Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple, AO RFD, at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Yom Kippur, 26 September, 2004-5765
This will be a rather personal Ne’ilah address, as it comes in the lead-up to the Ne’ilah of my long incumbency of 32 years as senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue. I shall still, please God, be in office until Rabbi Lawrence arrives in January, but how could I resist the contemplative mood and motif of Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur as a moment for serious assessment?
The name Ne’ilah was given to the final service on Yom Kippur because of the ancient practice of ne’ilat sh’arim, “the closing of the gates” – in a literal sense – in the Temple in Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur, Ne’ilah is the metaphorical closing of the gates of the day of spiritual opportunity. Ne’ilah sermons everywhere tend to ask how well we have utilised the time since Kol Nidrei and whether our hearts and souls are better equipped to face tomorrow. As you will appreciate, I have been giving Ne’ilah sermons of this kind for a long time, both here and in the London congregations where I ministered before coming to Sydney.
Today’s Ne’ilah sermon will follow convention, but with a difference. The questions I ask will be largely to and about myself. I hope you will bear with me whether or not you entirely agree with my assessment.
Where do I begin? Obviously, at the beginning. Just as the Temple had a p’tichat sh’arim, an opening of the gates at dawn, and as Yom Kippur has an opening of the gates at Kol Nidrei, so anyone’s career, and certainly a rabbi’s, has its own opening of the gates. With me it was in suburban Melbourne, where, so I am told, I would sit my two brothers on chairs in the back garden and play shules and preach childish sermons. My brothers’ reactions are not recorded. I can only hope that by now they have forgiven me.
Religion of a more mature kind always appealed to me, influenced by the august Rabbi Jacob Danglow as my rabbi at the St Kilda Synagogue and the scholarly Professor Samuel Billigheimer as my teacher. I spent much of my student career out of the law library where I should have been, and instead frequented the religion and Judaica sections of the university and public libraries. I read whatever I found and even ransacked the rare book collections. I was a law student, but it soon became obvious, even to me, that I would change track. (Many of you recall my induction remark that I forsook the profits of the law for the law of the prophets, though a number of lawyers have pointed out to me over the years that the vaunted profits of the law are not particularly dependable.)
Rabbi Danglow once tried to warn me about the rabbinate. He said, though in more measured and dignified tones, that being a rabbi is not always a bed of roses. Years later I came across an article in the London Jewish Chronicle that spoke about a rabbi’s “life of endless sermons, Bar-Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals, hospitals, shivahs, lunatic asylums, et hoc genus omne.” It deplored “the contemptuous arrogance of the petty honorary officers who put the ministers in their place when they are not engaged in doing the same thing to one another”. It said that critics jeered at the lack of scholarship among Jewish ministers but asked, “What chance of erudition have they left? This blessed community of ours has never been able to make up its mind whether it wants men of learning or parochial visitors and routine officials”. It added that the “foreign-born Jewish population” could not grasp the idea of “a preaching body dressed like a galach” with neither the erudition of the Talmudist nor the appeal of the maggid (Jewish Chronicle, 6 May, 1932).
Had I seen this article much earlier it might have made me think twice about becoming a rabbi, but as things transpired I never, despite occasional moments of frustration, suffered too much from being put in my place, nor did any of my congregations expect me to be limited to being a parochial visitor or routine official. So perhaps I was fortunate, more fortunate than some of my colleagues.
I once characterised the rabbinate in alliterative terms as priests, prophets, preachers, poets, pedagogues and paragons. Though not necessarily a kohen, the rabbi as priest conducts the set rituals, hopefully with sufficient dignity to vindicate religious ritual as an anchor. As prophet, the rabbi speaks out like a shofar, with whatever courage and inspiration he can muster. As preacher, he “proclaims the righteousness of God”, to quote the Book of Psalms, “in the great congregation” (Ps. 40:10), though I applied the word “great” in ways the Psalmist never envisaged. As poet, the rabbi finds the word for the moment, whether it is ecstasy or agony to which he must give voice. As pedagogue, he shares the riches of the tradition with students of all ages, whether they come to him or he reaches out to them. He tries to be a paragon who is tocho k’varo, “the same inside as outside”.
