28 June 2009, New London Synagogue
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon:
I want to welcome Rabbi Melchior to New London Synagogue. Rabbi Melchior is the seventh generation to serve as Chief Rabbi in Scandinavia in his family. He received rabbinic ordination in 1980 at Yeshivat Hakotel and went back to Norway at that time. He made aliyah in 1986 and my understanding is that it was the attack on the life of Prime Minister Rabin which persuaded him of the need to develop a more political attitude as a religious leader. Through his work with Meimad he has been elected to several Knessiot and also been appointed as a Minister. He served as Minister of social affairs both for Israel and for the diaspora. I first encountered him at the Million Person March in Washington DC at the height of the second Intifada; it was a very strange atmosphere in that rally and I felt uncomfortable through many of the speeches and it was his speech that day which made me feel, the only time that day, proud to be a Jew, proud to be a Zionist, proud to be religious and proud to be doing the work that I do.
Meimad I think is an extraordinary organization, one which has as its goal something very close to the heart of the New London Synagogue: a belief that religion understood correctly is a voice for tolerance and is absolutely opposed to a narrow-minded fundamentalism. It’s to great sadness that we see the religious voices of narrow-mindedness often enough taking the upper hand in this country, around the Jewish world, and also in Israel. Rabbi Melchior has thought magnificently and continues to fight magnificently both in the Diaspora and Israel.
We wish you every continued strength and success in the battles that are to come and we look forward to hearing how we can get from this place in which we find ourselves to a place where there can truly be a One Israel of togetherness and joy and peace. It’s my real pleasure to welcome you to New London Synagogue to give this third annual memorial lecture in honour and in memory of our great founder rabbi, Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Rabbi Melchior, welcome.
Thank you Rabbi for the warm introduction. It’s an honour for me to be here with you tonight. It was a great effort on the part of those who arranged this evening and I have to express my appreciation for the consistency in the effort to get me to come tonight to London. It took a lot of hard work which is partly because of the crazy life I’m living but the people were persistent.
For sure, the name of Rabbi Louis Jacobs is one which means a lot to a lot of people not only in this community of course. And of course the Rabbi grew up here as a student of Rabbi Jacobs. In my home the connection to Louis Jacobs doesn’t come only from theology and philosophy and Reason to Believe and not even from Jewish peoplehood and a care for Torah and the people of Israel, but on a very personal level. When I was a small child, only 4 years old at the time, my father came to study at Jews’ College to train as a rabbi. That’s actually the reason I went to Norway and not to Denmark, because the position in Denmark was taken by my father – which was a competition which wouldn’t have been fair to take up at the time. So we took over, the Melchior Mafia, all of Scandinavia at the time, which included also Norway. I still am the Chief Rabbi of Norway and I’m also rabbi of a community in Jerusalem but that’s a hobby: you wouldn’t want to pay your rabbi what I’m paid for in all the different places I’m serving as a rabbi.
In any case, my father who decided to become a rabbi (he was a teacher at the Jewish community of Copenhagen) came to study at Jews’ College which at that time was an institution that trained rabbis and educated them in the atmosphere of – I don’t know how much it exists today in British Jewry – central mainstream Orthodoxy. When he first arrived, all the teachers came to him and said, ‘Any problems you have, we will help you, we’ll be at your disposal, we’ll invite you, we’ll take care of you, we will do everything for you’. And after a short time they all forgot about it, except for Rabbi Louis Jacobs who at that time was also one of the distinguished teachers, as your probably all remember, of Jews’ College, and he proved himself to be not only a leader but also a Mentsch. He invited my father and my mother and took care of the needs of those who came as strangers to the community here and didn’t know anybody. On a personal level, I remember, a talk about Louis Jacobs was a talk far beyond agreements or disagreements or theological questions. My father, when he left the College to go home, Rabbi Jacobs would offer him a lift home. My father said, ‘But I don’t live in your direction at all’, he lived in Kingsbury at the time, which was totally the other end of town, but he replied ‘That doesn’t matter, I’ll take you anyway, it will be my pleasure. We can talk about what it is like to be a student at the College and about other important questions on the way.’
That was my introduction as a very small kid to Rabbi Louis Jacobs and therefore it’s a great honour for me to be able to come and share with you the ideas and directions which I see today in the Jewish world and in the State of Israel. I think that we are, in many ways, at a junction where we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions. With the permission of the Rabbis, I would like to start with an idea from the Parashat hashavua. I know that at this place you’re allowed to do this. With everything I’ve done in my life, that’s what I more or less know how to do.
We’re reading now Sefer Bamidbar. Sefer Bamidbar, as you know, in the English translation is called Numbers, which is not at all a translation of the word bamidbar. Bamidbar means ‘in the wilderness’. So why is it called ‘numbers’? The reason is, that was one of the names originally of this book. In Masechet Sota [the Sota tractate of the Talmud], the fourth book of Moses is called Sefer hapekudim which means accounts, or numbers, which is a correct translation but not of the same words. And the reason why it’s called Sefer hapekudim, numbers, is because the book takes us from its beginning when the Jews are counted, to the end of the book where the Jews are counted again. It is the story of the forty years, march through the wilderness and what happened in that period of transition from the Exodus of Egypt until they came into the Land. But the truth is that if you really analyse the text, it’s not actually true: it’s not a story of those 40 years. It’s really a continuation of Shemot in many ways. The Book of Shemot ends in the first month in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt and this is a direct connection, a direct continuation. The second month, the month of Iyar, the second year after the Exodus from Egypt. And we have all the stories of the counting of the Jews in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar. And then suddenly, without anybody noticing it, it’s happening this week actually – in the Diaspora it’s happening this week, in Israel it already happened last week because for you it was the second day of Shavuot and therefore you’re reading it next week. It’s something which we never do in Israel, it never happens, it cannot happen in the calendar, but you’re reading Chukat and Balak together.
