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Sir Zelman Cowen and the Guilt Generation

December 15, 2011 – 8:36 pm12 Comments
Dr Rabbi Shimon Cowen, son of Sir Zelman Cowen

Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, son of Sir Zelman. Sir Zelman apparently described his life's greatest failure as his children's decision to live their lives as Orthodox Jews. Image: westerncivilisation2011.org.au

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.

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  • Harry Joachim says:

    Thank you Galus for including this thought-provoking piece. Dr Chelom has presented a strong case for us, as a community, to reassess the type of Jewish commitment that we seek to inculcate in our youth, and the type of people that we look to employ in our Jewish organisations.

    The watered-down Jewish identity that all too many Australian Jews are happy to adopt is simply insufficient to ensure the future of our community.

    Minutes before seeing this piece, I was reading the weekly ask the rabbi email authored by Rabbi Aron (Ritchie) Moss of Sydney’s Nefesh shul. The salient ideas Rabbi Moss puts forward are relevant to Dr Chelom’s piece. I reproduce Rabbi Moss’ email below.

    (As an aside, Galus – you should consider including the writings of Rabbis Moss (http://www.nefesh.com.au) and Raymond Apple (http://www.oztorah.com) as opinion pieces – they always provide intellectual stimulation and are of relevance to the problems facing Australian Jews today.)

    Rabbi Moss –

    Question of the Week:

    I fear for the future of the Jewish people. When I look at my family and where they are headed it is not very promising. My grandfather was a rabbi, but I am not sure my grandchildren will even be Jewish. What is the secret to keeping Judaism alive?


    I have yet to meet a Jew who doesn’t proudly claim, “My grandfather was a rabbi.” It seems that three generations ago everyone was a rabbi.

    What they really mean is that their grandfather was an observant Jew. He probably had a beard, prayed every day, and was knowledgeable in Torah. He may have been a cobbler or merchant or baker, not a rabbi, but he was a committed Jew.

    Anyone who identifies as Jewish today only need go back three or four generations to find observant Jews in their family. And from there an unbroken chain of Jewish living that goes back three thousand years. Not that everyone has always been observant. There have always been unobservant Jews. But we don’t know their grandchildren. They have been lost to the Jewish community.

    Jewishness without Jewish observance cannot last more than a couple of generations. Unless they rebel and turn to Judaism, the children of unobservant Jews will stop being Jewish altogether and assimilate. A family of unobservant Jews will lose one or the other – either the Jewishness, or the unobservance. You can’t have both.

    This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout Jewish history there have been individuals and groups who tried to keep a Jewish identity without Jewish practice. It has never worked. A vague Jewish ethnic feeling, devoid of any spiritual purpose and with no compelling message that is relevant to life, cannot last long. Only proud and authentic Judaism, that offers relevance and meaning, direction and inspiration, will stand the test of time.

    In the times of the Chanukah story, a small band of faithful Jews stood up against the vast majority of Jews who subscribed to Hellenism, the Greek way of life. We celebrate Chanukah today because we descend from the faithful few.

    The solution to Jewish continuity is no secret, it’s obvious. Living breathing Judaism produces living breathing Jews. Do for your grandchildren what your grandfather did for you – be a living example of what it means to live a vibrant Jewish life. They don’t need their grandfather to be a rabbi, but they need him to be a proud and practicing Jew.

    Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah,
    Rabbi Moss

  • castillan says:

    come on galus…lift the bar…
    Lead the cultural debate…dont reflect it.
    Did the enlightenment count for nothing?
    Vai le-dara da!

  • Larry Stillman says:

    For all the desire to the return to tradition because of the failure of social exclusionism via the Jewish school system and so on, we now warfare breaking out (well at least frequent fisticuffs lawsuits, and political powerplays) between those who proclaim themselves as practitioners of so-called authentic, Torah-true Judaism, messichistisim, or whatever other labels are attached to it.

    Judaism has never been one thing, and I bet you London to a brick that if there were a time machine and some of the proclaimers of current doctrine and practice ended up in say Spain of 600 years ago, they would be expelled as extremists.

