Speech by Rabbi Shua Solomon on Religious Freedom

Delivered on June 18 at the Sydney Jewish Museum Education Centre to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies plenum.

Rabbi Shua Solomon

Ladies and Gentlemen, before anything else tonight I must make mention of a person whom I think epitomizes more then anyone else what this topic is about. You see, the question of Freedom of Religion is really asking whether someone can live a full life as a contributing member of society and Australian Citizen and at the same time live a fully observant life as a Religious Person, in our case as a Jewish Person.

I must therefore make mention of my grandfather of Blessed Memory, The Hon Joseph Max Berinson QC, a Minister in both Federal and State Politics who was always held up as an example of how one could serve Australia at the highest level and at the same time live a full Jewish Life. On becoming the Western Australian Attorney General in the early 80’s my grandfather gathered his staff together and told them he would not be contactable from late Friday afternoon until Saturday night and that if he was ever at a function where food was to be served, they should arrange for him to be served a plain undressed salad and that if anyone asked they were to state unequivocally that it was not because he was vegetarian but because he was Jewish. Tonights plenum falls out just a few days from his first Yartzeit, a year since his passing and I am honoured to be speaking here tonight with Mr Ruddock who served in Federal Parliament with my grandfather.

My grandfather’s life is of course a story about a wonderful man with extraordinary talent who used everything he was given to benefit his community and society at large. But it is also a story about the amazing country that we live in. My grandfather was born in Australia to penniless immigrants from Tzfat in Northern Israel.  He grew up in a country that, despite the challenges his parents faced, gave him every opportunity to succeed and at the same time live an observant Jewish life as an Orthodox Jew. Before anything else, it is important that we take a moment to reflect, not just about the achievements of my grandfather but on what that means about the country we live in and how fortunate we are to be citizens of this great country.

I have been asked to address this topic as a Religious leader and person of faith and therefore I would like to begin by talking about a principle in Jewish Law that might not be familiar to everyone. That is the prohibition of what is called in Hebrew Ona’at Devarim, which could be loosely translated as harmful or abusive language.  In Judaism we are instructed that even or maybe especially when dealing with sensitive topics one must be very careful in the way we transmit these messages. It is always important to find the balance between giving over religious instruction as a Rabbi or teacher and doing it in a way which is not offensive or harmful to individuals or groups of people. I acknowledge that at times that balance can be difficult or even impossible to get right but we must make every effort to embrace all parts of our community as individuals. Therefore, I am not here to give an opinion about whether Israel Folau’s contract should or should not have been terminated, I will leave that to the legal professionals. But I can tell you that when looking at the prohibition of Ona’at devarim and the obligation that we have to be sensitive and caring to all members of our community and society at large, it is clear that his language was regrettable.  For me as a Rabbi this is not an issue of religious freedom.  I believe passionately that a person should be able to believe, express and teach with freedom.  But as a Rabbi I believe with equal passion that all teachings, especially religious teachings should be conveyed with empathy and sensitivity.  So my concern is not so much how to frame legislation and regulations.  My concern is to appeal to all people – to secular people to understand the critical importance of faith to the hearts, minds and souls to people of faith, but equally to people of faith to speak and teach with sensitivity and care.

Having said that I do want to say a few words on the notion of discrimination. Discrimination has become something of a dirty word in society and for the most part I believe that is largely a good thing. However, there are times when exemptions to anti discrimination laws can be a necessary and indeed positive thing, when it is used to confer benefits on a particular person, or class of persons, for the betterment of society and in my particular case to enhance Jewish Religion and continuity. I don’t think anyone here would argue that setting up a group of talented science students in a school or University is something that would not be for the betterment of society at large, despite the fact that it would mean that many students  would not be allowed entry into such a group.  This is really exclusivity for a greater good, rather than what we think of, negatively, as “discrimination”. In the case of Jewish Religion, this “exclusivity” takes place, and this is with both regards to a Synagogue and Jewish schools, in order to enhance, foster and ensure the continuity of the Jewish Religion.  In other words, there can be no sensible criticism of exemptions from anti-discrimination law when it is practiced in order to enhance and foster a good cause – and it will come as no surprise for you to hear that I regard Judaism as a pretty good cause.  And that means that Jewish Schools and shules should be able to advance the cause of Judaism by being ‘exclusive’ in favour of those who share those values.  So, membership and privileges should be reserved for those who share those values and are committed to their advancement.