Korach is still a continuation of what happened with the tribes or the spies: do we want to go into Israel, do we not want to go and so on. It’s a continuation of that story. Then comes Chukat, and suddenly we’re already in the last year. So really we don’t know anything about what happened. We seem to know, it doesn’t say explicitly in the text, but we don’t actually know anything about what happened in those 38 years. And it’s not so strange that what this Parasha is talking about is the rules around dying because that’s what they were doing. They were dying. They were waiting for that generation which had gone out of Egypt which had seen the big miracles but which had also failed again and again. This generation was not to go into the Land, but God saved them, he didn’t kill all of them. So they were just dying, that was what was happening, and therefore the rules which they were preoccupied with, and that’s what we start reading in this week’s Parasha, are the rules of tumat hamet, the impurity of the dead and how you can become pure again and how you can turn it around.
Now, it’s very interesting to see this contrast between the beginning and the end. Between the two censuses: the counting of those who went out of Egypt and the counting of those who went into the Land. I’ve been thinking more and more about it every time I come to this book, every year. It’s really in many ways the story of the Jewish people. It’s the story of the relationship between the desert and being in your own land. It’s a story of exile and redemption. It’s a very difficult story – and this was a story which was debated already at that time. There are many different explanations about the ten spies: these ten people, these spies who said that we couldn’t go into the Land, these weren’t just anybody. These were leaders of the community. The most central people, the nesiim, these were the heads of the community. And what was their theory? Why did they say that? They knew that God wanted them to go into the Land.
I’ve come to the conclusion, based on a lot of different interpretations which go in this direction, that their philosophy was that it was better not to go into the Land. They were living a very spiritual life. First of all, they didn’t have to take care of their parnasah, they didn’t have to take care of food and drink. When they got up in the morning, they had manna coming down from Heaven; when they were thirsty, they had the well going with them (and on days as hot as this you are reminded very much of the wilderness). They got the food, they got the drink, they had the spiritual guidance of Moshe Rabenu – what could be better? They had a life where they saw big miracles. They had seen miracles that all of humanity hadn’t seen! They saw the plagues in Egypt, they saw the sea split, they heard God’s words, Anokhi, at Mount Sinai. Everything they saw was miracles. And it didn’t work.
It’s very interesting to analyse some of the parashiyot, I don’t again want to go into the depths of this but it’s important in order to understand our topic today. Their theory was that a spiritual existence where you can be close to God, that was the ideal. And why go into the Land and lose this closeness to God; where you’ll have to find your own food, your own drink, your own economy, your own political leadership, there’s no more Moshe Rabenu. We know how the rabbis were afterwards, it wasn’t always ‘ayayay’, and the truth is that those who know a little bit about what actually happened when they came into the land, could understand. If you go back home and you read, for example, the second chapter of the Book of Judges, Shoftim, it’s very very difficult reading. Nobody can say bad things – some people say bad things about Israel today – but nobody can say as bad things as what it says in the second chapter of the Book of Shoftim. And the truth is that everything happened: all the tragedies, all the crimes, all the moral misbehaviour – everything happened!
So this was what they said, and then came Yehoshua and Calev and said otherwise. They said, ‘No, that is not the purpose: Jewish life is not just a spiritual quest.’ It’s even something that’s destroying the spiritual. We see it with the big miracles: it doesn’t work in the way of miracles. Doesn’t work – maybe as long as the miracle is there, but only 40 days later they’re already dancing around the golden calf. It has no basis in the reality of human beings. We need to go into our own country, build our own society, with all the problems – and that is the Jewish way. But if we look at Jewish history with a perspective, and I think we are allowed to do that, we must confess that while Jews have been around a long time, the promise of a bond between Israel and God has been there for 3,500 years, if we take all of our history and see how much of our history we have been in our own land, had our own society, built our own future in one country – very few periods. Maybe the period of Kings David and Solomon and maybe the period of the Maccabees which was a very short and actually very miserable period. We still celebrate Chanukah because of this; people seem to forget why we celebrate Chanukah. The Rambam very clearly says that it’s because of political independence. But this political independence only lasted very very few years and afterwards we became a Roman vassal state. But even if we’re very generous and say that there were 200 years of political independence, and we had 60 years maybe during King David and King Solomon, and then the state was already divided into two, and now we’ve had 61 years – and that’s it! That is the time when we’ve had political independence or political self-determination of the Jewish people, in our own country, during all this period of history.
However, that is something which has befallen our generation or our parents’ generation, that we had this chance. And I’m convinced that there can be no Judaism today without the connection to the State of Israel, without Zionism. And I’m saying this in spite of the fact that Zionism is becoming a word with which you have to be very careful. I was, last month or just around Yom ha’atzmaut, invited to Manchester, it’s a very nice congregation there. This was the last Orthodox congregation in Manchester where they don’t say tachanun on Yom ha’atzmaut – where they celebrated Yom ha’atzmaut. The last Orthodox congregation in Manchester. And I hear that others are becoming the same not only here but also around the Jewish world. Zionism is something which we need today to redefine and to give new content. And it’s part of our giving new content also to what is the Jewish state. These days we seem preoccupied with the demand that somebody else should define us as a Jewish state. But we really haven’t started defining ourselves, what we mean by the State of Israel being a Jewish state. What does it mean? Why did we come there? Only in order to have demography, to have a place where we have a Jewish majority? Is that the whole idea? Some people say this is a Jewish and a demographic state. Because we always talk about demography as if it’s the most important thing in the world. And it’s not! I have a son who is a sociologist and of course it’s very important, and I have to support his parnasah, but I’m sorry to say, the Jewish people was never chosen because of its size. On the contrary: I remember once I appeared together with the young woman who led the revolution in Tiananmen Square, she was Chinese, and she was one of the few people in the world that I met who had never heard of such a thing as the State of Israel. She’d heard about Jews, she’d even read Anne Frank, but she’d never heard there was a State of Israel, which for me was very strange. But then I started thinking how much I knew about China, and then I thought, well, I won’t say anything.
But I said in my speech after I spoke to her in Paris, that I feel humbled to speak after her, representing all of China. And me, I’m not saying I’m representing the Jewish people because my wife will hardly let me say I’m representing our home, but in any case, for the sake of the argument, the whole of the Jewish people is smaller than the legitimate statistic error in China. So we have to somehow be modest with our quest, since we were talking about demography and size… The Jewish people was never chosen because of size. Never. And therefore the whole thing is the way, the path of the Jewish people.
