Rabbi Michael Melchior gave a candid and important interview to the Jerusalem Post this past weekend. Below, I have excerpted some portions of the interview, written by reporter Haviv Rettig. I urge you to read the entire article.
I first met Rabbi Melchior a couple of years ago and have posted about him on this blog. I met with him most recently in Israel in June and maintain steady contact with him. In my view, he is one of the important emerging leaders in Israel who is coming out strongly in public in the aftermath of the Lebanese crisis in order to provide a constructive and realistic framework for future Israeli domestic and foreign policy.
This latest interview is a public airing of his strongly held views in favor of an Israeli state that endorses religious pluralism. It also shines a light on the realities of the convoluted political and legislative process in Israel and the absence of long-term thinking or planning by the Prime Mininster and the Cabinet. The negative impact on the country of the absence of an Israeli Constitution, the abdication of religious interest by the secular majority, the importance of interfaith dialogue on Jewish- Arab relations, and the crisis in education in Israel are all addressed in this interview.
Don’t forget that this interview is with an Orthodox Rabbi!
From the Jerusalem Post article:
Many people have lamented the void in the curriculum on issues of Jewish studies and Jewish identity.
That’s one of the symptoms of the fundamental disease in the Israeli education system, what I call its "original sin" – the separation between the religious and the secular.
This division has led to two results. The secular side lost its Jewish connection, even in the most pluralistic sense. Generations raised on this education feel more Israeli than Jewish. Their ignorance is amazing, by any standard, about the Jewish narrative, Jewish thought and text.
This happened together with the religious public’s monopolizing of Judaism, which made Judaism narrower and narrower. The Torah, which includes everything, including a society, a way of life and a democratic regime, shrank until it became cult-like and not Am Yisrael. If you only learn with students who think and look like you, this has destructive consequences. If the Torah isn’t for everyone, it isn’t for anyone.
So the Torah lost its internal checks and balances between the particular and the universal, and many social problems resulted from this. We don’t live together anymore, we don’t grow together, we don’t exist near each other, and there is no basic narrative that gives us a joint fate and a joint destiny in Israeli society. That’s why those I can pray with don’t understand my political world, and the people I deal with in my political world don’t understand my prayer.
Specifically, there are complaints from American Jewish organizations that Israeli children don’t learn about the Diaspora.
One of the things lost in this process was the idea that we’re part of a people with its heart in Zion, but some of its body, and even sometimes the brain, is in the wider Jewish world. That got lost because the religious Zionist public has said that it alone is the true Judaism. World Judaism isn’t Jewish in the same way, according to this idea, so there isn’t a feeling of connection or
You describe a kind of political zero-sum game between the religious and secular that finds expression in education. The religious establishment claims a monopoly over religion, and the secular seems to categorically reject religious values.
I blame the secular more than the religious for this. They surrendered their Judaism.
Could the "monopolizing" itself be responsible for the Judaic ignorance of secular education in Israel?
No. The secular public doesn’t seriously deal with the state’s Jewishness, what it means in all the fields of life, such as foreign policy and the treatment of minorities. There simply isn’t any profound discourse.
So they gave the monopoly to the religious. And the religious, including me, didn’t know what to do with this control over Judaism, how to run it and develop it.
It developed into some excellent things, like the volunteering spirit and the social sensibility of religious-Zionist youth. But it also turned into horrible things, particularly in the political realm, an extremism that seals shut the possibility of discussion in Israeli society over where we’re going, because it makes it a religious matter. You can’t argue over religion.
You do a great deal of work in interfaith dialogue. Why?
One of the results of the religious-secular fracture in Israel is a worse relationship with the Muslim world. While there are totalitarian trends in the Muslim world that can’t accept our living here, for the most part, in my experience of 20 years of religious dialogue with the Muslim world, the deeper source of their concern is the danger that peace will threaten their way of life, the traditional society, their family values. They see us as a people who absorbs the cheapest morals of the West. When we talk about the "New Middle East," they think we mean taking the most debased and empty values of the West and forcing it in sophisticated ways onto their society.
In the past few years, I’ve had conversations, both official and secret, with a whole series of Muslim leaders, including what we might call the "bad guys." They all agree that this is the main danger.
Do you believe that the wider Muslim world – and not just a few leaders – can accept you?
Once you begin a religious dialogue and create the possibility for making peace based also on religious principles, it’s a whole different story. I, an Orthodox rabbi, a Zionist all my life, was secretly invited to Muslim conferences. You have to see what happens in such a dialogue. It isn’t easy. This discourse has to be developed. But I saw that when you build trust, there’s no limit to what can be done. The barriers collapse.
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