Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 14, 1999
When he walks into the room for a discussion of religion and state in Israel, your first reaction is to check your Palm Pilot to make sure that you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting the wrong person. Rabbi Michael Melchior looks and feels Ultra-Orthodox — black kipa, dark suit, beard, European accent and all.
But Melchior, this country’s first-ever Minister for World Jewish Community (i.e., Diaspora affairs), is the right man in the right place. He is no haredi. Melchior is a learned, enlightened Orthodox rabbi with significant experience as a pastor and *posek*. Just listen to what he has to say, and you’ll feel the breath of fresh air whooshing around you.
“This must be both a Jewish and a democratic state. But we have to separate between synagogue and state, between the Knesset and Bet Knesset”, says Melchior. “By this I mean that civil marriage inevitably will become an option in Israel, and the nationality clause should be removed for the Israeli identity card. Nor should the State of Israel should be in the business of validating or rejecting the conversions to Judaism of one denomination or another”.
From where does Melchior come to these unusual views? His story begins in Copenhagen, where his father and grandfather were the Chief Rabbis of Denmark. The current Melchior served as chief rabbi of the Norwegian Jewish community and was awarded the Nobel Institute’s prize for tolerance.
“Tolerance and the primary importance of community is what I learned in Scandinavia”, says Melchior. “Judaism has to jive with basic human morality and speak to ethics and social justice — if it is to capture center stage in the life of a modern Jew”, he adds.
After studying Talmud in Jerusalem, getting ordination from former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and years of close collaboration with Elie Wiesel, Melchior linked up with Meimad, the moderate Orthodox alternative to the NRP. In its political platform, Meimad called for a new covenant on religion and state that would strengthen the study of Jewish heritage in schools and bolster Sabbath observance and other public state manifestations of Jewishness, while cutting back on state interference in matters of personal status. Meimad backed Barak, catapulting Melchior into the cabinet.
A whirlwind day with Melchior tells the story. First, a cabinet meeting relating to implementation of the Sharm agreement and settlements. (Melchior supports the peace process but also prodded Prime Minister Barak into dialogue with the settlers). Then, a decisive meeting at Melchior’s urging, which led the government into a $70 million partnership in the “Birthright” program to bring Diaspora youth en masse to visit Israel.
Looking incredibly out-of-place but not feeling it, Melchior then shows up on television welcoming the visiting Danish national soccer team, speaking their language and hugging the ball players like a devoted fan. Without changing his garb or his tune, Melchior’s final stop of the day is the study of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose participation in the coalition is critical to its survival.
“I live in all these worlds, I believe in all these worlds, and in bridging the gaps between them”, explains the Rabbi turned politician. “The gaps between Israel and Diaspora can be bridged, as well”.
Melchior is aware of the impatience expressed by many Diaspora leaders with the pace of change in Israel, in both the diplomatic and socio-religious realms. “Expectations of this government may have been exaggerated, certainly in the short term”, he says. “We have political realities and constraints to deal with. But give us time”, he admonishes.
As for the fraying, fading bond between Israel and Diaspora Jew, Melchior has remedies to suggest. “It is time for us to engage together in a new search for religious and cultural experience, he says. “The youth of this country, as well as Jews everywhere, are seeking a renewed sense of spirituality that has been lost in our high-tech, post-Zionist and post-everything world. You read about it everywhere – from the stories about Israeli youth running off to India in search of themselves to the renaissance of kabbala study in the US”, he says.
Using the Internet and other technologies, Melchior wants us to begin studying Jewish spirituality and history together, Texans and Tel Avivians. “Especially the kids, after they visit here through the Birthright program”.
One acquaintance I met this week explained to me that Melchior cannot succeed. “He is too moderate, too much of a good thing. In Israeli politics, nice guys finish last. And the American Jewish denominational combatants will eat him alive”.
I beg to differ. Melchior is a savvy operator, and the centrist line he represents resonates credibly in the office of Prime Minster Ehud Barak, with whom Melchior is on close terms. Time to give moderation, and Melchior, a chance.