Americans have an infatuation with leaders. The English philosopher Thomas Carlyle believed that history is propelled by “the great man” (Carlyle’s phrase), whose values and energy animate our institutions. For Americans, “leadership” is a sacred word.
The success or failure of a business is ascribed to the strength of its CEO. Problems of state are described as a “crisis of leadership.” In sports, it’s the quarterback’s leadership that brings a team to victory; in music, it’s the star conductor we go to see.
[Read Rabbi Chaim Mentz, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish
and Rabbi Sarah Bassin‘s takes on Parashat Shemini]
These leaders are our heroes, our idols. They’re Steve Jobs at Apple, coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Gustavo Dudamel at the L.A. Philharmonic. And should they fail, we take special relish in destroying them — tossing them out to look for new saviors.
Jews traditionally have a much more complex relationship with leaders. We love our leaders, and in the same breath, we suspect them. We may follow them, but we never surrender to them. This is true even in the ideal: A talmudic tradition teaches that if you’re planting a tree and you hear the Messiah has arrived … finish planting the tree, and only then go to see if it’s true.
We elevate leaders, and then we argue with them. Perhaps “Jewish leadership” is an oxymoron.
Consider the biblical model: priest, prophet, king. The priest, as described in this week’s Torah portion, is responsible for the sacred precincts. His hands alone touch the consecrated objects, the holy symbols of God’s presence. But for all his sacred responsibility and privilege, and though he himself becomes a symbol of God’s holy presence, the priest holds no temporal power. He makes no policy. Though he wraps himself in the flag of the sacred, as it were, he is ultimately powerless.
The king, on the other hand, has all the power. But he is separated from the symbols of the sacred. There is no inherent sanctity to his kingship — his crown is not a religious symbol. His authority is purely functional, and therefore every use of his power must be justified. Even King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, the progenitor of the Messiah, is sharply castigated by the prophet Nathan for killing his neighbor and stealing his wife. Separating king from priest and power from holiness means that being king does not put one above God’s law. Even the king is accountable.
And it is the prophet who carries this message. The prophet is the nation’s conscience. He incessantly and adamantly demands moral purity. But there’s a tension: No government or leadership can be morally pure. All leadership ultimately is a matter of negotiating compromises. Diplomacy, policy, planning, budgeting or any leadership decision is a matter of trading away some of your principles to preserve others.
Were a prophet to find himself invested with power, he would soon despair. It’s no wonder Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land — into the real world of limitations and accommodations.
The Greek philosopher Plato argued for a philosopher-king. He was wrong. Philosophers are like prophets. They deal in the realm of the pure, the theoretical and the ideal, and they make very poor kings. When philosophers/prophets take power, they tend to become tyrants, forcing everyone into the mold of their theory.
Kings need prophets. The tension between them is essential. Those in power need to be reminded of the ideal and the pure. They need to hear the truth. And even while they make moral compromises, let them be reminded that their compromises are in fact compromises. Let them know what they’re compromising and the costs of compromise. Let them remember that, while necessary, it’s not ideal, and while pragmatic, it’s not perfect. Let them hear again and again: We can do better.
The Jewish model of leadership is filled with conflict, tension and stress. We are always arguing. Is this any way to do leadership?
It isn’t orderly or clean or decisive. But it befits a people who began by running away from Pharaoh, and bears the scars of every subsequent ruler who thought himself a god. It befits a people who share God’s lofty vision of justice, but who know this world all too well. This week, in Parashat Shemini, we consecrate this model of leadership. Our priests will lead us in worship of our God, the God who demands ever-higher levels of holiness from real people, living in a real world.