Rabbi David Saperstein visits the PM Glynn Institute

13 May 2020
Ethan Westwood, Intern, PM Glynn Institute

During March 2020, the Honourable Rabbi David Saperstein visited the PM Glynn Institute. Rabbi Saperstein was hosted jointly by Australian Catholic University and the Australian Union for Progressive Judaism (Rabbi Saperstein is currently the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism).

Prior to starting his role as president of the WUPJ, from 2015 to 2017, Rabbi Saperstein served as the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, working as the country's chief diplomat on religious freedom issues as part of the Obama administration. For the previous forty years, he served as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, representing the Reform Jewish Movement to the United States Congress and Administration.

Rabbi Saperstein is also an attorney, teaching seminars on church–state law and Jewish law for thirty-five years at the Georgetown University Law Center. He has served on the boards or executive committees of prominent interfaith and public interest organisations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Religious Partnership on the Environment and the World Faith Development Dialogue.

Internationally, he has been interviewed by television, radio, and print media in over fifteen countries. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Harvard Law Review.

He is a prolific writer and speaker, whom the PM Glynn Institute was extremely excited and obliged to have the opportunity to hear from and converse with in person.

The purpose of this visit was for Rabbi Saperstein to be involved in the discussion regarding the nature and current state of religious freedom and human rights across the globe with others who are also concerned about these issues.

The visit would allow for an extensive exploration into the issues, with numerous differing opinions being presented, deconstructed and strengthened all through respectful dialogue.

It was important for the PM Glynn Institute to organise and take part in these discussions as we understand religion to be one of the important and enduring features of the social and political landscape; as well as promoting the importance of respectful dialogue, with an aim to be both critical and charitable in approaching those who may hold differing or distinct views and opinions. Rabbi Saperstein champions both these values in his debate and writings.

Due to the unforeseen circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak across the world and here in Australia, plans had to be unfortunately changed so that they could better suit the situation at hand.

Luckily, the Rabbi had already spoken to faith leaders of different religious communities at Newman College in the University of Melbourne. With the help of Dr Michael Casey, Director of the PM Glynn Institute and Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute, Rabbi Saperstein was able to address the group of leaders, sharing his opinions and discussing the state of the religious freedom debate in Australia.

By comparing and drawing on his own experiences, he was able to offer invaluable insight to those present regarding the current tumult surrounding the nature of our own religious freedom bill as people are faced with the fear of compromise as well as the fear of persecution for voicing their own individual opinions from either side of the contentious bill.

Amongst those in attendance in Melbourne was Ms. Nergish Udwadia of the Zoroastrian Association of Australia, Fr Jacob Joseph of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and Mohamed Mohideen, President of the Islamic Council of Victoria, along with many others.

The PM Glynn Luncheon series was also able to go ahead as it was organised in accordance with the government advice regarding COVID-19.

Rabbi Saperstein was able to come together with a small group of people from a range of backgrounds and opinions to discuss the role of human rights and the balancing act that can occur when trying to reconcile both a liberal and multifaith/multicultural society.

Debate and discussion occurred with many enlightening conclusions being reached, all being spurred on by questions such as:

  • Does the exercise of balancing rights, such as religious freedom and freedom from discrimination, lead to a society in which everyone flourishes?
  • Or, in reality does it lead to dissatisfaction on all sides and growing mistrust and division?
  • Should we see civil rights, such as religious freedom, as licence to do as we please, or as boundaries for ways of living together and navigating disagreement?

Rabbi Saperstein’s visit created a unique opportunity for those who were able to take part in a dialogue with him. Although they all came from different backgrounds and held different opinions, they could come together and be united in critical and charitable discourse in which taunting and scorning did not have a chance to materialise. Rather the Rabbi only cultivated harmony and cooperation throughout his visit to Australia and the PM Glynn Institute.


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