Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the sh’loshim service for Rabbi Dr Israel Porush at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, 23 June 1991This is not merely a memorial service. It is a distinctively Jewish commemoration bearing the designation of sh’loshim, which literally means “thirty”. This is our tradition: after the first thirty days family and friends gather to recall, to reflect, to reminisce and to seek the words with which to sum up the one who has passed away.
Why, we might ask, does this take place after thirty days? What special significance lies in that particular unit of time as against any other?
The answer might be suggested by an analogy taken not from the end but from the beginning of a human being’s life. For after a first-born son enters the world, we observe a waiting period of thirty days before the Pidyon Haben ceremony, which is required unless one of the parents is the child of a Kohen or Levi.
At the beginning of life, we need thirty days to be assured that the child is viable, only then can we really celebrate.
At the end of life, it takes time, and this the thirty days symbolises, for us to realise that the unbelievable has actually occurred, the person has really passed away, the fact is a fact, and with immense sadness we must bring ourselves to say, “Alas for him that is gone and no more to be found.” (Sanh. 111a)
And in this sacred place, more than anywhere else outside his own home, these are the words that today we have no choice but to echo.
Alas, that that distinctive voice, mind, style and presence that so long and so worthily filled this great vaulted sanctuary is stilled for ever…
Alas, that that cultured message of Judaism and human intellectuality that sought to mould and refine his people is bereft of a leading exponent…
Alas, that that sound judgement, wise counsel and compassionate understanding that guided and reassured the lonely, the perplexed and the burdened is lost to us forever…
Alas, that that strong personality and confident bearing that gave leadership at critical times and faith in moments of despair must remain only as a memory…
Alas, that that energetic encouragement of new initiatives and movements that was crucial in the building of the post-war community must now recede into history…
Alas, that that passionate emphasis on education that nourished the resurgence of Jewish knowledge and identity on the soil of this land must now be maintained by others…
Alas, that that ambassadorial dignity and personal graciousness that brought lustre to the good name of Jewry must now pass into other hands…
Alas, that a rabbinic aristocrat, a prince amongst rabbis, who gave focus, shape and direction to the rabbinate, will no longer be there to guide, to chide, to advise, to admonish and inspire…
There is neither doubt nor debate about it. For over fifty years, Rabbi Porush was the pre-eminent religious leader of the Jewry of the antipodes.
These days, rightly, everyone speaks of him as the uncrowned Chief Rabbi of Australia. The description is apt and I am humbly proud that the words are mine, for these are the terms in which I described him from this pulpit on the evening that he inducted me into office nearly eighteen and a half years ago.
If you know anything about the Australian Jewry of 1940, you will realise that despite the relatively small size of this community and its geographical isolation from the major centres of the Jewish world, no ordinary rabbi would have been good enough to assume the pulpit of the Great Synagogue. It had an aura and a prestige that were the pride of the communal leadership. A new incumbent had to be a man of stature and significance.
So the leaders of the Great Synagogue looked for an exceptional man, and in Rabbi Porush they found him. Lineage, learning, lucidity of mind and expression – all were integrally part of what he had to offer. He also had solid congregational experience, the backing of Chief Rabbi Hertz, and a remarkable wife. Sydney enabled him to grow even further, and to become a personality on the national scene and beyond.
It is said, with some justice, that neither he nor his community really realised what an outstanding rabbi he was until – about six years after his appointment – he went overseas for his first extended trip.
Whilst he was away, so I am told, he saw that as a rabbi he was of world class; and in his absence, his community got the same message and feared they would lose him.
But he had a task to do here, and as it became abundantly clear as the years went by, his God-given destiny was to inspire, guide and mould the post-war reconstruction of Jewry and Judaism on this continent in ways that the historians have not yet fully researched and recognised.
For he created so many of the institutions, congregations, movements and personalities of the post-war years that hardly anything which today we take for granted came to be without his strong and steadying hand.
This is not to say that he or any other single individual did it all. That period which so desperately needed stable and powerful Jewish leadership was blessed in its leadership team. I mention only one other name, Sydney D Einfeld, but everyone knew what a tower of strength they had in Rabbi Porush.
And there were some areas in which he clearly was the sole architect and major builder. It was he that created the Australian rabbinate as a professional body with a sense of cohesion, purpose and philosophy. Rabbis could look up to him. They could come to him in times of crisis and learn from his wisdom. They could take for granted his championship of their cause. They could rely on him to set the tone of rabbinic conferences and to make the rabbinate visible and audible.
