One nation under God

The looks on everyone’s faces on the Knesset floor said, “Yes, we live in a Jewish state, and that’s the way a leader should speak in a Jewish state.”

Rivlin at the 22nd Knesset inauguration ceremony (photo credit: MAARIV)
Rivlin at the 22nd Knesset inauguration ceremony
(photo credit: MAARIV)
There was much anticipation leading up to President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Knesset at last week’s inauguration, even as everyone knew he would urge Likud and Blue and White to form a unity government, and address the healing necessary after the contentious election which has still not ended.
It turned out that the most significant part of the president’s speech was not political. At the end of his address, the president took a kippah out of his pocket, put it on his head, and told the audience that because it was during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he had to add these words:
“One is only forgiven for sins against another man, if one appeases the other and asks for forgiveness. I apologize if I acted or spoke improperly.... I ask forgiveness from anyone who I hurt, from anyone who was hurt by my words, my actions or my shortcomings, and from anyone who was hurt by words that I said or from words that I did not say. God in heaven, please heal all those who are sick. Establish peace among us. Let there be peace in the land. Give rain for blessing in the right time. Give good crops for the farmers and bread for those who need to eat. May the nation of Israel be blessed with a good New Year.”
It was riveting.
The looks on everyone’s faces on the Knesset floor said, “Yes, we live in a Jewish state, and that’s the way a leader should speak in a Jewish state.”
A few nights later, the night before Yom Kippur, close to 100,000 people gathered at the Western Wall for the final recitation of the slihot penitential poems and prayers. That so many people from so many backgrounds gathered at midnight for this experience is noteworthy in itself, but that it was aired live by Channel 12 with two of its top reporters covering it, and was the top story featured on Ynet, makes it revolutionary.
Seventy-one years ago, when the State of Israel was founded, there was a debate about whether to write “God” in the Declaration of Independence. The religious side argued that there is no way we can return to our biblical and ancestral homeland, a fulfillment of the vision of our prophets, and not mention God. But the secular side did not want God mentioned in the establishment of what they saw as a state of the new Jew, devoid of God and Torah. They compromised, and so our declaration references “the Rock of Israel” that the religious population could interpret as God, and the secular population could interpret as the might of the IDF.
THE SECULAR founders of the state could not have imagined that 71 years later, the president of the state would pray to God in front of the Knesset and the nation, and that the country’s top media outlets would focus on slihot at the Western Wall.
But that is the Jewish state in 2019.
Despite an election campaign which at times felt like a religious war, and despite calls from one side for a more secular Israel and calls from another side for a more religious Israel, Israel is becoming, on its own, more and more Jewish by the year. There is a thirst for Torah study and a desire for religious experiences such as Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath, in non-traditional formats. As long as it is not being forced, and as long as it is done in a welcoming and embracing manner, Israelis en masse are seeking a connection to their Judaism.
This is why calls for a secular government are absurd, and this is why religious parties or leaders decrying what they see as a destructive and horrific secular Israel are absurd.
Israel is in desperate need of unity. As we move from Yom Kippur – when almost the entire Jewish population in Israel fasted and spent time in synagogue reciting uniform prayers – and head toward Sukkot, in which the four species representing Jews from all backgrounds come together in the service of God, it is time for us to find ways to unify around the one thing which truly unites us: our Judaism.
I applaud the president for being so openly Jewish in his pre-Yom Kippur speech. I applaud Channel 12 and Ynet for their featured coverage of a remarkable moment in Jewish worship.
And I hope that whatever government is ultimately formed embraces the Jewish nature of the state and encourages Jewish practice, learning and values, which of course include providing non-Jewish citizens with equal rights.
Israel is in need of a government that does not define itself as secular but also rejects religious coercion. It is time for a government that is proudly Jewish, one that doesn’t see Judaism as a polarizing force but as unifier.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.