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    The courage to be small – Bo

    January 17th, 2021

    The story of our ancestors in Egypt is the age-old confrontation of the hero and villain.

    The villain is Pharaoh, the hero is God.

    The two are locked in bitter conflict: Pharaoh says scornfully, “Who is the Lord?” God retorts, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?”

    Now what does God have against Pharaoh? It is not only that the Israelites are slaves, but that Pharaoh claims divine honours.

    He is like the tyrants who think they are more than mortal. God says, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself?”, but they airily pretend God does not exist. Eventually they topple, but not until untold suffering has come upon their own and other peoples.

    Yet not only to Pharaoh does God say, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself?” He has the same question, less angrily, for each one of us.

    A contemporary writer has said: “The sin of which modern man is most frequently guilty is that of ‘self-sufficiency’ – the certainty that man is capable of fathoming all secrets, of controlling all events, of mastering all situations…

    “To fly like a bird through the air and swim through the sea like a fish; to harness the energy of the sun and uncover the bowels of the earth; to build cities of steel and glass, erect bridges which span the waters and towers that pierce the skies; to unravel the age-old mysteries of nature – all this has led to the conviction that through his mind and insights, man alone can solve all problems…”

    Twenty-first century humankind has much to celebrate. But we have also witnessed fiendish demonic persecution and destruction, frightening pollution, and pervading fear, uncertainty and anxiety. It is an age of glorious highs and shameful lows.

    The Book of Proverbs reminds us: “Pride goeth before destruction”.

    A little humility is a wonderful thing.

    Retirement address to the Australian Jewish Historical Society

    January 17th, 2021

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple to the Australian Jewish Historical Society on 27 February 2005 on the occasion of his retirement from the Great Synagogue (published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in June 2005, Vol. 17, Part 4).

    I feel like an archival relic. I have been involved in the Historical Society for fifty years, since the time when Rabbi LM Goldman brought together a small group of his friends and students to establish a Victorian branch of the Society. Exciting days!

    Sir Archie Michaelis was the chairman, Lionel Fredman was the secre­tary (succeeded by myself when Lionel went overseas to study), and Stuart Cohen was the treasurer. Dr Leon Jona, Isidor Solomon, Newton Super and others were on the committee. The gentry of the community were members. Meetings took place in private homes, often heritage mansions in Toorak and elsewhere. Our enthusiasm was unbounded.

    Despite my lack of years, I even gave papers at some of these meetings. I felt so proud when David Benjamin, as edi­tor of the Journal, actually published some of my researches.

    Then I went off to study overseas and joined the Jewish Historical Society of England which had its headquarters at the West London Synagogue, the citadel of British Reform, with Rev. Arthur Barnett as the secretary. Here too the membership was a roll call of the gentry. Once or twice I delivered papers for the Society, which normally met at University College in Gower Street. It was flattering when the incumbent president took me and my wife to dinner first – a nice habit which might be adopted by our Society in Sydney. Anglo-Jewish history became a personal addiction and still is, and I have done some writing on the subject.

    My first address to the Australian Society, after returning to this country fifteen years later, married my interests in Anglo and Australian Jewish history. It was a paper about Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, utilising manuscript material I had researched at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I became a committee member, spent several years as president, am now a patron, and zealously supply the archives with periodicals and ephemera, some­times borrowing the material back for the purpose of my own researches.

    I have busied myself over the years with a number of historical projects, but it is not primarily as a historian that I have been involved in the contemporary Jewish experience. My role has been in the rabbinate – not entirely a novel job for a Jewish boy, but marked by three special areas of activity, the old world and the new, the congregational and the national, the activist and the academic. Let me speak briefly about each of them in turn.

    First, the old world and the new. Every Jewish community has its own flavour and style, usually reflecting the ethos of the host society. Eastern Europe was traditionally passionate and emotional; Western Europe, stately and precise. America was adventurous; Britain, where I began my career, proper and genteel.

    Australia? In order to arrive at a delineation, let us go back a little. Until 1939 this was a colonial outpost. Jewish identity was synagogue-based and not every synagogue or minister was comfortable with Jewish peoplehood or Zionism. Religious reform was mooted from time to time but mustered little support in a community that was content by and large with undemanding orthodoxy. British institutions were our model; quasi-Anglican terminology was our idiom. Little migrant groups protested but gradually adopted the prevailing ways. (There is an area for research in the so-called “foreign” shules of the pre-Holocaust era.)

    The new era brought massive change, which a number of histo­rians have documented in detail. There was a sea-change in the rab­binate. Indeed the decisive move from ministers to rabbis is one of the major signs of the change. The religious centre has become uncertain; the right and left have gained considerable ground. The community is diverse and no longer automatically defines itself in synagogal terms.

    What does all this say about Australian Jewry, and does it help us to arrive at a word to delineate the Australian Jewish ethos?

    My answer is “No” – or rather “Not yet. We are a significant segment of world Jewry, tenth largest Jewish community in the world, and still going through a period of growth and development, not that we have emerged from being a derivative community, echoing a range of places of origin, albeit no longer merely or mostly British. But we do not seem to be independent enough to have a style of our own, able to be articulated in a word or phrase.

