When I grew up rabbis were revered and remote. A post war community, the success of the rabbis was our success as a community.
Rabbis had first names that distinguished them but was not the name they were known by. The greeting was always formal, the rabbis in equal parts formidable and forbidding. There were Chaim’s, Mottl’s, Yosef’s, Yaacob’s and Shlomos -names redolent of communities that had been decimated. Post war communities filled the shul, well at least for three days a year and Kol Nidre night was a time of palpable pain as the rabbis sought to soothe their congregants, many who had fled God during the Shoah and yet unflinchingly they came, compelled to be in shul.
Many were non practising non-observant, orthodox Jews tightly bound to their traditions – a link to their homes and to their past- so many were post war, refugees, scarred by the Holocaust . Their rabbi became a lodestone for their losses and anguish as Kaddish was intoned.
Rabbis’ sermons spoke of their pain, of their losses of what was once their home.
Men in black, revered yet remote, using biblical allegory to talk to the cycle of history and the amaleks that beleaguered us as a people.
But today in a world not defined by religion yet increasingly being ransomed to its extremes and increasingly secularised and polarised, what is the role of the modern orthodox rabbi?
A rabbi’s life is predicated on the existence of God. It is centred on it.
I am a practising agnostic and like many, struggle with the idea of God.
Yet on those high holidays intoning blessings that have been chanted for generations, somehow we are linked, believer or not, to something greater than us and it is indeed the conduit of the rabbi that makes this happen.
It’s Melbourne in the early 2000’s and strange things are happening. A young modern orthodox rabbi is gaining quite a reputation in our community. There is an excitement about him. His name is Rabbi Ralph Genende.
Now what sort of Yiddish name is that for a rabbi? Reuven I would understand but Ralph? And he is not known as Rabbi Genende but simply as Rabbi Ralph -the words seemingly in collision with one and other. What did it say about him? What did it say about us?
What is the role of a rabbi today? Who do we want them to be?
Events in life that anchor us as Jews are of course central to the role of a rabbi. Life cycle events like birth, marriage and death, defining moments are given a sacredness and gravitas with the guiding presence of a rabbi. But shouldn’t there be more? Does a rabbi mirror his community or alternatively, provide it with a mirror to allow us to see ourselves as who we are, or rather who we might be, taking us where we didn’t know we needed to go?
When you take on the role of rabbi, the role clothes you in every way. Your job is inextricably tied up with your sense of self, giving your life meaning and purpose and it can elevate you only in the sense that you are conscious of demanding of yourself to live by your values and be better and truer. And how exposed you are. So, who and why would you take on that responsibility?
Rabbi Ralph chose that path or perhaps it chose him, but as rabbi, teacher, student, mentor, writer, activist, husband, father, grandfather he has proven to be a man who is the sum of his many many parts.
Growing up in South Africa in the time of apartheid, when the government’s disregard for the equality of man was unrelentingly cruel and unspeakably unjust, must have marked Ralph as did the immeasurable loss of so many relatives to the Shoah.
Ralph’s life in Zimbabwe was that of a man evolving with a younger and different generation to that of many of our then communal rabbis in Melbourne. Rabbi Ralph was far removed from the European shtetl, he was young, he was modern, even if a little bit nerdy. He didn’t wear a black hat, payot or sport a beard and he was of both the spiritual and temporal world, speaking to and of a community of many threads, of a new generation grown up in the shadow of the Shoah but bathed in the light of freedom. A generation of which he too was a part.
The tools at his disposal were and are words and as humans gifted with speech we seek the solace of words to give expression to the feelings we didn’t know we needed to harness.
Like Joseph’s coat of many colours, Ralph wears a coat of idealism and hope as he questions, challenges and provokes us to look hard in the face at the many issues that confront us.
Rabbi Ralph has become a mirror, a reflector and a headlight, showing us what we look like, where we might be headed, revealing pathways of compassion and understanding.
If for many of our generation our Jewishness is a given, yet not always practised in an ‘orthodox ‘manner, Ralph demonstrated that faith is often less about certainty than the courage to live with uncertainty.
Rabbi Ralph’s tenure saw him simply trying to make sense of the world we live in and the need to leave it a better place, guided always by his deeply held Jewish values and making those values relevant not only within our own Jewish community but to the larger Australian community, within which we are historically privileged to live fully and freely.
As the much-revered Lord Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a/h has written in Future Tense:
These are not the best of times these are not the worst of times but the most challenging of times. In this tense and troubled century Jews must take a stand, not motivated by fear but a positive stand on the basis of values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die -Justice equity compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person regardless of colour culture or creed.
It is clear that Ralph’s writings reflect these teachings and his own moral energy and hope for a better world, whether he is writing or actively involved with asylum seekers, women’s rights, the plight of the agunah, indigenous rights, LGBTQI issues, interfaith and multi faith dialogue, the State of Israel, Jewish education and identity in the diaspora and climate change- all compelling complex and urgent issues that define our times.
But the use of words can be hollow; they require deeds to shape their power. As Rabbi Sacks has observed:
…it is by doing, by acts of tikkun that we can redeem a fractured world.