Now I have to say that the founders of Zionism knew what they wanted, and knew what they wanted to build, what kind of country they wanted to build – it’s unbelievable, I read sometimes some of the letters of Ben Gurion, unbelievable leadership and vision – doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything, but what a vision! I once got hold of a letter that he wrote in 1950 to his Treasurer. 1950 was a year when the State of Israel was, according to all financial measurements, bankrupt. And he said, ‘I don’t care about the financial situation, I want you to save 50,000 lirot (which was a lot of money at the time) and I want you to send out shlichim [emissaries] to all of the world to copy or bring back home to Israel every single document which has to do with Jews and Judaism from all periods of history. Everything that Jews have been involved in and Judaism and Jewish culture and religion, but also in sciences and in the general culture of humankind and development etc. I want every single document to be in Jerusalem. And whatever it costs, take the 50,000 lirot and when that’s been spent take another 50,000, whatever it costs. There should not be one document that doesn’t either come back to Jerusalem in its original form or at least we have a copy in Jerusalem.’ They knew what they wanted! Ben Gurion could, when he found a new interpretation of one pasuk in the Torah, he could call in a press conference, urgently, saying everybody should come to Tel Aviv to his office, all the journalists etc. and he would tell them this new interpretation he had, and people would understand what this was about.
Although they had an agenda, the new generation of leaders, and I include all of our leaders, our political leaders, our spiritual leaders, our rabbis, our communal leaders, they lost it. It’s not there. A lot of them are doing great things, great jobs for their communities, for their congregants, for their local societies. But the vision of where we want to go and how we see the State of Israel, how we see the Jewish people and Zionism in another ten years, twenty years, fifty years… What is the vision, what are the ideals, what is the basis on which we build our country, and how do we get there? What is the strategy to get there? And this is not happening – and because of this, we have a situation today, also in Israel, which all of you (I know this a community that cares tremendously for Israel and for Israel’s future), those who care can see that things aren’t always going in the right direction. There’s also the question of what it means to be a Jewish state. There are those who say the Jewish state is a question of religious legislation. And they’re terribly wrong.
The Jewishness of the State of Israel cannot be measured by religious legislation. Not one person comes closer to the Almighty because the secular Knesset legislates on how you should keep the Shabbat or whether you should be allowed chametz on Pesah, or whether you should have your wedding this way or that way. That’s an illusion, it doesn’t have anything to do with it – on the contrary, it creates aggravation and hatred and distance. I remember in the fifties there was a proposal to have the brit milah, circumcision, by law in Israel. The proposal fell for different technical reasons. I’m sure that if they had passed the law (today 99 point something per cent of all Jewish boys are circumcised), if this law had been passed, I’m sure we would have 20-30-40 per cent who would be going on, I call them, eighth-day trips. Eighth-day trips to Cyprus – just as they’re going to Cyprus to get married (I was once asked to open a rabbinical office in Cyprus for all those people, it’s the third biggest tourist attraction in Larnaca), they would be going to Cyprus on the eighth day. And maybe rightly so, if this is enforced by law. This is not Judaism.
When the Berdichever Rebbe crossed the border and saw the policemen looking for people who were smuggling things across the border, he said, ‘Ribono shel olam, look at the Jewish people, how wonderful it is! The king has a thousand customs officers and people smuggle over the border nonetheless! And you say that we shouldn’t have chametz on Pesach, and the Jew cleans and cleans and cleans. He doesn’t even have to clean all this much but he cleans and doesn’t have one crumb. Even though he annulled all the crumbs and they don’t exist any more and afra de’ara and so on, still he annuls everything. But we clean and there’s not one policeman – not one person to check that this is what we’re doing.’ This is Judaism! So I hope I’m not suspected of not wanting people to keep Shabat, and I do want people not to eat pitot on Pesach, and I think people should marry kedat Moshe veyisrael (according to the laws of Moshe and Israel) but not enforced by law. It makes no sense, it’s not right, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t bring anybody closer to the Almighty, and it’s not Judaism.
When I first joined Meimad, we had a small party – Meimad has always been a very small exclusive party, not everybody can be a member, only very special good people; and not everybody can vote for the party, that’s why we don’t get so many votes, only very special people, it’s not for everybody -, when Meimad was first created, there was a television interview with the founder of Meimad who’s called Rav Yehudah Amital, the Rosh Yeshiva, he founded the yeshiva Har Etsyon, the biggest hesder yeshiva in Israel in Gush Etzion. He was asked by the commentator, ‘if you are elected to the Kneset, would you like to become Minister for Religion?’ Why did he ask this? Because everybody who’s secular in Israel thinks that everybody who’s a rabbi with a big white beard, his dream in life must be to become Minister of Religion. What can you ask for more in life than becoming Minister of Religion? And the truth is that there is nothing further away from Jewish religion and decency than the Ministry of Religion in Israel. So Rav Amital answered, and I very much liked that answer, it convinced me that this was the right place to be politically, he said, ‘No, I wouldn’t like to be Minister of Religion, I would like to be Minister of Health. It’s a much more Jewish thing.’
Now what does that mean? It means something very substantial which we don’t always understand in our Zionism and our Judaism. That the way you relate to health, the way you relate to society, the way you relate to each other, the way you relate to human dignity and human rights, the way you relate to your environment, that has to do with whether you are Jewish or not. Not if you’re technically Jewish. But that has to do with the Jewish state. A state which has the biggest gaps between rich and poor, in education and in income, is not a Jewish state. A state which claims that it loves the land – to love the land doesn’t always have to do with how much land you love but how you treat the land! If you have the most polluted rivers in the world, and some of the rivers are, some of you will remember, there was the Maccabee Games some years ago, a big tragedy which happened. They fell in the water and they didn’t drown – the water was so polluted that they died by falling into it.
We had just now a tragedy, I think that she is better now but there was an Israeli kayak champion who was kayaking down the river, and she fell into the water and was stuck under the water. There were hundreds of people watching and nobody jumped down to save her! Not because they didn’t want to save her but they knew how polluted the water was. Is that a way to treat the country? We talk about how many people die from terrorism – it’s really terrible, you have people on purpose going about blowing up other people. We even sometimes talk about traffic accidents. But do we know that in the Gush Dan alone, it’s a place around Tel Aviv, more than 1,200 people die every year from pollution? These are not figures I’ve made up, these are the figures of the Ministry of Health in Israel.