Not every rabbi is successful in ail of these tasks. Only time and the patience of his congregation will reveal where his strengths lie, and if the congregation are fair-minded they will forgive him his failings as he forgives theirs. (There are rabbinic biographies with titles like “The Beloved Rabbi”; but never a book called “The Perfect Rabbi”, because the perfect rabbi has not yet been born.)
My rabbinic career coincided with a sea change in the rabbinate. The Emancipation in Western Europe had changed the rabbi from intellectual leader, arbiter and sage-in-residence to the more assimilatory role of pastor and minister who looked, sounded and acted like the Christian clergy. This is where clerical collars and Anglican titles like “Reverend” came in, not that they lacked point in their day. But now there is a qualified return to the older concept and one can be rabbi as well as minister, valuing scholarship and giving a degree of Jewish intellectual sophistication to a highly educated generation.
I must say that I find the new concept appealing and am comfortable with it. But in the Great Synagogue a further dimension goes with the role, and I hope history will not judge me too unkindly in this respect. That dimension is the rabbi as public figure. The Great is an aristocrat amongst synagogues, intellectually up-market, socially significant; it is also the Jewish address and presence for the Australian people generally. Other congregations sometimes resent our eminence and there are lay bodies that think we presume too much. But the fact is that Jew and non-Jew both look to us to fulfil a role in public life. That role is embodied in the rabbinic incumbent. All praise to the congregation for constantly choosing its rabbis well and encouraging them to become public figures and national leaders, bringing lustre to the congregation and credit to Judaism.
For me the symbiosis of congregational minister and public religious spokesman has sometimes brought a tug-of-war between two lives and two responsibilities. It has often tired me physically, but on the whole it is exhilarating, and I am grateful that the congregation recognises that I belong to the wider community too.
Not that I have been without critics. Within the congregation some felt I was obsessed with the Holocaust and Israel; some were unsure about my priorities in national life, especially the cause of Aboriginal reconciliation. In the general Jewish community some felt I mixed too much with Christian clergy and busied myself too much with wider issues. Rational and polite criticism never worried me, though I admit to a thin skin when anyone is chutzpadik and descends to disloyalty and personal denigration.
My greatest critic is myself. On Yom Kippur this is something we should all be able to say. As far as I am concerned, this Yom Kippur I ask myself why I did not achieve what other rabbis did in terms of building institutions, schools and organisations. Perhaps I did a little in these directions, but not on my own. But the question remains: what have I built during these 32 years in office? If I am really honest, I have to say that I have tried to build not edifices but attitudes, not buildings but bridges, not institutions but ethics. If Australians and Australian Jews are a little saner and more tolerant because I happened to be here, then I am content.
I have been blessed in all I have done or tried to do by having a remarkable wife and family. I have good friends who appreciate me, but without automatic adulation. I have and have had fine colleagues, though some rabbis (even those who constantly come to me for advice) do not entirely approve of me. I have always had congregants whose sound support was a blessing. Above all, I thank the Almighty for casting my lines in pleasant places (Ps. 16:6).
One of the greatest boons the congregation has given me is the less formal moments we have shared. I think of a philosopher who was asked how his thinking was going. He said, “Not too badly, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in”. For me, the humorous moments in the Synagogue have broken in upon my serious preoccupations and brought me the leaven of humanity and self-deprecation, the ability to laugh at myself and not to frighten people by being too solemn.
Let me offer a prayer for the congregation. In the words of the Torah, I pray that “the people be strong and their cities heavily fortified” (Num. 13:29). This is my prayer: may you be strong in Judaism, and strong in humanity. May your homes and lives be fortified with Jewish commitment and loyalty. May the Synagogue remain great, and may the new rabbinic era lead it energetically into the future.
People say, “Enjoy your retirement!” I do hope to enjoy it, though I can and will never sit still. There is so much to do, though at a new pace and with new priorities. Marian and I hope to see you all often and to continue to be part of your lives, as you are part of ours. May all our openings of the gates bring us peace and blessing. May God go with us all, even unto the closing of the gates.