    Does this say anything about me as a rabbi? Only that 32 years in office at the Great Synagogue have given me countless opportunities of openly or surreptitiously placing my own stamp on the community accepting communal diversity, living with all sections, but insistent that religion be the most evident characteristic of our communal identity and that, while acknowledging dissent, the Judaism of tradition be the face of that religious identity.

    I said about myself a minute ago that my role has combined the congregational and the national. Few rabbis have that privilege. With me it was inherited. I stepped into my predecessor’s shoes, though I have developed my own priorities. The senior rabbis of the Great Synagogue have all been public figures. In my case I have often stepped boldly into national debate, careful to respect the para­meters of Jewish teaching but not always attracting the uncritical support of my constituency. It helped me that I was an Australian and that I knew the Australian idiom and could even use the great Australian adjective, accent and wave.

    I am both activist and academic. Ethical activism, the mark of the Biblical prophet, ought to be part of the role of the rabbi. Sometimes it is; sometimes it frightens some rabbis or their con­gregations. Fortunately Australian Jewry has abandoned the “trem­bling” Israelite stance which pleaded, “Don’t be too conspicuous, don’t attract attention, don’t cause antisemitism”. We are mature enough to know that in a multicultural society all are entitled to be themselves and that antisemitism is not caused by Jews: it is caused by antisemites. Result? With others, this rabbi has made his contri­bution towards enhancing the quality of Australian society and encouraging Australians to appreciate and celebrate Australia.

    Being studious by nature, I was always inclined to read and learn, not for the sake of career advancement but because knowl­edge ought to inform whatever one does as a rabbi, a Jew and a pub­lic figure. It may surprise you, but I am more ignorant than I was as a child. The more I learn, the more I realise I have yet to learn.

    A busy professional life has militated against the level of study for its own sake, which ought to go with the rabbinate, and I hope to rem­edy this in my retirement. But I have been constantly impelled to study for the sake of teaching, and I have made teaching, of adults as well as children, a major part of my week. I have also been able to teach at university level, sometimes developing new courses, sometimes taking over difficult established courses at a moment’s notice. I have former students everywhere; some actually acknowl­edge the fact.

    I began by implying that had things been different I might have been a professional historian. I think I made the right choice. I prob­ably could have done more historical research and writing, even with the demands of my congregational and communal position. This too I want to remedy in the years ahead and I already have pro­jects, such as a history of the Australian rabbinate, on which work has begun.

    But without false modesty, I hope I may say that my ministry has sometimes enabled me to write history, sometimes to make history, but above all to try to understand history. When you understand history, you know who you are and what you can do with your life. And I appreciate the implication that the Historical Society thinks I have spent my life usefully.

    These are the names: Jewish lives in Australia, 1788-1850 (book review)

    January 17th, 2021

    By John S Levi
    The Miegunyah Press, Victoria, 2006

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in November 2007, Vol. 18, Part 4.

    Half a century ago Australian Jewish history had barely begun. Not in the sense of there being nothing to report – Jewish life in Australia was a rich tapestry dating back to the first day of white settlement in 1788 – but the story had not begun to be told.

    Attempts had been made by A Newton Super, Percy J Marks, and especially by Rabbi LM Goldman and the early stalwarts of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, but not until John Levi and George Bergman published their Australian Genesis in the 1970s was there any solid work combining impeccable research and elegant writing to lay the foundations of Jewish historiography in this continent. Others have followed – notably Hilary and William Rubinstein and Suzanne Rutland – and the story is now a widely respected genre of Australian and Jewish literature.

    John Levi has continued to be an active, productive and inspiring participant and leader in the field over all these years, earning a remarkable reputation as a researcher, recorder and writer, and every time I have the privilege of launching or reviewing one of his works I marvel at his capacity and skill.

    These Are The Names covers the first 60-odd years of Australian Jewry, resurrecting the lives of more than 1500 of the earliest Jews in Australia: convicts, con-men and characters; dealers and drapers; the proud and the pedlars; the bankrupts and the bankers; the feckless and the fortunate.

    Were the early Jews literate? Honest? Religious? How do their stories compare with those of their gentile counterparts? How did they fare at the hands of officialdom? Is Levi right that “Jews were often damned if they succeeded and damned when they failed”?

    Where did Levi find his information? It took years of painstaking delving into often quite unsatisfactory documents but unlike the gold rush prospectors of the mid-nineteenth century Levy often came up with virtual gold. There will be critics who will pounce on errors of omission or commission in the book, but no one will fail to be enlightened. Once again John Levi has placed us firmly in his debt. Once again he has come up trumps

    Focus on the role of freemasonry as the oldest “Jewish” lodge in Britain celebrates its bicentenary

    January 16th, 2021

    The following article by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (London) on 7 January, 1994.

    The Lodge of Israel, the oldest “Jewish” masonic lodge on the register of the Grand Lodge of England, has just celebrated its bicentenary. Its leaders and members have always included an array of distinguished Jewish citizens and communal leaders.