Is that the love of Eretz Israel? Does it only have to do with having broader and broader borders? Or does it have to do with the way we treat the water, the land, the air, the green? I understand in the beginning there was a lot of building to do – we came to a country where there weren’t so many buildings so we built a lot. I remember a discussion I had with Barak in the cabinet when I was in the cabinet. We were against the very big road which was to be built in Israel. He said, ‘I don’t understand you people. When I was a kid, we went out when they were building a new road, we went out with flags and music instruments and were dancing and singing and everybody was happy. And today you people just lie in front of the bulldozers. And you think that that is building the country.’
That doesn’t mean that we’re against development and building but it means that today humankind has progressed. There are other values today which have to be taken into consideration as Jewish values. Already Adam harishon (the first man), the midrash says the Almighty went with Adam hand in hand, and showed him around the Garden of Eden. He said, ‘I’ve given you this to work the land and to preserve the land. And not in order to destroy my world have I given you this.’ Today people understand what they didn’t understand fifty years ago. And this is a Jewish thing. It’s a Jewish thing to take care of the health system. It’s a Jewish thing to take care even of minorities. Judaism was built, and this is part of the dialectic of Judaism which is difficult to comprehend, Judaism was built around the dialectic of being majorities and minorities. It’s sometimes much easier to believe in human rights and human dignity and rights of minorities when you are a minority because then it’s also a self-interest. But when you come to your own country, suddenly it becomes much more difficult. But that’s Judaism.
There’s no sentence more often stated in the Torah than ‘you shall love the stranger because you were also strangers in the Land of Egypt.’ It says this in 36 different ways, not only about the stranger but also about the orphan and the widow and the other. Every time again and again in the Exodus from Egypt, which is the convening event of the Jewish people. Even when God presents himself to humankind, on the visiting card of the Almighty it doesn’t say ‘I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth,’ but ‘I am the Lord your God who is against oppression, who had brought you out of the house of bondage.’ This is how God himself presents himself. This is what we Jews do the whole time when we do anything Jewish. When we put on tefilin in the morning, we remember the Exodus. When we have Shabat, we remember the Exodus from Egypt. Everything Jewish has to do with this basic ethical principle. And we’ve forgotten it, somehow it’s got lost. Not that it doesn’t exist at all, but it’s not a central principle.
I always look at the texts which are chosen for songs: Hasidic songs or very popular songs in Israel and the Jewish world. I see all kinds of texts, some of them very inspiring and some of them pretty shocking. I’m not going to quote them here but if you want a lecture about this, I’ll be pleased to come back and give a talk about this. I have never ever, for many years at least, heard anybody make a song about ‘you shall love the stranger’. Although this is the sentence which is repeated again and again and again – this is what Judaism is about! The balance between exile and redemption, between galut and Eretz Israel – we’ve forgotten about it in the transition, we’ve lost some of these things.
The truth is, and I’ll say something which is very harsh to say, we do not have a Jewish Zionist agenda. We have not built a Mishna which is relevant for the State of Israel. Not religious Zionism, because religious Zionism has been on the tail the whole time of haredi Judaism, and therefore has not created it. There were people who have tried to at certain stages like Rabbi Goren and others but there was too much controversy and it didn’t pull through. And not secular Zionism, which hasn’t taken its Judaism seriously in the generations after Ben Gurion, because it gave the whole monopoly of Judaism in the hands of the religious establishment. And therefore it did not take its Judaism seriously. It did not deal with it, it did not take responsibility for its Judaism. And it’s lost the Jewish aspect, all in all and in general. So nobody is preparing this Mishna, which is a Zionist Jewish Mishna which has to do with which ideals we are fighting for. What is our vision today?
Now these are pretty harsh things which I’ve said, and I mean them deeply. I’ve come to these conclusions after many years of working intensely on all sides of the Jewish world and with all groups and people to the right and to the left and to the north and to the south. In Israel and in Diaspora Jewish communities. I was the first one who created the ministry which today is still a functioning ministry. I initiated the Birthright movement if you know about this. It was the first thing that changed in a positive way the direction of young Jewry to come to Israel – but it’s not enough. Fine, they come to Israel and they connect and they love it and sociological research shows that it has an effect – but afterwards what is there to be connected to? What do we want our young people to be connected to?
My conclusion is that it cannot be done if we segregate each other and the Jewish people. I’ll give you a picture from my community in Norway. When I came to Norway it was a tiny Jewish community. It still is a tiny community, there are not that many Jews there. I came to shul on Shabbat and it was a beautiful shul, like this one you’re sitting in, and we were hardly a minyan there. Hardly. At certain stages before I came they went to phone a couple of old Jews to come so that we would have a minyan. But when I said as an Orthodox rabbi that it totally wasn’t right to go down to the payphone, not with paying, not without paying, there was no minyan. We had to invite people for every Shabbat for there to be more people to come. And then I started a different trick that some rabbis know, it’s not a trick really, but a way to bring people to shul. One thing was of course a good big kidush, that’s always a good method. But I started a choir of young children. The advantage of the choir is that then the children have to come – and their parents have to bring them. And their grandparents have to hear them. And then already I have to whole thing going! So I made this choir. There was one Jew, a secular Jew, who on every possible occasion would say that he was an atheist. He asked me if it was OK if he sang in the choir. I knew that he loved singing Jewish songs so I said it would be OK but I had one condition: that he would sing a solo. There’s a very beautiful solo in the kedushah of Shabbat where we sing about God’s glory. ‘Where is the place of His Glory, his servants ask one another’ – you all know the text from kedushah. The angels of God are looking in their quest to find the Almighty until they find the Almighty and this is the peak of the service in many ways. He sang this with such Hasidic fervour, and I always teased him after service saying, ‘you know, I heard the angels clapping their hands after your solo this Shabbat.’ For me, it was the religious peak of the week.
Now this you can do because you have different people together. You’re a small community where you understand that you’re forced to be together. So the very Orthodox and those who are not Orthodox at all but define themselves as Reform or something else, and the secular Jews and even the mixed marriage couples – everybody needs to be together under the same roof because we understand that otherwise there is no roof! We have to agree on the rules of togetherness, but you realize that something interesting is happening in the meeting place, in the team between the different attitudes. When you go into the depths of this, something happens.
