2013: Rabbis and politicians: “Sorry seems to be the hardest words”

As we approach the secular New Year, here is something to reflect upon.

A few years ago in June of 2007, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a man of repute who served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Atlanta Georgia for many years and now resides in Jerusalem, wrote an article entitled “Sorry seems to be the hardest words”. The caption of the article read, “Ours is a tradition of non-accountability. Our leaders never admit mistakes. They never apologize.”

In reference to the leading political figures in Israel at the time; Rabbi Feldman began his article explaining that if a Jewish Rip Van Winkle (Rip van Finkle?) were to awaken today (2007) and read the papers, he would wonder if he had ever really been asleep. After all, explains Feldman, politicians who were in the headlines for years, such as Peres, Olmert, and Barak, were still in the headlines and still remained in power despite their many errors and miscalculations concerning Oslo, the disengagement from Gush Katif, and perhaps most appallingly the calamitous consequences of the second Lebanon war. Feldman maintained that this was not so in other countries such as England where politicians who make serious mistakes resign from office, or, the United States where if the mistake is really bad, they apologize and go into re-hab, or, Japan where they commit harakiri. This is not so regarding Israeli politicians who, when failing, blame not themselves but everyone else around them, as they consistently manage to cling to office.

Seven years have passed since I read Rabbi Feldman’s article; sadly his message remains poignant and even more pervasive today then he himself may have imagined when he wrote it in the first place.

Today in the year 2014 I would add that Israeli politicians not only continue to make miscalculations, which is humanly understandable, but that many of them have committed crimes and are convicted felons who served prison sentences and yet they return to public life insisting audaciously that they are most worthy of representing their constituents in government, which is humanly deplorable.

Today in the year 2014 I would add that religious institutions and leaders of the rabbinic world in Israel suffer from the same symptomatic disease as their political counterparts; just look at some of the closing events of 2013 that have surfaced in the Jewish world in Israel. After Rabbi Mordechai Elon, once a leading figure of the Religious Zionist world, was sentenced to six months community service and a 15 months suspended jail sentence for allegedly sexually assaulting students some of whom were minors, he reacted by wryly stating that he has been serving the community for years and will be happy to continue to do so until he is 120 years old. Not only did Rabbi Elon’s cynicism invalidate the legitimacy of a court of law but even more troubling was his lack of remorse. Even as the rabbi proclaimed his innocence there was no attempt to appease those who may have misinterpreted his actions. He did assert that the entire episode was a learning experience for him. Indeed, it would be interesting to hear what he learned exactly; how to cope with one’s feelings of remorse, or perhaps the deep ramifications of serving as a leader under the scrutiny of the public’s eye. Perhaps we can ask Rabbi Chaim Drukman, himself a senior figure head of the Religious Zionist world, who currently employs Rabbi Elon in his yeshiva. What kind of message does this impart to the students of an institution which serves and recognizes the legitimacy of the Modern State of Israel (including its legislative body and law establishments) and of a yeshiva which is supposed to espouse an ethical consciousness for the Jewish world?

The last few weeks of 2013 brought news that there would be a reelection in Bet Shemesh after the Jerusalem District court found convincing evidence that ballots were tampered with and identification papers were falsified. Irregularities were uncovered by the police before and during the election as fictitious residents registered in the city to sway the vote in favor of the Haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul. After the edict was announced the non Haredi community in Bet Shemesh, including myself, was euphoric. We were granted an opportunity to help our city from once again falling siege to a mayor who catered exclusively to the Haredi population and to witness the resurgence of a democratic election. Yet, as my emotion subsided I could not help but wonder how such disdainful acts of deceit and thievery could be implemented by a portion of the population who touted themselves as religiously devout. Even more disturbing was the fact that not one Haredi leader, rabbi, teacher, or figure head issued an apology or mentioned the disapproval of the hilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, caused by the entire fiasco.

This past week I spoke in Kibbutz Nir Am on the border of Gaza on the definition of Jewish leadership and I explained that one need look no further than the recent Torah portions which extrapolate the personality of Moses; a Moses who needed convincing to take the mantle of leadership as a result of a modesty which revealed at times an insecurity; a Moses who felt the pain of a people even before he could call them his own; a Moses who would consistently remain loyal to a nation placing their needs before his and never questioning the potential of a unified people regardless of their personal differences including varied levels of religious commitment. I than referred to Menachem Begin who, after bearing the stress of the Peace for Galilee war, opted out of public life and removed himself completely from the face of Israeli society because he felt personally responsible for the lives of the soldiers which were lost and consequently unfit to serve his people. Whatever happened to the Jewish nation Begin took personally. This is not the case with regards to our present day political and religious leaders who cloak their self-interest behind self-righteousness.

I close the year 2013 with the same words Rabbi Feldman closed his article with in 2007,

“In truth, the Israeli tradition of non-accountability is not Jewish at all. On the contrary, apologies and regrets are an integral part of our tradition. Judaism offers the profound concept of atonement. We are always given the chance to repent and to ask forgiveness from God for our sins. But there is one condition. We have to specify the sin, and we have to state that we regret it.”

I open the year 2014 with hope that our future leaders across the spectrum will muster the strength and wisdom to be able to do so when inevitably necessary.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Hammer currently serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops in all divisions and infuse Jewish Identity. In addition he is currently involved in his own initiative offering lectures throughout the country on the basics of Judaism to many Secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim. He also serves as a lecturer for The Menachem Begin Heritage Center and has authored four books. Rabbi Hammer is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora. www.rabbihammer.com
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