    These past 200 years represent a significant chapter in both Anglo-Jewish and masonic history.

    Regular meetings of the Lodge of Israel have been studded with personalities. Although it has had many distinguished non-Jewish members, as a “Jewish” lodge it avoids meetings on Shabbat and festivals and respects the requirements of kashrut. And those members who so desire keep their heads covered during lodge meetings – indeed, it used to be a masonic custom for all members, regardless of their religion, to keep their hats on.

    The Jewish component in English freemasonry generally is considerably higher than the percentage of Jews in the population would suggest. A high proportion of Jewish masons have progressed through the elective offices of their lodges, and some have reached grand lodge rank.

    Significantly, many leading rabbis, including the later Chief Rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, have held high office in freemasonry. Sir Israel’s silver-tongued orations at masonic gatherings remain in the memory of his audiences. In Australia, I have met elderly masons who still recall masonic addresses he gave 60 years ago during his Melbourne ministry.

    All this clearly indicates that Jews have not found freemasonry to be incompatible with their Judaism.

    Why Jews feel at home with the movement includes the requirement that a mason must believe in God, and the fact that the Bible occupies a place of honour in the lodge room.

    Masonic ritual is based largely on biblical words, events and personalities, and the overall emphasis is on ethics, friendship and good works.

    Admittedly, some of the Hebrew words that figure in masonic ceremonies are mispronounced and the references to biblical events occasionally get their history wrong, but these are regarded by Jewish freemasons as incidental issues.

    No major challenge to Jewish faith is seen in being a mason or in promoting its ideals.

    It has often been otherwise among Christians. For a long period, masonry and the Roman Catholic Church lived in a state of conflict or, at best, of uneasy truce, though the Catholic position is now increasingly positive.

    In recent years, however, the Church of England has taken up a critical attitude to the movement, both in Britain and elsewhere in the Anglican communion.

    In 1988, the synod of the Anglican Church in Australia declared freemasonry to be “basically incompatible with Christianity.”

    The Christian problem with freemasonry is both general — the movement seems to be a rival religion — and particular, in that it makes no reference to Jesus or the New Testament, at least in the basic three degrees through which most masons progress.

    Masonry responds by insisting that it is religious without being a religion, that it fosters a generally religious attitude to life, but has ho theological doctrines, mandatory interpretations or modes of worship.

    Its self-definition is of “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” It is not a church or synagogue; it does not compete with church or synagogue; and it urges masons to be fully committed and practising members of whatever faith group they adhere to.

    The omission of Jesus and the New Testament is implicit in the fact that freemasonry is open to men of all faiths. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others are as welcome as Christians. But each comes to masonry with his own religious beliefs and commitments, and when he hears the word “God” in lodge ritual, he attaches to it his own theological interpretation.

    A Jew will understand the divine name in terms of the pure, indivisible monotheism of Judaism; to him, “God” is HaShem. A Christian is free to import into the word “God” his own Christian concepts and understanding.

    The history of freemasonry suggests a major and tragic paradox. In parts of continental Europe, especially 19th-century Germany, there were major objections to Jewish membership of the movement. Antisemitism was then endemic in sections of German freemasonry. Yet the antisemite was never rational or consistent, and before long freemasonry was regularly attacked as “too Jewish,” and therefore dangerous to society.

    Accusations of Jewish-masonic plots to undermine and control the world played a role in the Dreyfus affair. They surfaced in that notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And the German right wing and the Nazis added similar accusations to their antisemitic armoury.

    To Jews, the right to join freemasonry became a touchstone of religious liberty, an agent of emancipation and social integration. Hence, in the free atmosphere of British countries, Jews were well represented in lodge memberships, and the leaders of the community, including its rabbis, were prominent masons.

    Whether masonic involvement is growing or declining among Jews is difficult to tell; statistics do not exist, though it could be a useful subject for research. But whatever the numbers, Jewish masons are proud of their contribution to freemasonry, and proud of the friendships and ethical inspiration they have gained from the movement.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

    The Celestial tug of war – Va’era

    January 10th, 2021

    In the Book of Exodus the Torah changes. It no longer concentrates on individual life stories. Now there is a new dimension, a new backdrop – national and international politics.

    Yes, there are personal elements, biographical details, stories within a story.

    We encounter Moses the individual, Aaron the individual, Pharaoh the individual, Pharaoh’s daughter the individual… but there is a context. One people and its leader are in a tug of war against another people and its leader.

    Each people has its deity. Moses and the Israelites are not their own masters. Their higher Master is God. Pharaoh and the Egyptians also have a religious dimension, made even more complicated because Pharaoh himself is regarded as at least partly divine.

    A pattern emerges which develops and plays out throughout the subsequent centuries. The battle is not limited to earthly considerations. When the Jews struggle for their freedom and rights it is part of a higher struggle between the God of Israel and the religions of the environment.

    That isn’t all. It is not so much the Jewish God against the gods of others but the Jewish Elokim against the gentile Elilim, the no-gods.