Then I came to Jerusalem and became rabbi of a community in Jerusalem. It’s a very nice community, but to be honest, the spiritual development is not there because everybody is the same. Apologies to my community there, I love every one of them, but it’s a little boring when everybody is the same. The magnitude of Judaism is that everybody heard the Word at Sinai. Not just one group, not just one denomination – everybody heard the word, everybody was there. And everybody heard something different. That was the magnitude. So how do you do this? What I believe, and I’ve seen it develop now in Israel, it’s starting, it’s beginning, it’s difficult, but it’s catching on, is to start to build kindergartens and schools. We’re now building post-school institutes and yeshivot, which is something very new: building yeshivot where people from different places can be together. Secular and religious can be together. And in this meeting place between heretics and believers a whole new Jewish thinking is happening. Unbelievable interpretation! Every week I hear new thoughts about the parashat hashavua which I had never thought about because I was always thinking in traditional terms which of course is very good but the meeting place cannot happen. And there it happened.
For the first time in Israel, instead of polarization, instead of the secular losing their Jewishness, and the religious taking their Jewishness but making it more and more narrow. But here it doesn’t have to be relevant for the whole society, it doesn’t need to solve the problems of a society, it doesn’t need to deal with health and with economy and responsibility and ecology – it doesn’t need to because you’re just a group together. And then we close ourselves and segregate ourselves into smaller and smaller communities. Suddenly there are schools built where you can be together and where you can build together. Not that the religious become less religious or the secular become less secular – that’s not the purpose. It’s not a new version of Chabad where we’re open as long as everybody’s open on our terms. That’s not the idea. The idea is that you can be together and you can develop not the lowest common denominator, but rather to respect the differences of people who are totally committed to halakha, people who are God-fearing, being consistent with a halakhic lifestyle, and people who are totally inconsistent with the halakhic lifestyle. They are building up Jewish values and Jewish ideas around Jewish texts with which they can then go out and build a society, with a commitment to society, to education, to social values, to health, human rights, human dignity. And you build it up with Jewish sources, with a consistency with the Jewish past – but not being a prisoner of your past. Rather, using the past in order to be able to build and think anew, and be relevant and exciting and romantic maybe. Believing in a future and building a future together; and these communities are being created now all around the country. It’s a new thing and very fragile still. There are a lot of people who are afraid, especially in the religious community. A lot of people are afraid: they think that if their children are exposed to this then they might lose their identity. I understand – fear is powerful; we’re always a little afraid and it’s OK.
However, the thinking in these schools and these institutes is something which is necessary for the future of the Jewish people. I think it’s necessary all over the Jewish world. I see what’s going on in many other places, I see the haredim. The haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, are succeeding – and there’s a lot of historical justice in their success. When Ben Gurion in 1948 let the haredim not go into the army, there was some historical justification to that. The haredim, while the Jewish people had lost its third during the Holocaust, the haredim had lost 90% of their community. And there was historical justification that they should build up – and they know how to work. My claim is that they’re the only part of the Jewish community who have a vision and who have a strategy and therefore are successful. I saw it in the Knesset for many years. They know how important education is. And they will not give up anything when it comes to education. Everything else they can compromise in; education, never compromise. That’s why they succeed. Public education in Israel is going down the drain and they’re succeeding – not only because of their numbers, but they also succeed because they attract a lot of other kids: because they have long school days, they can give lunches, they have smaller classes, because they know how important education is. And because the general secular or religious Israeli system doesn’t have a strategy for education, therefore their numbers are growing in unbelievable measures.
Just to give you a couple of figures if you want; so if you have difficulty sleeping tonight, I hope that will be the reason. Mainstream secular Jewish education was until twenty years ago about at least 60% of children in Israel. In five years, that number will have gone down to 35%. The Arabs are growing, although their numbers are stabilising, around 28%, and religious education, especially haredi education, has become already and will become, in another five years, larger than secular education. With all the consequences this will have: for serving in the army, for building society, for university, for science, for health, for income, for being a part of the world. How to relate to the other, how to relate to Arabs, minorities and so on. It can have good effects and bad effects – but they have a strategy. They know what they’re doing and they know where they’re investing the money. And we don’t. Because we’re moderate and what we don’t do today we can do tomorrow, and if we don’t do it tomorrow we can do it next year. We don’t have a strategy. We do nice things for our communities and they’re developing and we have some lovely nice rabbis, like here, but we’ve lost the strategy of the Jewish people. That’s the whole idea behind Zionism: to take us out of the shtetl and bring us to Judenstaat.
And we’re back again in the shtetl: everyone has their own small thing. It could be important, or very beautiful, but that wasn’t the idea of Zionism. That was what they did in the desert, that wasn’t what they did when they came into the Land. And it’s terribly difficult, and there are dilemmas in every direction and every spot. We know the political dilemmas. But we need to deal with them, not to just look the other way and say they’ll go away. We need to deal with them. Is that a Jewish country where you have political parties like what we saw in these elections where we had people getting up and saying, ‘You know what we should do with the Arabs? Kill them, kill them!’ That’s happening in the State of Israel. Is that Judaism? Does that have anything to do with Judaism? We have to get back on the right path again. This doesn’t have anything to do with Jewish thinking. But today it takes a lot of courage and leadership and to build a new Zionism. That’s what’s necessary to do.
The good news is that there are a lot of young people who think this way. There are a lot of young people who are waiting for us, a little older, to maybe show a path and maybe we can’t. Maybe it has to come from the young people. There are a lot of young people volunteering today: we have more volunteering in Israeli society than in any other society in the western world. My hope is with these young people: that they will do a better job than our generation in the leadership of the Jewish world. There’s lots of new thinking, new ideas – also in this community and the British Jewish community in general. A lot of people who want to transcend conventional building and do something together.
