Sir Zelman Cowen and the Guilt Generation
By Vadim Chelom
Last week saw the passing of Sir Zelman Cowen, a man whose lifetime has encompassed more achievements than it seems a single lifetime could contain. A gifted lawyer, educator, statesman, a man who is credited with single-handedly restoring the nation’s trust in the office of the Governor General after the traumatic events of the Whitlam dismissal. His achievements are many and varied but it is another side of Sir Zelman’s personality that I believe deserves deeper analysis. I glimpsed this hidden side in an interview he once gave to an ABC program ‘Australian Story’ in which Sir Zelman was asked to describe his life’s greatest failure. The answer astounds me to this day. As the greatest failure of his life, he listed his children’s decision to live their lives as Orthodox Jews. It was an extraordinary, if fleeting revelation of the inner workings of this great man’s mind. Indeed, it takes a lifetime of inner frustration (guilt perhaps?) to let slip the exclamation normally reserved for the parents of drug addicts and criminals. An outside observer might comment that Sir Zelman’s children did much to make their father proud. His son Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is a popular author, educator and an acclaimed academic in his own right.
Perhaps this seemingly irrational stance offers an insight not just into the inner workings of Sir Zelman’s mind but the essence of the generation to which he belongs. Lured by the promises of early collectivism, shattered in the horror of the holocaust, torn away from home countries and family life, it was a generation carrying the kind of spiritual burden we, their descendents, can hardly comprehend. Part of that burden was a belief born of shattered hope and immense betrayal, that the ‘old world’ – life as it used to be – could be no more. At the core of that world was the clinging to the ancient traditions of the Jewish faith, the immutable right-and-wrong of the Hebrew Bible. In the ‘new world’, these ancient beliefs had to be cast off or at least put aside, hidden to all. So a new mythology was born – the belief in the ‘cultural Judaism’ where Rashi gives way to rationalism and the Shulchan Aruch to Shakespeare. Indeed, so hypnotizing is this belief in the redundancy of Judaism to Jews, that despite overwhelming evidence, it still occupies the minds of many and not infrequently finds its way into the pages of this publication. How ironic that those who espouse the value of empirical evidence above all else seem incapable to recognize the evidence pointing to the falsehood of their beliefs.
A recent study centered on the graduates of Jewish day schools underscores the growing gap between the ‘cultural’ and ‘participatory’ Judaism. Let me first say that those participating in the study are hardly starved of Jewish cultural experiences. Quite the opposite, as the students in Melbourne’s premiere Jewish teaching institutions, they have spent twelve years of their young lives marinated in every form of organized Jewish cultural activity known to man. From tours to debates, from ‘Israel advocacy’ to ‘community leadership’, these young men and women have received a perfect (and very expensive) education in ‘Jewishness without Judaism’. So their overwhelming indifference bordering on overt hostility, to all things ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israel’ serves as the loudest, most persuasive call to reconsider this headlong march into the rootless wilderness we call ‘cultural traditions’. We are witnessing the birth of a lost generation – a generation of aliens, more interested in saving trees then saving Jewish lives in Israel, more preoccupied with the right to abort babies then with making Jewish babies of their own. What’s more, in the community where the population growth is increasingly provided by the Orthodox families, most of the ‘Jewish advocacy’ organizations (UJEB, JNF, WIZO, AJN and many other with ‘A’, ‘J’ and ‘Z’ in their names) are still headed by ‘professional Jews’, at best indifferent, at worst openly hostile to Judaism and religion – like forgotten sentinels of a long gone era.
This week, when the country is united in mourning the passing of Sir Zelman Cowen – a Jewish intellectual giant, maybe it is time we too stop for a moment to consider as a community where we have come from and where we are going.
Dr Vadim Chelom is a veterinarian, a writer and an educator. You can read his new book here.