    Even the Chanukkah story, proclaimed by Moss has been manipulated into a modern nationalist myth against ‘Hellenism”. Moss says “a small band of faithful Jews stood up against the vast majority of Jews who subscribed to Hellenism, the Greek way of life. ” Well, the real story is far more complex than that, and if it wasn’t for the Greeks (and the Romans), their science, and rationality (so admired in medieval Jewish philosphy) we may not be here at all. [listen to a great BBC program on Chanukkah @http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017cjm8]

    I note the author is a climate change sceptic from his link and the same logic lies behind his allegedly empirical argument. The world is also flat if we follow traditional beliefs. Please explain.

  • letters in the age says:

    A sociologist is better served to write on this topic Vadim, with all due respect.


  • Robert Weil says:

    Your article is a breath of fresh air Vadim. It’s veracity is proven by the predictable, inane responses from the Larry Stillmans of this world. His degrading remarks implying that your views cannot possibly hold any truth simply because you don’t join him and his friends dancing around the current golden calf – “Climate Change” says it all.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Inane? I’m not going to enter into the climate change debate, since I follow mainstream science, which I believe is also supported by the vast majority of informed, scientifically trained Jews

    but on the progress in Judaism–, I will plagarize from the covernotes of recent reissue of the classic by Mordechai Kaplan — ” Widely considered the genesis of the Reconstructionist Movement, Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization represents a watershed moment in modern Judaism. In this classic, Mordecai Kaplan introduced a new way of looking at Judaism: as an evolving religious civilization. He proposed that, as a minority living in a secular society, Jews should be empowered to reshape Judaism to make it more personally meaningful. His approach required innovation in liturgy and ritual, elimination of obsolete customs, and adjustiment in light of prevailing social, political, and cultural conditions. He felt that all Jews — traditional and liberal, religious and secular — could take part in this “reconstruction.” Judaism as a Civilization remains one of the most original and thought-provoking contributions to modern Jewish thought ever written.”

  • Shulzi says:

    The argument of reshaping and allowing different interpretations of Judaism misses the point of this article, which admittedly could have been expressed better. My interpretation of this point is that whether its orthodox or whatever is that a lack of pro-active engagement with Judaism appears to help guarantee its continuation. Orthodox Judaism expresses this concept most strongly due to the amount of ritual attached to it. Cultural Judaism does not necessarily. Despite, for instance, a inculcation within the Australian Jewish Community of zionist values and the need to remember the Holocaust, ceremonies attached to these values hardly ever attract a significant, let alone a majority of the community.

  • ariel says:

    Dr Chelom may have watched a different interview from the one I heard about from my wife.
    (In fact have any of the commentors here actually seen the interview with Sir Zelman?)

    Sir Zelman was not asked by the interviewer what his greatest failure was. Rather, he was asked how he feels about two of his sons being Orthodox, one of them a rabbi to boot.

    Sir Zelman replied that in some way, this represents his greatest failure, in that their love of Orthodoxy was not something that he was able to pass on to his children, but that they found it elsewhere.

    If this is the case, then this entire article is redundant.

    When my home internet connection gets back up, I hope to watch the full interview on the abc website…

  • Reality Check says:

    Robert Weil, what the hell are you up to? re-writing history and reality? That’s what our enemies have mastered to denegrate us. Don’t attack someone because you have a problem with the real world.

  • Robert Weil says:

    Reality Check. I am fascinated by your response to me. Where/how have I rewritten history?

  • letters in the age says:

    Sir Zelman replied that in some way, this represents his greatest failure, in that their love of Orthodoxy was not something that he was able to pass on to his children, but that they found it elsewhere…

    exactly and thanks for that clarification!

  • Dr Vadim Chelom says:

    I am offering unreserved apology to Rebbi Shimon Cowen and his family. In no way was my article intended to negatively portray Sir Cowen whom I consider to be a visionary and a trailblazer for the Jewish community. My article is based on recollection of an interview broadcast some years ago and may not be entirely correct.

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