Again, I don’t in any way want to diminish differences. We have differences in religious approach or when it comes to questions of halakha, we have differences when it comes to the question of conversions to Judaism. Let me take an issue like conversion to Judaism. It’s an interesting issue. One thing is the debate about conversion in the Jewish communities around the world. That’s one debate. But in Israel it’s a different debate. In Israel conversion to Judaism is a national question, it’s not just a religious question. I can understand; also as a rabbi in Norway I had quite a tough policy on conversion. Although I tried at least to be nice to the people who wanted to convert to Judaism but there was a full demand of shmirat mitzvot, of a commitment to the totality of halakha on the part of the person converting to Judaism. But is that the same in Israel? What happened in Israel was that the Rabbinate, which for 60 years usually found solutions, although they would say that you needed a commitment to shmirat mitzvot, to keeping the mitzvot, in practice it was not so. And they knew it wasn’t so. For example, according to Israeli law, you cannot adopt a child who does not have the same religion you have. There were more than a thousand children adopted not only from religious people, but also from secular kibbutzim, and there was not one child who was not converted to Judaism. But there was never a theological or halakhic basis for this. Although there is a halakhic basis, there are different opinions that are legitimate. There are different opinions within halakha. But nobody came out and the result now is that the haredi approaches have more and more taken over the batei din in Israel and now they’re starting to annul even those conversions which were done forty or thirty or twenty years ago. Something which has never happened!
This is really reform Judaism. It’s never ever happened in Jewish history that people were converted and their conversion was then retroactively annulled. Even the Rambam brings the story of two people who had a very doubtful conversion in Jewish history. One was the big hero Samson – you remember the story of Shimshon with his wife Delila? According to the Biblical story, she was for sure not the most righteous of converts. And the same about one of the wives of King Solomon who was the daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And the Rambam says, and the Gaon of Vilna agrees, that they from the beginning had the kavanah leshem avodah zarah, their intention was to commit idolatry. That was what they were thinking about; they didn’t do it in order to accept the yoke of Heaven. No, they did it for the purpose of idolatry, from day one. And the Rambam says that they are Jews in any case. You couldn’t annul their conversions. Although there is one expression that this whole new reform Judaism has thrown itself over: that you could interpret this in a way that you should have some suspicion afterwards. But there are so many explanations on this Rambam, I don’t want to go into it. You learn the text and you’ll see that there’s really no basis whatsoever for this new Judaism. But it fits into a philosophy of segregation with no national aspect whatsoever. I said that there can be different solutions in halakha. I want there to be a debate, I want it to be on the table: what is the obligation of the Jewish people today? 320,000 people have come to Israel who want to be part of the Jewish Israel and who are not religious. They want to go to Jewish schools, they want to serve in the Jewish army, they’re not religious. What do we do? Come up with something and don’t expect everybody to lie. OK, you can say that it can’t be solved – fine, then we know that and we’ll have to find other ways. But nobody says that; we’re just not dealing with it. We’re not serious. The same in other religious questions like agunot. We act as if it doesn’t happen.
To go into the Land: there is a discussion, in the first passage of the Torah, it says the word or, light, five times in the story of the first day of creation. The midrash says that these five times correspond to the five books of Moses. The fourth time or occurs is the pasuk ‘God divided between light and darkness.’ The interpretation of this is that it’s according to the two censuses – the beginning of the book and the end of the book, what we started off with. There is an interpretation which says that the light was in the wilderness, that it was good, it was right, it was spiritual and wonderful. Close to the Almighty. But the majority of interpretations say, and this is what I believe is Judaism, that it was the dark that was in the midbar. The light was when they came into the Land. In spite of all the difficulties; to go into the Land, to take responsibility for your society, for your future. To put up an agenda. It’s a tremendous opportunity.
Jews haven’t been able to deal with ecology for 2,000 years. They didn’t own land at all: they weren’t allowed to own land. They had these festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, and didn’t have a clue what they were about. They read in the Torah that it had something to do with the corn but they didn’t know what you did with the corn. They didn’t have an idea what you did with all these aspects of the Torah. The omer: they thought the omer was just about not going to dance or not getting married. They didn’t know the omer had to do with how you build the country, how you connect to the land. Also today not all Jews living in Israel or abroad are farmers – but you don’t have to be a farmer to have a Jewish Mishna built on an obligation to Jewish values and a commitment to all the Jewish texts of the past, where you build up a philosophy and also practical mitzvot: of how you deal with the environment, how you save water, how you don’t pollute. How you take responsibility that there will be some green areas for future generations. That’s an exciting venture which we have today. To make a Judaism which every Jew can commit to – which believes in social values and social commitment, in tikkun olam.
We will have our differences: our halakhic and other differences. Fine – we don’t all have to believe in the same thing. But we need to put up an agenda if we want a common Jewish future. That’s what the Jewish state is about, that’s what Zionism is about and that’s what Jewish peoplehood is about. And we need your help, your involvement and your care in order to be able to do it because we can’t do it alone. We’re not alone. Today all the Jews of the world who care about the future of the Jewish people also care about the future of the State of Israel. And this is today our agenda. Thank you so much for having listened, even in this heat – thank you very much.
Question and Answer session
Thank you, Rabbi Melchior. Just before the lecture began, Rabbi Gordon, who incidentally has been teaching us at Leo Baeck College in the field of midrash as Rabbi Louis Jacobs did for many-many years a generation ago, he gave me a copy of the new edition of Quest in which he has an article called ‘Talking about Israel: A Case Study in Jewish Discourse.’ And what he does in that article is he takes four categories, types from the Jewish past representative of the maskil, the enlightened person; the hasid or mystic; the talmid hakham, the rabbinic scholar; and the navi, the prophet, and reconstructs how each one of them would be talking about modern Israel today. It seems to me that we have heard an extraordinary address in which all four of these components were obvious. The maskil and his commitment to universal values and reason; the hasid – we heard the fervour, the passion, the spirituality that drove many of the words; the talmid hakham – scholarship, the mastery of rabbinic literature, the role of the rabbis as teacher; and of course the navi, the prophet – not someone talking about the future but someone who’s committed to speak out on the burning issues of the time, for social justice, and to become involved in political issues. That’s what made the address so extraordinary and it was a privilege I think for all of us and a fitting tribute to Rabbi Jacobs.
We have a little bit of time, and what we should do is perhaps ask for three questions at a time, maybe we’ll have an opportunity for two rounds.
Question 1: How do we achieve all this? How do we help? Where do we start?
Question 2: Assad in Syria has recently stated that Israel was a racist state. How does one answer an accusation like that?