In fact this is best illustrated by what is really the only court case in Australia about discrimination in a Jewish School.  And it happened at the School at which I was a student at that very time.  And it was decided on legislation that my late grandfather had supervised as the Attorney General when the Equal Opportunity Act in WA was passed in the 1980’s.

IN that case the School’s conduct was held to be completely lawful.  That is because the statute allowed for an exemption that was practiced in good faith, in favour of adherents to advance the cause or ethos of the School.

And in my humble opinion, so it should be.  Every faith or indeed every club must be able to advance its own cause by favouring those who commit to its values.

So in broad terms may I summarise by referring to what I think are 3 important things:

  1. There should be protection to allow people to believe, teach, and express their religious faith;
  2. The price of that protection is that religious people must use it with sensitivity, care and respect;
  3. Society should permit and indeed encourage exemptions from anti-discrimination laws undertaken in good faith to advance a good cause.

I would now like to turn my attention to the Religious Freedom Review put together by an expert panel of which Mr Ruddock was chair.

First may I thank and congratulate Mr Ruddock on his team for a thoughtful and thorough consideration of the matter which reflects a deep respect for and understanding of the needs and aspirations of people of religious faith.

I noticed that among the recommendations the report seeks to balance the tensions between the various sensitivities in a comprehensive and thoughtful way.  One of those ways is to permit religious institutions to implement their religious beliefs without constraint but to have an available policy that sets out the practice so that it can clearly accessed and understood.

I think that is a fair and appropriate solution to a difficult problem.

But can I just make this observation as a religious practitioner:  Yes I am a Rabbi and Rabbis are trained to deal in rules.  But in reality most of my energy is invested in people, not in rules.  Often that requires balancing tensions and sensitivities in a way that requires common sense and almost always, compromise.  In my experience, most tensions and problems in real life are not solved by the application of hard and fast policies, but by thoughtful compromise, decency and common sense.

So while I accept that the policy-based solution is fair and appropriate, and perhaps the only sensible solution, as a practitioner I hope that such policies do not actually become a barrier to solving real life problems by appealing to people’s decency and the need to sometimes compromise on rules and policies to achieve harmony and get on with life.  At the end of the day, you can have every policy under the sun; but unless people are prepared to prioritise common sense and harmony where that is reasonably possible, policies may well not put an end to disputes.

And may I conclude with one final observation.  I am often asked if I feel discriminated against as a religious person.  The truth is that in the environment in which I operate the answer is ‘no’.  This is a great country that does not discriminate against Jews or any other religious minority.

But I am very often told that people with religious faith feel marginalised and often ridiculed in public discourse.  They are made to feel morally or intellectually inferior.  They feel embarrassed to take a position based on their religious believes or that it is simply not socially acceptable.

I think this a really tragic development in our society.  Sadly, no  report, policy or law can reverse this.  Only creating an environment and culture where religious beliefs are respected and valued can alter these sorts of attitudes.  And again, that cuts both ways.  Secular Australia must learn to respect and value that which millions of religious Australians share.  But at the same time, religious leaders and representative’s must communicate and reach out in a way that engenders respect for the values they represent.  Those beliefs and values do not need to be accepted – but they can surely be communicated in a way that fosters respect.

Ladies and Gentleman, I began this speech by talking about my grandfather and therefore think that it is appropriate to conclude with a sentence that has been used by everyone from the then Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition down, to sum up his life.  It is from the Bible from the Book of Micha the Prophet where we are told

“What is good and what does the Lrd require of you except to be just and to love and to diligently practice kindness and walk humbly with your g-d.” Legislation is required and is critical in ensuring that we continue to be able to practice our religion freely in this great country. But what is equally as critical is the ability of all Australians to be a little bit more humble, kind and tolerant in their dealings with others. As a person of faith, I have an obligation to be sensitive and embracing of all parts of our society and in return I am confident that those who do not share my beliefs will be equally so.