There are religions which teach acceptance and there are religions which preach protest. Judaism, from its inception, has been a religion of protest – From Abraham to Isaiah, Moses to Maimonides we have challenged the status quo, protested against injustice, opposed the abuse of power.
And it is this spirit which has produced some of our finest orators and which animates the pulpit today. What better place than our shuls to express our outrage against a world of injustice, unfairness and hatred?
The Communal Shul isn’t a forum to play politics, to endorse a political party, but it is a platform for the politics of principle and matters of morality, the struggles of the soul and the complexity of living an ethical life. In the widest sense of life it’s all about politics – the politics of culture, community, identity and the heart.
Yes, a shul is obviously a place for prayer and seeking solace for the soul, a Beit Tefillah or House of Prayer. But even prayer isn’t meant to be about peacefulness, but rather about wrestling with God, with our conscience and with our despair.
A shul is also known as a Beit Knesset, a place where we come together to shmooze and interact. It is finally a Beit Midrash, a place of Jewish learning, a centre of ideas and intellectual exchange. In short, a synagogue is a gathering place, a forum for davening, debate and dialogue.
In her fine piece on this subject, Rachael Kohn divorces Tikkun Hanefesh (soul work) from Tikkun Olam (bettering the world) in the Shul. For me the two are inextricably interconnected in Jewish theology and in our prayer houses. We heal the world by healing ourselves. Soul work and world work are interwoven in our daily tefillot. We pray daily for the restoration of justice, we pray for our wounded planet in the blessings before the Shema and in the Amidah.
On our High Holidays the liturgy is replete with calls to reach out to the displaced and dispossessed. At the heart of the Haftarah of Yom Kippur is an impassioned cry for social justice, for the inclusion of the displaced. The prophet Isaiah puts it bluntly: “Shout out loud, do not hold back … Tell My people of their rebellion … Loosen the bindings of evil and break the slavery chain. Those crushed, released to freedom … Break your bread for the starving, and bring the dispossessed home…” (Isaiah 57 ). In my mind, Isaiah would have boldly proclaimed these words from the pulpit of the Temple itself. And most likely in the middle of the Temple service on Yom Kippur. This is suggested by his words: ”Do you call this a fast and a day of favour to God?”.
The very term, Tikun Olam, is enshrined in the daily Aleinu prayer. Rav Soloveitchik taught that Halacha is about bringing the spiritual down into life and the vehicles for this are surely Tefillah and the drasha. A drasha or sermon is, by its very definition, an application of relevance, a teaching of contemporary significance. That is why it is a drasha and not a Shiur or Torah study class.
I am convinced that if you don’t address politics from the pulpit, you are in denial or simply avoiding discomfort. I have always lived by the maxim that the role of the rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, to call out the challenges of the day - from the plight of refugees and the crisis of our environment, to the condition of our Aboriginal population and the abuse of our vulnerable; to encourage people to move from complacency to courage.
It’s also a way for Jews to understand that these unsettled and unsettling issues can be approached through a Jewish prism, that Jewish wisdom has always applied itself to current issues and civil society. That the insights of Halacha are as relevant to morality as they are to mikveh.
It’s not about imposing political views, but presenting different views as well as ideas that worshippers may not have thought about as acceptably Jewish. Like a Talmudic argument, it’s important to present alternative views and your intelligent congregant will make their own decision. The rabbi is not a religious dictator, but one who encourages people to think critically; and we are after all a people who are unafraid of a good debate! And it is not about grandstanding – I am challenging myself as much as my listeners.
I would like to think that people leave a synagogue service enriched by the prayers and challenged by the pulpit. That they carry with them not only the teachings of Torah wisdom, but also the inspiration and energy to go out there and help heal our fractured world.
Rabbi Ralph Genende OAM is a well-known Modern Orthodox Rabbi with a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. He is Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He is Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Multifaith Advisory Group. In 2018, Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. He is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. In August 2022 Rabbi Genende published his debut book, Living in an Upside-Down World, an anthology gathered over 20 years of writing that examines the many crises and challenges of the 21st century – from polarisation to asylum seekers, loneliness to climate change. His website is: http://www.kesher.net.au, where he publishes regularly.