Question 3: How do you see the haredi community and its involvement in society?
What can we do? I think that everybody who wants to be involved and cares will find a way. When I talk to Reform Jews in America, I always say that nobody has built Chabad like the Reform Jews of America. A lot of its money is spent on fighting Reform Judaism. To support efforts both here and in Israel that go in that direction; to support, to participate, to be involved – everyone according to their commitment and their wish to be involved and care about these efforts. I have a dream of building a world movement for people who are very different. We have people who are haredi and we have people who are Zionist Orthodox and people who are Reform or secular Jews. They have a joint vision about the main issues of what should be built today. And I think it’s exciting and possible. Why not believe in the future? I really don’t see any good reason why not to believe in the future.
One of the few things I’ve learnt is that to be a Jew is to be an optimist. That’s what my father always taught me. Sometimes I’m seen as an extreme optimist. But when I talk to him, compared to him I’m a pessimist. They always said to me, if you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, that’s not because the light is not there. It’s because the tunnel doesn’t go straight down, it has turns and goes around the corner. And we human beings don’t have the ability to see around the corner and to know what’s coming. Look at where the Jewish people is today compared to where it was 120 years ago. The entire Jewish people was a people at risk who didn’t know what they got up to the next morning. Today, it’s in our hands. Not totally, we can’t decide our future alone, we’re dependent on other people, our neighbours in Israel, maybe some people in Washington and other people around different places, but we can have a say in the building of our future. I also believe, after having been in politics it’s strengthened my belief in the Ribono shel olam, in the Almighty. Because what I’ve seen going on in politics, that can’t be the answer. It has to be something beyond that; at the end of the day we have to trust the Almighty. So we can today be a part of this decision-making. Again, everyone on his or her own level and where you see that you can give a hand and participate and build and contribute. I think it’s wonderful that we are in a generation which can do this because for thousands of years Jews could not do it.
The second question was about the accusation of racism. First of all, when the accusation of racism comes from Assad, who is not known as the foremost human rights fighter in the world, I wouldn’t take accusations of racism from him very seriously. However, there is a general issue, not of racism. There is some racism in Israel but not worse than any other country in the Western world. We of course have to deal with it wherever it occurs and against whoever it is. Our issue with the Arab world is not an issue of race. It’s first of all a political issue which has to find a political solution and a political agreement. I think everybody knows what that agreement has got to be, we just don’t have a clue how to get there but that’s another question. I have some clues also, and some answers, but you didn’t ask about that.
There are aspects of the conflict, like the extremist expressions I’ve mentioned before about killing Arabs or expelling Arabs or things like this, which thank God are not common – the vast majority of Israelis would despise those expressions, but they’re there and they will be. The longer the conflict is, the stronger these expressions will be. People are afraid – and when people are afraid, it’s easy. It’s easy to come in with totalitarian solutions. And Assad knows something about totalitarian solutions. So yes, we should be concerned, very much so – we should be concerned of the Jewish world which ought to be connected to the human rights world. Somehow, in the seventies and eighties when they started talking about occupation and settlements; instead of dealing with these questions we detracted. Which was bad! It was bad for the human rights world because we had something to contribute, and it was bad for us because suddenly an important part of Judaism was lost. We couldn’t deal with human rights anymore because this was a bad word – because human rights was used or misused against the state of Israel.
But it’s important to remember that human rights are the basis of Judaism. Human rights were built not least on values coming from Judaism. My grandfather of blessed memory used to say that 1948 was the year of the coming of the messiah. Why? Because there were two dreams which were connected to the coming of the messiah. One dream was that the Jews could come back to their own country from all parts of the world and this happened in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. And the other dream was to find a way of living together – the wolf and the sheep and all these different creatures, to melt the weapons and to ploughshare; and the human rights declaration which came on the 7th of December 1948 was in many ways a vision which was based also on the human experience but also on the Jewish experience. When Hitler said, ‘You cannot meddle into what is going on with our Jews because it’s our business, it’s none of your business’, that was what was accepted in the world in the 1930s. But the lesson, the first lesson from the Holocaust, was that there is no such thing. That wherever human rights and human dignity are trampled on, that is not the business of just one country – it’s the business of the whole world. And that’s a Jewish notion which we still haven’t learnt today.
I’m not only talking about the Jews but look around what’s going on in the world. There are so many countries where human rights and dignity are trampled upon and where the world is silent. But the thing is that the moment the state of Israel is created, we are part of the world. When the world is silent that means we are silent. And we should stand in the front of those battles – that’s what it’s about to be Jewish. So, we need to deal with aspects of totalitarianism which are there in all religions to some extent. In all societies there are aspects of racism. I don’t think that they’re worse in Judaism, I’m positive they’re not. But we need to wipe it out and have zero tolerance towards those aspects when we see it in our own community. Not because Assad tells us but because we know what is right and what is wrong. That is why we should deal with it and take it seriously wherever it pops up its ugly head.
And the third question was – the haredim and their involvement in general society. The haredi world, necessarily, because it grows, cannot preserve the ghetto walls which it has had. But that’s not the issue. Look at the American haredim, I don’t know how it is here in England – you know there are the litvaks and the Hasidim and they’re very different. They’re all haredim but there the Hasidim they work. They work, they have jobs, they have an education and they make a salary. They don’t all sit in the yeshivot and expect somebody else to pay for their education.
If you’ve seen the Knesset, there are more and more haredim in the Knesset. And they’re involved in everything. Some of them are very segregated but some of them are just as good legislators as everybody else. Some of them are actually very very good, exceptionally good legislators. That’s not the issue. The problem is who will take a national responsibility – that the haredi world, at least until now, has been getting more and more haredi, more and more segregated. There are new things coming every day and they’re not going in the other direction. So it’s not a question again of observance of halakhah, it’s a question of taking responsibility in the totality of the state of Israel. You can’t take responsibility in the totality of the State of Israel and not go to the army. You can’t do that! And this is part of how things are falling apart in Israel. When it was 300 or 400 students it was one thing. But now it’s thousands and thousands of people who don’t go to the army.
