Galilee Diary: Rabbis
Joshua ben Perachiah says: Make yourself a teacher (rabbi) and get yourself a colleague (friend) and judge every person leniently.
-Mishnah, Avot 1:6
Last week was the ordination ceremony for the new crop of rabbis in the Israeli program of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Jerusalem. Although I am new on the faculty, I had the privilege of calling up the six ordinees to receive their semichah from Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR. There was a large, enthusiastic crowd of family, friends, rabbis, teachers, and community leaders present in the Blaustein auditorium, whose stage backs up to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows affording a magnificent view of Jerusalem. It was a moving ceremony for the ordinees and their families - and for the Reform Movement in Israel in general. Slowly but surely, year by year, we are building a cadre of professional leaders for Israeli society with a liberal vision of Judaism for a Jewish state. Most of the graduates are already placed in congregations - from the Galilee to the Aravah.
It is interesting that the recipient of the honorary doctorate - and the featured speaker - at ordination this year was an Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Michael Melchior, descended from generations of rabbis in Denmark, is a remarkable figure on the Israeli cultural scene. A founder of the Meimad party (whose name is an acronym for "Jewish state - democratic state"), he served as a member of the Knesset and a minister in the last coalition, and distinguished himself as one of the most effective legislators in the government, initiating successful legislation in the areas of environment, social justice, and children's rights. He founded a network of pluralistic schools (mixed Orthodox and non-Orthodox), and a public forum for Jewish-Arab dialogue. It is of course daunting to consider that despite his record and his values and his honor, in the last election his party did not receive enough votes to get even one seat in the Knesset, and he has now gone back to being a private citizen. He told us at dinner the evening before the ceremony that he generally turns down honorary doctorates, but he was proud to accept ours. His talk to the ordinees and the general audience was short and direct: in order for a Jewish state to be a Jewish state, it has to treat all of its citizens justly - there must be no "outsiders," not the Arabs, nor the poor, nor women, nor the elderly, nor the handicapped, nor the youth-at-risk, nor the non-Orthodox denominations (he had also expressed at dinner his disgust at the way the ultra-Orthodox have taken over the Western Wall - the day before ordination a young woman was arrested (!) there for wearing a tallit and holding a Torah).
It was very moving to realize that we had such an articulate and wise and impressive friend and ally in the Orthodox community. At the same time it was depressing to consider that he is a voice crying in the wilderness, not a spokesman for mainstream Orthodoxy, who, even with the group of similarly impressive social activists who made up his party, couldn't attract enough votes to hold onto even one Knesset seat. Rabbi Melchior represents a link in a chain of leaders over the past century - from all the denominations - who shared a vision of a Jewish state as a "light unto the nations," that would serve as the laboratory for the practical application of Jewish values in the setting of a modern, sovereign state. Some are famous for their contributions (Rabbi Judah Magnes, Henrietta Szold, Rabbi Pinhas Peli), many are not. It seems they have always been on the fringe - but they have always been a part of Israeli discourse, and have, quietly, helped to sustain the state and to keep an idealistic vision at least somewhat in focus. It was good to meet one in person - and to be encouraged by the possibility that the new Israeli Reform rabbis of 2009 may follow in his footsteps.