Rabbi Ralph Genende considers his role as a community rabbi to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and the essays in his new book deliver on that. They also reveal a very traveling man, with a sensitive eye and a lover of poetry. As a modern Orthodox rabbi, known to readers of The Australian Jewish News, Rabbi Genende has always been open about his concerns for social justice. He attributes this to his youth in South Africa, where walking through the gates of a fort that housed apartheid prisoners was immediately linked to his Jewish ‘past’, remembering Egypt, Rome and Auschwitz. .
Rabbi Genende’s passion for social justice, including “making room for women,” has not always been appreciated. He faced a storm in Melbourne when, as rabbi of the small Beit Aharon shule, he allowed the Sefer Torah to pass to women and encouraged bat mitzvah girls to give a Torah dvar. On this issue and others, such as the treatment of LBGTIQA Jews and the conversion of non-Jewish spouses, Rabbi Genende argues for a more welcoming orthodoxy, recalling that Abraham’s tent was “open on all sides.”
Describing himself as a centrist and someone who “rather to err on the side of compassion than to be a religious warrior,” Rabbi Genende leaves it “up to God to judge who is right.” Guided by the Shema, which commands to love God, Rabbi Genende prefers to see the Jewish people as “united by love” rather than exclusively by halakha. Extending this love to neighbor and stranger, it also inspires his interfaith work, which, following Ben Zoma (Avot 4:1), accepts that the wise is “He who learns from all”.
With the best of intentions, however, the results aren’t always entirely pleasant. On an interfaith trip to Israel with Christian and Muslim participants, Rabbi Genende was beset by ‘apartheid’ accusations and assaulted by a Lebanese woman who alleged Yad Vashem was being used to justify the existence of Israel. He was comforted by the resident Sufi Imam in Jerusalem (now deceased), whose humble and open heart touched all who knew him.
Yet the constant and growing attacks on Israel and the Jews are a burden that Rabbi Genende does not bear. He cites Amidah’s prayer as a watchword for anti-Semites: “For slanderers, let there be no hope. And in his essay on the 2021 Israel-Gaza War, he defends Israel’s actions against Hamas’ indiscriminate targeting of civilians and neglect of the safety of its own people. He concludes, “I say strong is not wrong”, which University of Melbourne philosopher Raimond Gaita was presumably referring to when he wrote in the foreword that Rabbi Ralph Genende “is a man good” but that he “doesn’t agree with Israel at all. .
So far, these are the standard issues plaguing the Jewish community, notably Gaita’s rebuke, but Rabbi Genende also tackles a range of contemporary topics with his signature criticism, compassion and doses of poetry. On Facebook, he is optimistic about his potential to reform the world, but warns, quoting American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our friendships rush to short, mediocre conclusions because we have made it a texture of wine and of dreams, instead of the hard fiber of the human heart. He looks to the biblical David and Jonathan as an example of the “tough fiber” of friendship.
Of all the issues addressed in the book, Jewish identity seems to be the most troublesome to modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Genende admits it is extremely difficult to define – and rightly so. In our thirst for verisimilitude and precision, we tend to write a lot of Jews because they don’t fit our categories. If we were to put as much energy into trying to attract Jews as trying to keep them out, we would be a richer and stronger community.
Although Rabbi Genende repeatedly refers to Charedi and Chabad Judaism, he disregards Reform or Conservative Judaism, which have resolved some of the issues that concern him. This signals to me that a mechitzah or wall of silence still separates Orthodox from progressives in the Australian Jewish community, where fruitful discussion and cooperation would seem to be an obvious path to a stronger community.
On other issues of a more political nature, Rabbi Genende’s compassionate stance is grounded in biblical and rabbinic narrative and consistent with a social justice perspective. But others might disagree, such as in his essay on “Black Lives Matter,” citing insufficient attention given to the role of individual responsibility and cultural difference. Can the massively disproportionate crime rate among African Americans be explained simply as a consequence of racism and poverty between whites and blacks? Likewise, is the statement from the heart of Uluru, as Rabbi Genende understands it, a “cry in search of a voice, a plea born of desperation”, or is it also a brutal political decision that will entrench a permanent constitutional division between the Aboriginal people and the rest of Australians?
Politics aside, Living in an upside down world invites the reader to pause and reflect on the moral orientations and poetic riches of Jewish tradition, including its annual cycle of festivals. It made me wish that more rabbis would offer those who do not belong to their particular synagogue the opportunity to benefit from their knowledge, wisdom and experience, as Rabbi Genende so lavishly did for we.
Dr. Rachael Kohn is an award-winning producer and host. She was a presenter and executive producer of the spirit of things (1997-2018) and The Ark (2001-2006) on ABC Radio Nationale.
Published by Retrospect. MSRP $32.95. Available through https://shop.retrospect.agency.
Over-the-counter retail sales: Golds World of Judaica in Balaclava and Bondi, and The Avenue Bookstore, Elsternwick.
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