Yom Kippur lessons the prime minister fails to remember

Benjamin Netanyahu: prime minister, prime sinner.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Kol Nidre prayer, which opens Yom Kippur services, kept halachic sages quite busy. Many of them emphasized that the ancient prayer was not meant to make light of the vows and promises, but rather just the opposite. A person is required to understand that breaking them has a measure of sin and transgression, after which they must take responsibility for their actions and undertake soul-searching.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has clearly not learned this basic lesson.
Three months after the cabinet pulled away from its Kotel resolution, the prime minister refuses to take responsibility for the serious crisis with the non-Orthodox movements and Diaspora Jewry, and instead wishes to place the blame on those who showed a willingness to compromise throughout the entire process.
The prime minister’s argument that the Reform and Conservative movements conducted the negotiations on the Kotel resolution in a manipulative manner, and tried to include matters not having to do with prayer arrangements “through the back door,” is simply not true. The government representatives are those who offered to establish a regulations council to manage the egalitarian prayer platform, together with representatives from the two movements.
Unlike what the prime minister is arguing, the cabinet resolution makes no mention of the makeup of the general Kotel site management body (the Western Wall Heritage Foundation), and all sides agreed that this matter would not be included in the resolution. In order to advance the compromise, the movements also agreed to the government’s demand that their names would not be explicitly mentioned in the regulations set for the new site, and to make do with wording whereby the new site would be run without gender separation and in a pluralistic manner.
Another important Mishnaic rule regarding Yom Kippur that escaped the prime minister’s eyes is that: “He who sins and repents, then sins and repents again, is not given the opportunity to repent” (Tractate Yoma, 8:7). The prime minister’s embarrassing drawback from the historic Kotel compromise is part of a repeated pattern.
Over the past four years, the prime minister has made a number of commitments to Diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox movements, for which he has received credit and great appreciation in Israel and overseas.
Up until now, he has failed to meet any of them.
Over a year ago, the government initiated a bill meant to override the Supreme Court ruling allowing Reform and Conservative converts to bathe in public mikvaot (ritual baths). In Knesset deliberations, the government made an explicit commitment to build ritual baths for the Reform and Conservative movements, a commitment that has remained a dead letter.
The same happened with the clear and public commitment made by the prime minister at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly to support the Jewish Agency’s efforts in assisting the Reform and Conservative movements in building congregations and institutions in Israel. The list of excuses made by some of the prime minister’s aides for not following through should embarrass and worry every Israeli. Two years ago, the prime minister also promised to establish a roundtable, together with the Jewish Agency, for continued serious discussions with both movements surrounding a variety of topics. To this day, this roundtable has convened once.
The continuation of that same Mishna seems to also be unknown to the prime minister. “Transgressions between one person and another – the Day of Atonement does not atone – until the person regains the goodwill of his friend.” Instead of understanding the depth of the insult to the movements and organizations representing millions of Jews around the world, and instead of taking trust-building steps, the prime minister chooses to sharpen his tone and add fuel to the fire.
If the prime minister were surrounded by advisers who understood the depth of the crisis, and if the good advice by leaders such as Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Counsel-General in New York Dani Dayan would have set the tone in Jerusalem, then the prime minister would have surely understood that he must make every effort to meet with leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements during his last visit to New York, and also carefully hear the criticism and the anger, instead of bashing them during press briefings.
Our ancient tradition suggests that on Yom Kippur, Moses received the second set of Tablets.
Unlike the first set, given to him by God at Mount Sinai, this time Moses had to carve the Tablets himself at the foot of the mountain and take them up with his own two hands. Some commentators have suggested that this tradition is meant to remind us of the simple truth that “it is easy to ruin and break and much harder to build and repair.”
On the beginning of the new Jewish year, it seems as though Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to understand that his job is to fix that which he broke three months ago. There is no doubt that this is not an easy task, and unlike in the past, well-spoken words will not suffice this time around. But that is exactly the job of an Israeli prime minister who wish to present himself as the prime minister of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv is president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.