes blood, sweat and tears.In a word it’s about work, hard work. To adapt Kahneman’s phrase its the difference between fast and slow thinking.

You will have guessed that the tablets are the 10 Commandments, the great moral and intellectual tradition of the Jewish people. The cheesecake is the ‘feel good ‘ of Jewish culture, the chicken soup infusion, the sentimental attachment to Bubba and Jewish practises.

As much as I love my cheesecake and chicken soup (in that order of kosher distancing, of course), these aren’t going to sustain my Jewish soul. They are tasty but transient, as evanescent as the beautiful autumn leaves falling outside my window. It’s the hard work of Jewish learning and the demanding requirements of Jewish practise that will ensure I remain Jewish. It’s the rigour, not the relish that will ensure Jewish continuity. This is the message of the of the 10 Commandments, this is the mantra of the Torah :educate yourself, teach your children and your grandchildren. It’s lovely to be a gastronomic Jew but its critical to be a cortical Jew.

Speaking at a Jewish Agency conference yesterday, American Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said that too many Diaspora Jews are “illiterate” about Judaism, which is the “greatest threat of all” to the continuity of Judaism outside Israel. “Regardless of how we believe or worship or observe our Judaism, what makes that practice uniquely Jewish and likely to continue and grow is our ability to place ourselves on an unbroken chain beginning in ancient times, that remains not just relevant – but even more critical today than ever before, as we struggle to find meaning in a complicated world,” the ambassador added.

According to Friedman, even living by Jewish values of “doing things that are morally just or helpful to others” adds “nothing” to one’s fluency.

“Let’s face it: Jews do not have a monopoly on acts of kindness, charity or social justice,” he said. “We all know many non-Jews who are as fine and admirable people as one could be.”

Friedman, who said he has done a lot of reading on Jewish history during quarantine, called on Jews around the world to “dedicate ourselves to recharging around Jewish education and sharing our learning with many, many, many others.”

The Ambassador’s words are a timely echo from Sinai. They are a reminder of that pellucid moment in Jewish history when mind and heart met, when the Jewish people’s response of Naaseh Venishma , we will do and we will listen, rang out with clarity and conviction.

We are failing in our Jewish education when so many of our finest kids emerge after 12 years of Jewish education without a passionate commitment to Jewish continuity. We are failing as a community when so many (if not the majority)of our adults are disengaged from ongoing Jewish learning. We are failing in our mission when our proud and active Australian community are, for the large part, not Jewishly literate.

Please use this pandemic period to reflect on how we can do it better. Let’s use this time to reflect on the incredible Jewish moral and intellectual tradition. Let’s use this opportunity and reinvent ourselves as a community with a passion for informed Jewish practise. Take a piece of cheesecake and open a Jewish book, learn a Jewish text ,become a literate Jew.Relish the slice of Jewish experience, savour the taste of Torah study ….

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom to you and your families from Caron and my family.

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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