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    Freedom to be ourselves

    Sermon delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on Shabbat, 3 April, 1999.

    Easter and Pesach come at the same time this year as they often do. On Easter it is almost impossible for Christians not to talk about Jews. On Pesach Jews do not usually talk about Christians, but this year is an exception in Sydney because some Anglicans have stepped up their missionising to such an extent that we feel like adding to our Pesach declarations of freedom, the freedom to have our religion respected and not delegitimised.

    We have had nearly two thousand years of unpleasant encounters with those who would deny us the freedom to be ourselves, to live as Jews and to maintain our own traditions, conscience and convictions. In the past the religious bullying and intimidation took the form of forced baptisms, compulsory attendance at Christian sermons and even physical assault. These more aggressive methods have been consigned to the scrap heap of history. But modern methods, for all that they are more sophisticated and genteel, are no less a threat to freedom of conscience.

    Some Christians may think we are in error. We remind them of the words of Voltaire: “I disagree to the death with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Freedom of the individual, including freedom of conscience, is an inescapable axiom of modern civilisation. It owes much to Milton, Spinoza, Locke and John Stuart Mill. Its inspiration must have been Judaism which, centuries earlier, asked in the Mishnah Sanhedrin, “Why was Adam created alone?” and answered that just as in his time Adam was the whole world, so every human being is a whole world with his or her own integrity, dignity and validity in the eyes of the Creator. In beautiful terms, the concept was further refined by the Yiddish saying, “Every child brings its own blessing into the world”.

    I say, as does every Jew, “My blessing is to be me… a Jewish me with my Moshe Rabbenu and Eliyahu HaNavi, my Hillel and Shammai, my Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, my Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides, my Baal Shem Tov and Vilna Gaon, my Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik; my sukkah and Seder, my Shabbat and Kol Nidrei, my kashrut, Kaddish and Kiddush, my Jewish songs, prayers, texts, ideas and insights. You may not share my birthright, but it is mine and it is my identity and inspiration.”

    “You may argue that I will be fulfilled by becoming a Christian. I say I am fulfilled as a Jew. My faith is complete as it is. Though my heritage was chosen for me I affirm it every day. My group identity is my personal identity. I insist on my freedom to be who I am, with my own integrity, legitimacy and validity.

    “So you think I’m wrong? Quite honestly, I think it is you who are wrong. But I follow the principle of Maimonides, who said that though other faiths are in error we have a duty to respect them. And Maimonides would add, leave the rest to God.”

    If there is a Christian imperative to disseminate the principles of Christianity, then singling out Jews and targeting them for active missionising is an affront to civil liberties and democracy. It shows that some people have learned little from history with all the damage that was caused by the negative stereotyping and demonising of the Jewish people. Some argue that a Jew who does not accept Christianity will go to hell; but Jews have been to hell and survived and it did not break their Jewish spirit. Further, missionising is not realistic; it is an investment of massive amounts of manpower and effort, and maybe money too, for a meagre return. Jews are no more likely than they ever have been to walk out on their Judaism.

    There is a fine new spirit of inter-community co-operation and dialogue in Australia as elsewhere. What a tragedy it would be if all this were jeopardised by the misguided enthusiasts who hand out Jewish-looking fliers on North Shore railway platforms or the conservative theologians who approve leaflets that are pushed under synagogue doors.

    Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church, by way of contrast, clearly states that its policy on proselytising Jews has irreversibly changed and God’s continuing covenant with the Jewish people is unambiguously affirmed. The Uniting Church likewise does not engage in direct missionising among Jews. Among Anglicans themselves there are many whose views are softening, as the proceedings of the 1998 Lambeth Conference explicitly indicate.

    It is not for Jews to intrude upon Christian theological debate, but there are two messages we insist upon articulating. One is the proud reiteration of the age-old declaration, “Am Yisrael Chai” – “the faith and people of Israel live – and will continue to do so”. The second is the suggestion made in goodwill and respect, “Let’s leave each other alone; you be a Christian, I’ll be a Jew – but let’s target the real agenda, which is to work together to raise the moral tone of our society as a whole so that, in the words of the prophet, justice may well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

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