We had this discussion in my home. I remember when I was in the cabinet, Barak in 1999 had a campaign which was ‘am echad, giyus echad’ – one people, one draft. Which really said, ‘When I become prime minister, everybody will go to the army.’ Now that was totally ridiculous but it gained votes – that’s what you do in an election campaign, you gain votes. But people don’t like it when afterwards you don’t do as you promised, and this is what creates the estrangement to politicians – because they never do that. They say one thing in their campaigns and then they don’t do this. Now he said this and then what did he do when he became a minister? He made a commission as they always do: you make a commission. This commission came up with something, I don’t want to go into the details of it, I was in the cabinet and it was terrible. It was terrible. But it was better than nothing. A little little better than nothing.
So we were sitting around this cabinet table discussing this and one of the ministers said, ‘This is dividing the whole people’. I said, ‘You’re talking about the whole people? I’ll tell you what I have at home.’ So I told her that my eldest son was studying in yeshiva and had postponed all military service. Son number two was in yeshiva but left yeshivat hesder because he thought it wasn’t a decent thing that soldiers who were in yeshivot hesder, although they were doing a very good job, they only did half the army service. So he was in yeshiva, did a full army service in an elite unit and then went back again to the yeshiva afterwards to study to become a rabbi later. And then I had a third son who was in a very-very elite unit and I had a fourth son who was hunger-striking outside the Prime Minister’s office because of the compromise with the haredim who were not to do military service. He was hunger-striking against the cabinet which his father was a member of. So they asked him on television, ‘How can you do this against your father?’ I have a very diplomatic son. He said, it’s not that we really disagree. It’s just that my father sees the half-full glass and I see the half-empty glass. A very good answer, I was very pleased – I was also very pleased with the hunger-strike by the way because he was right that this is immoral. It’s immoral for a society where some people have to endanger their lives to protect the security of the country and others don’t. It’s just totally immoral.
It’s not going to be solved. I’m not one of those people who try to solve things which are unsolvable. The haredi community will not take responsibility and that’s the big problem. It’s not a problem if they don’t want to sit on the buses together with the women or whatever, let them have two buses, although I’m against that, but if they want to have private buses they can have private buses. They can do what they want. But they can’t decide the national politic of the State of Israel if they will not be a full part, which they will not. Which means taking the full obligations and then having the full rights of the State of Israel. And this is a tremendous problem and it’s especially a problem because, as I said before, and this is a really dangerous thing to say, they’re the only ones who know what they’re doing. If the secular Israel, the national-religious Israel, knew what they were doing, instead of building all kinds of settlements and all kinds of things which don’t have any future in them, they would be spending money on education, they would be setting up the best of the best of education – of Jewish education, of science, of excellence; education of decency and morality and responsibility – we could turn it around, believe me. I’ve made a lot of schools in Israel. I know it’s possible: lo bashamayim hi – it’s not in the Heavens, it is possible. And it’s possible to do it together with religious and secular. The problem is that we’re not doing it so we’re just complaining that they’re doing it. There is no future in complaining. There’s a future in building and a future in taking responsibility for the future. This is what we should be doing and this is the answer.
There were some other questions. We’ll make this the last question.
Question inaudible, relating to India.
I’ll tell you a story. I’ve only been to India once in my life. It was some ten years ago where I was invited – this was my Norwegian hat. The Norwegian government was very much involved in the attempt to make peace in Kashmir. So they sent me on a Norwegian government delegation. There is a Hindu sect which is very pacifistic and I wanted them involved in the peace process. Anyhow, I was there, and the truth of the matter was that these people – and there were a 100,000 people there, it wasn’t a small kehilla, it was a serious community, I’ve never spoken to such a big crowd in my life. They couldn’t care less about these Norwegians – that was the sad truth. When they found out that I was Israeli, and I was a rabbi, I suddenly became the big hero of the whole event. And we got a very spiritual and very interesting conversation there for a couple of days and the man who drove me back to the airport (it was a slow drive, eleven hours on the road), he was the former head of the air force in India. He told me about all the plans and the friendship that there is between India and Israel and the Jewish people and we discussed it a lot and there’s a very interesting bond which partly comes for historical reasons and philosophy and partly sometimes because you have a common enemy which helps a little here and there in finding purposes together.
There is very close cooperation today between Israel and India – we actually have a former British Jew from London as our Ambassador, probably some of you know him, our ambassador to India today, we have a very good partnership and cooperation. I think that it’s possible, and I’ll conclude with this. I very much believe in also what Obama says in his Kairo speech. I’ll even take it a step further. Obama talks about common interest: that the different civilizations have a common interest in the future of humankind – and that’s true. The clash of civilisations will lead us nowhere, it will just blow up the future and it’s very easy – and there’s no better tool for that clash than that of religions. Religion can be the ugliest tool of hatred and totalitarianism which we have. But it can also be beautiful. It can be sam hamavet as the Talmud says, the medicine of death, or it can be etz hayim, the tree of life. So we know what it should be – and I believe not only in common interest but also in common values. We can build today – and we don’t have any choice really but to build up something today, a society where we deal with our values and our future.
We all have our questions in society today about the dangers of living etc. But I see nothing more productive and nothing gives greater hope: I’ve participated personally in Islamic summit meetings. I don’t know if any other Israeli public figure has done that, and we’ve come to agreements and conclusions. And for sure, it was Indians and people from around the world, where we have no conflict. But we have so much in our history which leads us to fight for a world of values and commitment to a future – I think there’s a lot in this and I very much believe that this is the opportunity.
The Jewish people – and even geography supports this – have one leg in Western liberal democracy, and one leg in the East. We have one leg in the North even with the climate – half a country is snow and rain and half the country is desert – in this tiny-tiny country. We have the whole ecology of the world in this tiny country. We have a possibility: it’s tiny, so we can really make it a paradise on Earth. We can show the whole world from Jerusalem how Christians and Jews and Muslims can build together. We have programmes today which are more progressive than any of the programmes running in Europe today. With religious Jews and religious Muslims together. Schools and teachers, and young rabbis, priests and imams, we’re working hard. It’s difficult because we have a little country on the horizon – but it’s possible. And if it’s possible in Jerusalem then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible in Nigeria or Sri Lanka or Kashmir or in Northern Ireland or Paris or wherever you want in the world. And this is really the challenge and I have no better solutions. I think that it’s in our hands to be able to bring this world, our fragile world, to the place where it should be.