And building a community steeped in Jewish values was central.
So what did he do to support that intent? His deep understanding of the importance of one of the greatest building blocks of community- a Jewish marriage and his recognition that the wedding is only one day and a marriage is for the rest of your life , coupled with his concerns about the growing divorce rate in our community – saw him designing and mandating a program called Yad BYad which included a questionnaire called Prepare- that a bride and groom must complete before Rabbi Ralph would marry them under a chuppah.
The responses to the Prepare questionnaire opened up conversations amongst couples about their beliefs, their communication skills, financial goals and their ability to resolve conflicts. Questions many of my generation never even thought about.
Amazing what a question like:
Do you want your children to go to a Jewish school ? or
After you are married, should your mother-in-law have the keys to your marital home?
can reveal about shared core values.
How superbly Ralph and his highly skilled team of Jewish professional counsellors helped couples build a firmer foundation to their Jewish marriage through the Yad Byad program.
Despite this mandated requirement pre chuppah, Rabbi Ralph became the go to Rabbi for so many young couples within his kehillah and amazingly to many couples well beyond his congregation- including our own children –who felt that here was a rabbi that imbued this timeless and traditional marriage ceremony with relevance and meaning.
But for me his impact was most palpable through his teaching at the Jewish Museum for nearly two decades. Although he later devised many courses drawing on the writings of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks a/h, I initially hired Rabbi Ralph to teach the Melton Jewish Ethics course that we offered nearly 18 years ago – a course that dealt with the way the texts of timeless Jewish law – Halacha – dealt with a myriad of ethical issues confronting us throughout the ages and also more pertinently, those that have arisen in modern times: issues like abortion, IVF , contraception and one in particular which related to organ transplants, which at that time was not acceptable in the Jewish community.
You never know how your teaching will impact but in this case Rabbi Ralph became a trigger for and a partner in facilitating change.
One particular student, Ronnie Goldberg a/h, was so confronted and then concerned about the Jewish position as expressed in the texts, because he was aware of how many lives could be saved by the use of organ donations, that he began an earnest campaign to see what was possible within the bounds of our Jewish teachings, seeking Rabbi Ralph’s wise counsel and advice. The result of their labours meant that organ donation was not only promoted within the Jewish community, but rulings from the Rabbinate supporting Jewish organ donation were secured. Ronnie went on to lobby the government who ultimately set aside $150 million dollars to support organ transplants. A very tangible act of tikkun olam and it was Rabbi Ralph who had in fact lit the spark.
Today, Ralph’s optimism and humanity are again revealed when he talks about our current scourge Covid, as he wrote just recently:
I don’t know why God chose us to be the children of COVID ,but I do know that he has given us a unique opportunity. A chance to seize the moment, to discover a different kind of connectedness, a deeper type of spirituality, a more discerning kind of meaning, a more discriminating way of treating each other and the planet.
Let’s hope his words find their mark. That would be the greatest gift we could offer him.
And then there is Ralph’s great love of poetry. It is perhaps no accident that Ralph has a great passion for words and particularly for poetry, reading and quoting widely from Tehillim and Song of Songs as well as many modern writers and poets as varied as Keats, Kahlil Gibran, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Ralph’s love of verse often cited in sermons.
Poetry is about the word, a landscape with power in its pauses, a terrain where every syllable counts.
Perhaps poetry is a metaphor for our conversations in life where we need to make every word considered, each moment measurable. Where listening is as important as speaking, where the gaps between the words allow space for feelings, where silence can bear its own emotional weight.
It is those gifts of knowing when to speak and when to remain silent that Rabbi Ralph has demonstrated on so many occasions dealing with his kehillah and beyond, through their pain, their losses and their joys which so often also became his.
Be it at a bris, a barmitzvah, wedding or funeral, Ralph’s words always resonated deeply, capturing the essence and sacredness of the moment.
I think gratitude is both an attitude and a choice so:
How grateful am I that you, Rabbi Ralph, made so many life cycle moments meaningful for so many.
How grateful am I that you stood up and were prepared to honour your core beliefs even when the going was tough, and it often was. You gave voice and often power to and for many who have been for too long marginalised, unseen and unheard.
But I am most grateful that you decided not to be a chazzan, because despite the many gifts you have and despite your fervent and enthusiastic davening, melodic singing is definitely not one of them!
So Rabbi Ralph, you are not perfect and nor should we expect you to be. After all, aren’t we all imperfectly navigating an imperfect world?
But time is a relentless mistress.
As the poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
But timing is also everything and at a certain stage of life an ending can also be a new beginning -a new season of purpose and purposefulness.
Rabbi Ralph you have shaped our Melbourne Jewish community over these last twenty years and particularly the Caulfield Kehilla for over thirteen years.
I think I can speak for all of us that we are grateful that you do have the opportunity to continue to make a difference.
May you flourish in this next season of your life with your beloved bride Caron always by your side, your soul mate and trusted confidant and with whom you continue your life’s journey and work.
And may you be blessed to continue to enrich our community with your passion, vision and commitment.
(Farewell Speech delivered at Caulfield Shul on 28 November 2021)