Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on Shabbat, 21 March 1998 – 23 Adar 5758
This is Senior Citizens’ Week, so it seems appropriate that today a venerable synagogue should mark its birthday. We have called this the 120th anniversary service, but there are two qualifications to that statement. One is that the congregation itself is sixty years older: it arose out of gatherings for prayers held from about 1817 by Joseph Marcus and a group of convicts. The second qualification is that in fact it was on 4 March that the synagogue’s actual birthday occurred, but we were so busy with Bar-and Bat-Mitzvahs and other events involving the young that we had to wait for a Shabbat when things were quieter.
We invited those with long Great Synagogue associations to contact the office with details of their family connections with the Shule. The intention was to acknowledge them all by name. We will not really be able to do this because our list of families whose continuity at the synagogue goes back in some cases to convict days is simply so long. But we rejoice in the loyalty of so many to the Great Synagogue and Judaism and we pray that the interweaving of the lives of congregation and community will continue to bring blessing to both for years without number.
Chaim Bermant, the Jewish Chronicle columnist, said it was worth coming to Australia to see the Great Synagogue. Naturally none of us will disagree. We are proud of our Shule. There is a feeling, an aura here in these surroundings. Even if you do not come to pray, you drink in the atmosphere, and the least emotional person finds it hard not to be moved.
Not that we lack our detractors, who have no time for aesthetics, architecture, stateliness and ceremony. They prefer the cosiness and chaos of the shtiebel. But the shtiebel was not a conscious Jewish creation – the synagogue was! Shtiebels arose out of poverty, insecurity and lack of opportunity to beautify worship. They say the shtiebel has neshamah, but there are synagogues with neshamah and shtiebels without it. As far as we are concerned, “The Great” has something, and visitors pay tribute both to the majesty of the building and the warmth of the congregation.
There is an interplay between a synagogue and its congregation. The building has the same features as every synagogue, but it has its own flavour. Let your eye roam. Indeed close your eyes, and imagine the generations sitting in their accustomed places, ranging from the elders of 1878 with their period sartorial wear to those today whose style sometimes borders on the altogether too casual.
Look at the name plates on the seats; there you see a roll call of the community: as the Siddur puts it, “great and small, men, women and children… those who establish synagogues and those who enter therein to pray”. You open the seats and find, here and there, Siddurim in Gentian, Hungarian, Russian; Singer Siddurim, ArtScroll, Rinnat Yisrael – whatever a worshipper feels comfortable with.
You imagine you hear the singing of beloved chazanim of the past and the sermons of eminent rabbis. (This reference to the past does not denigrate, God forbid, the people of the present). You recognise the urbane orthodoxy of the Great Synagogue, its consistent philosophy and attitude over all those generations; its axiomatic Australian patriotism; its constant love of Israel, in spite of the views of a rabbi who died sixty-four years ago and did not quite understand what the rest of us do.
Yet the theologian Ignaz Maybaum said what seems a strange thing about synagogues. He said they had no history. He implied that what happens in a synagogue is always the same: souls are in communion with the Almighty. When you enter the synagogue you more or less leave history behind, you leave history outside the door. You enter into eternity.
He is not entirely right. What happens in a synagogue registers change, development, progress – sometimes even movement away from progress.
Imagine how much history has entered the doors of the Great Synagogue. Events in Australian and in earlier years British Empire history – war and peace, achievements and anniversaries, the synagogue has seen and marked them all. It has noted and responded to events in Jewish history, the tragedies, the triumphs. Indeed in bringing both the Holocaust and Israel into synagogue life we have often given the lead to others,
History in a personal and family sense has also been intertwined with the Great Synagogue. Within the walls of the building the endless cycle of birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, marriage, family life, ageing and anxiety, illness and loss – all have been part of the synagogue. All you need to do is to look at the High Holyday congregation as a register of evolution and change in the lives of human beings. Yes, despite Maybaum there is history in the synagogue.
But if Maybaum is not entirely right, he is not entirely wrong. Tor the synagogue stands for that which does not and must not change, the faith and tradition that provide stability and make sense of life and the world. The synagogue stands for truth, justice, peace, love, decency, humanity, hope – verities that do not blow in the wind. The synagogue understands the frailties and fallibilities of human beings, but its standards do not depend on what is fashionable nor has it ever agreed that a person has an automatic right, as the Bible puts it, “to do that which is right in his own eyes”.
This is what gives the synagogue strength, that you leave history at the door and renew the encounter with eternity. But much as synagogues enjoy the company of their congregants, they do not encourage people to stay too long in a comfort zone, Why do we make Havdalah at the end of Shabbat? Because we know that after the day of rest we have to re-enter the world, take up arms against its evils, repair its defects, and build an ever better civilisation.
From the a-history of the synagogue we thus move, inspired, reinvigorated, given direction, back into the history of all that is around us, making holy the not yet holy with all that we have gained from the pause that refreshes.
In Australia we have a sun-blessed land that has, thank God, been spared the upheavals and instability of many other countries. But we are not a nation without problems. There is a new, nasty racism. There is new violence and vandalism. There are threats to the old-time easy-going, fair-go philosophy that we thought was uniquely Australian. We can’t abdicate by refusing to come out of the synagogue.
There are also problems we share with the rest of the world. The environment needs to be protected here as much as anywhere else. And it is not only because industrial society tends not to be concerned with the land and the air. It is also the noise pollution that puts everyone on edge – even traffic noises that could be reduced considerably, even excruciatingly loud “music” that blasts the air and adds to our aggravation.
There are problems of business, professional, political, social and personal ethics – all need to be addressed with the ethical instinct that comes from the synagogue. History certainly needs the synagogue.
For 120 years the Great Synagogue has tried to bring this message to its congregation and community, and through them to the nation of which we are part. Whether or how far we have been successful is not the issue. Our concern at this historic juncture is to ensure that we never take the synagogue for granted and leave it to others to support and sustain it, or imagine it is enough to give it a passing nod or offer merely lip service to what it stands for. Our task is to make the synagogue ever more part of our lives, .and allow its eternal message to work through us on making the world ever more worthy of its creator and ready for its messianic redemption.
Great Synagogue, happy birthday! L’Chayyim! May you have another 120 years and morel