The Jewish year 5775 was not one of particular tranquility for the State of Israel or its citizens, with a wave of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, including the brutal slaughter of men at prayer in a synagogue, an intemperate general election, and heightened concerns over the accord between Iran and the leading international powers regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.
And at the end of the year, just several weeks ago, the nation was convulsed by the murder of Shira Banki in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, and the attack in the Palestinian village of Duma, most likely by Jewish extremists, in which three members of the Dawabsha family were murdered and a fourth was severely injured.
Rosh Hashana is traditionally a time of personal introspection.
But as has been pointed out by rabbis and commentators, the prayers recited in synagogue are worded in the plural, because of the mutual responsibility the Jewish people has for one another, which means that the High Holy Days are also a time for a national accounting.
Rabbi Michael Melchior has been a strong moral voice in Israel for many years. He is the founder of the Citizens’ Accord Forum, which strives to heal rifts within Israeli society, and is also a co-founder of the Mosaica Center, which promotes coexistence and conflict resolution. He has received several awards for this work, and also served as a member of Knesset and minister of social and diaspora affairs.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
ahead of Rosh Hashana, Melchior spoke of the need to create a more Jewish society, not in outward demonstrations of religious practice but in substantive expressions of Jewish values. This would lead to a rejection of populist and extremist rhetoric, attentiveness to the travails of other peoples, and the return to the legacy of the Talmudists, who bequeathed the Jewish people an ability to think creatively in order to find solutions to their deepest problems.
For Melchior, the murders of Shira Banki and the three members of the Dawabsha family in the village of Duma were unthinkable acts, and unthinkable for the overwhelming majority of Israelis. But he insists that the nation must take collective responsibility to amend a situation in which such attacks can take place.
“Everyone felt terrible after these events, but people also feel like they’re not part of such incidents, that it’s somebody else who did this and so it really doesn’t concern us,” he explains.
“But that’s not so. It does concern us, it’s our society, it means that I haven’t done enough to make a better society so people can feel secure and protected, and not be swallowed up by their ideologies, but be able to also see the human being in the other.”
Although the rabbi has little faith in the political leadership, he says he is optimistic about the development of a more tolerant society. This is based on his interaction with a broad spectrum of Israel’s population, which his various frameworks and organizations bring together for meetings and discussions.
“There are millions of people in all sectors of the population who want to create that better language and a better society. The light is there, because there are so many young people who are volunteering, who are doing great things here, who are willing to create a more just society, and I see it the whole time, when I speak to pre-army preparatory programs or at universities and yeshivas, with Arabs and with Jews.
“People often agree with each other, we’re not that far away, we just need this light to shrine through.
“It will not come from leadership though, because we lack leadership,” says Melchior resignedly. “It won’t come from there, because we lack the people who will take responsibility.”
Above all, Melchior insists that the debate about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state be dramatically shifted, from what the phrase is most often associated with, as a reference to Jewish nationalism or to outward religious practice, to a debate about Jewish values.
“We have a religion which is very particularistic, but also very universal. Judaism is a dualism and there’s a very delicate balance. But if you destroy that delicate balance you become very ethnocentric and you can become the worst racist and the biggest hater.”
Regarding the ongoing migration crisis from Syria and Africa to Europe, as well as the way Israel has dealt with African migrants in the country, Melchior says that there is a danger that Israeli society will become insensitive to the needs of others.
“On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we ask the Almighty to circumcise our hearts and not to be cold hearted or detached. “Before Abraham our forefather became a Jew he was a human being, he was circumcised at a late age.
First you’re a human being and then you become a Jew. And we forget that being a Jew is part of being a human being and we seal off our hearts,” he says.
“Do we want to open our hearts, or do we want them to be sealed off? But then we won’t have a heart, and if we don’t have a heart then to be Jewish doesn’t mean anything.
“If we build a more just society, if we do everything to get rid of poverty and injustice, that is the test of our Jewishness. That is Judaism. The prophet Isaiah notes all the sacrifices being brought to God, but asks how the people are treating the orphans and widows, and those who are needy.”
Melchior points to the Talmudic sage Yohanan Ben-Zakai as the paradigm for healing the rifts in Israeli society.
He notes that when the rabbi asked the Roman general Vespasian to spare “Yavne and its wise men” he was establishing the foundations for the Jewish people to find solutions to the problems they would encounter.
“In so doing, Rabbi Yohanan Ben- Zakai developed a mechanism for evolving the Oral Law, but also for a minimum of dogma and a maximum of debate, for being able to think outside of the box, to talk together and to find solutions,” says Melchior.
Ben-Zakai’s framework of debate gave the Jewish people the ability “to adjust, to think, to discuss, to be connected to your identity, but also to adapt to different situations when surrounding situations changed, for the good or bad.” Today, Melchior says that Israel needs all the various sectors, segments, and parts of the nation to cope with the challenges facing the state.
“We need all the tribes to be around the table to deal with today’s problems,” he says. “And everyone wants to be at the table, the right, left, haredi, religious, secular – everyone wants to be a part of creating this wonderful place, and it’s possible if we do it with respect and humility, and think out of the box, then the solutions are there to be found.”