Not that he was ever entirely satisfied with the rabbinate he had created. To my own knowledge he was gravely distressed at rabbis who were less than professional, rabbis who lacked breadth of culture and sweep of vision, rabbis who were not always above frailties and follies. But not one rabbi wavered one iota in his admiration – and in many cases, affection too – for the uncrowned Chief Rabbi of Australian Jewry.
He did not create the Australian Jewish Historical Society, but he gave it countless years of firm leadership and unwavering loyalty. Research, writing, lecturing about Australian Jewry and its history and potential destiny, was an obsession with him. If today, Australian Jewish history is a popular and respectable pursuit on the communal scene, then it is to him and his pioneering co-workers that the credit is largely due.
He did not create the Jewish education system, but he devoted decades to the NSW Board of Jewish Education as teacher, honorary director, executive member and – for many terms of office – as president. After he moved to Melbourne, he visited Sydney quite often – and every time he made sure of spending many hours renewing acquaintance with the Education Board and especially the children at the Rabbi Porush Kindergarten named after him.
All over the community there are plaques that record which buildings he consecrated, which synagogues he founded, which institutions he served. More significantly, everywhere you go you find he has an undying place in the hearts of communal leaders whose careers he encouraged, rabbis he inducted and zealously guided, ordinary Jews who sought his counsel and knew he was a wise man.
His intellectual activities included a part-time lectureship in Jewish studies at Sydney University, and addresses, lectures and writings directed at a remarkable range of audiences, Jewish and gentile. I know that in my youth, though as a Melburnian I did not hear him very often, I found it an unbelievably stimulating mental exercise to absorb his sermons and lectures. His mind was clear, his thinking logical, his words articulate, his message affirmative and civilised.
These days we often have the privilege of hearing distinguished Jewish spokesmen from overseas lecture in our midst. I do not wish to be taken as denigrating any of our visitors. But Rabbi Porush towered above most of them, and our local Australian talent to this day has nothing to be ashamed of in comparison with the leaders and lecturers that come to us from other places.
How Rabbi Porush could be everywhere and involved in everything whilst still busy full-time in and with the congregation of the Great Synagogue is a mark of the immense energy of the man.
It is also a tribute to the Great Synagogue that it always understood that its senior minister was a rabbi to K’lal Yisrael, and allowed and encouraged him to reach out to the whole of the Jewish community and to the Australian people generally as the representative religious leader of the Jews of the city and in many respects of the whole of this country.
The sages discuss in Pirkei Avot the relative importance of three kinds of leader. Is Torah leadership greater, or priesthood, or kingship? The conclusion they reach is the obvious one – obvious because it is authentically Jewish – that Torah leadership is greater than all the others. If you apply this debate to Rabbi Porush, you find that in him all three types of leadership were blended.
He had malchut, kingship in the metaphorical sense, because he was a man of majesty and stature within the Jewish world and an ambassador beyond it. Figuratively he also had kehunah, priesthood, as pastor, minister and officiant. He certainly had Torah, because above all he was a scholar and teacher. Torah represented his lifetime’s vision.
He was a melech, a royal personage, for reasons that were not motivated by a love of power or a hunger for status. He was a kohen, a priestly figure, a priest, for reasons far more significant that the fact that people needed services which he could provide. Above all, he was a rabbi, and for him the over-arching vision was a balanced, civilised, affirmative, unapologetic, authentic Judaism. If not only Jewry but Judaism is healthier in Australia today, so much is due to him. And now our whole community is bereft.
The Jewish people are in mourning. Australia is the poorer. Israel is diminished. God Himself laments, “Know ye not that a prince and a great man is fallen this day in Israel?” (II Sam. 3:38).
To Mrs Porush and the family, our warmest and most affectionate condolences. May God bind up your wounds of grief and bereavement. May He give you strength, health and Divine blessing. Like you, we do not entirely mourn this day: we thank God for giving him to our faith and our people.
To the soul of Rabbi Israel Porush, that prince amongst rabbis, that leader in Israel, that porush, that exceptional man amongst men, we say in the words of the sages, “Faithful is thy Employer to pay thee the reward of thy labour”. May God have you in His keeping.