Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on Shabbat, 12 February, 2000.
We are honored by your presence. This is one of a choice array of services that mark the beginning of the law term and I venture to hope that they each contribute to the dignity of the law and the dedication of its practitioners in this State.
Normally the Jewish component of the law term services takes place on the first Shabbat in February, but this year the Chief Justice was good enough to allow it to be postponed by a week so that I could attend a rabbinical conference in Israel, and I am grateful that this gave me the opportunity for professional invigoration and mental and spiritual inspiration, as well as to see children and grandchildren… and to freeze in the Israeli winter.
My profession has been the rabbinate for almost exactly forty years, but my original intention had been to enter the law. Had things been different it might have been me who was sitting in the congregation today and someone else standing in the pulpit. Why I did not become a lawyer whilst so many other members of the Jewish community did, is not really relevant. It all took place in what was almost another age. But in the intervening years it has become harder to be a rabbi – and harder to be a lawyer. Both professions have had to cope with an increasingly complex, sophisticated and difficult world. Neither can rely any longer on the automatic respect and deference of the community. Neither is endowed with automatic credibility these days. Both know they have to prove themselves anew every week and every year.
It is not so long ago that the lawyer (usually a long-standing family solicitor) was one of the most highly esteemed and influential members of society. He (it was usually a he in those days) was like the doctor, the clergyman, and (in class-conscious societies) the lord of the manor… even the bank manager – a well known personage, a friend, a solid, dependable and worthy leader of the community.
Now of course the village atmosphere has gone. There is greater mobility; people don’t stay in the one spot almost for ever. There are better media of communication; the professional does not appear so indispensable any more. People have less patience, especially if they think the professional (unfortunately this seems to apply especially to lawyers) is wordy, ponderous and monotonous. People are also less forgiving of public figures’ foibles and failings. Above all, the problems that proliferate in society are so complicated that no-one can be sure that they can find the answers. So it is hard to be a professional: certainly if the professional is a lawyer.
So what can we do? First and foremost, don’t waste time crying over spilt milk. Recognise the new situation and try to handle it. Forget about being an oracle and the fount of all wisdom: work and work harder to understand society and to find your role in the altered situation. Read, advance your knowledge – but not only in your own subject: explore the interface between, say, law and science, law and medicine, law and finance, law and literature. Above all, constantly subject your professional activities and attitudes to the scrutiny of ethical principles. And if your clients or the public at large use the Internet or other means to get some legal knowledge for themselves, encourage it for all you’re worth; that will raise the level and enhance the quality of decision making.
In the classical Jewish system all of these were axiomatic principles. The rabbi did not say, “Listen to me because 1 am the rabbi”. He said, “The Torah is morashah kehillat Yaakov – ‘the inheritance of the community of Jacob’, all the community of Jacob.” He did not say, “I will tell you the law”. He said, “Let us sit and learn the law together”. He did not say, “It is enough to know the liturgy and the spiritual classics”. He said, “One must take an interest in every area of human experience; the men of the ancient Sanhedrin had to know the languages and sciences, or else they would be ill-equipped to cope with the issues of real life”. He did not say, “Law is legal routine, procedures, precedents and paradigms”. He said, “There must be ethics in law, just as there are laws in ethics”. He did not say, “You be Zevulun and ply a trade and I will be Issachar and study the books”; the traditional rabbi found no problem in also following another career, and the traditional laymen combined trade with a degree of Torah learning.
It cannot but help if the public sees many more of the legal profession embarking upon what some are already doing to successfully – broadening their scope and almost reinventing their profession.
It also cannot but help if many more members of the legal profession and indeed of every section of society make themselves available to the many voluntary organisations that enrich our community in the widest sense. People of energy and talent should not be mere pragmatists, doing a job, earning a financial reward, handling the practical affairs of everyday living. People who have experience, expertise and education should also play their part in raising the level of civic involvement and public debate. Society needs to lift its sights, to dream dreams and see visions, to find a sense of purpose in national life. Lawyers are not the only people capable of being high-minded and high-principled, but they should be the first. Lawyers are not the only people able to offer moral leadership in society, but they should be the first.
I began these remarks on a rather personal tone. Let me conclude equally personally. Over the course of quite a long rabbinical career there have been moments of frustration when I almost whispered to a lawyer here or there, “I’m thinking of joining you and going back to the law”. They always said to me, “Stay where you are; you wouldn’t want to be lawyer”. Fortunately the moments of professional doubt passed and the rabbinate was almost always an exhilarating, absorbing and challenging way of life, and I am still here. I do not give legal advice, but on occasions like Law Shabbat I give advice to lawyers. And my advice is: constantly develop, diversify, enhance your professional credibility, become involved in the community, and let society evoke in and from you the very best you are able to give in the enterprise of building a nation whose ways, in the Biblical phrase, are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.
Chief Justice and men and women of the law, we greet you well; and we wish you God’s blessings in the year ahead.