What we need now: Jewish leadership driven by ethical imperatives

March 18, 2013

Jewish leadership has a distinct advantage over all other kinds of leadership. Our advantage is that we are inspired by and can be driven by the ethical force of Jewish tradition. Our other advantage is that we can learn from many models of leaders who transformed societies and history itself because of their desire and capacity to act on ethical imperatives. We have been driven by God's call to us to be not only free, but to be holy – to be ethically good (Leviticus 19:2).

According to leadership experts who teach about long-range systemic change in countries, universities, and the business world, successful leadership depends upon the combination of knowledge, the trust of a community of people, the capacity to leverage power, and the willingness to take risks. Successful leaders also learn from other leaders, from their brilliant successes and their disastrous mistakes. But not enough has been said or taught about how Jewish leaders can succeed in transforming organizations, communities, and countries. Jewish leaders don't just need to lead according to communal needs; they need to be led by the ethical imperatives of this hour.

There are three Jewish leaders we should study who I think best model the rare combination of leadership capacity motivated by ethical imperatives: 1) Moses 2) Yohanan Ben Zakkai (First Century BCE) and 3) Theodore Herzl (1860-1904). Each one, in different contexts, embodied not only powerful leadership capacity, but perhaps more importantly their leadership was guided by ethical imperatives – and they were willing to take risks. Each one responded to a profound existential threat facing the Jewish people and acted on the ethical imperative of his time.

According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was nearly assassinated on several occasions: after he struck the Egyptian oppressor and upon leading the Israelites fleeing for freedom across the Red Sea while pursued by the Egyptian army. Along the way he repeatedly faced the dangerous fury of God, of multiple enemies, and of his own people. He risked everything on more than one occasion. But Moses' success is the basis not only of the existence of the Jewish people but of the ethical imperatives that should still guide us today.

Similar arguments could be made about Yohanan Ben Zakkai in fleeing the siege of Jerusalem in 68 CE and setting up the rabbinic academy of Yavne, and about Theodore Herzl in calling for the Jewish State in 1896, expanding the Zionist movement, and establishing international alliances. Without each of these three giants of Jewish history we would probably still be enslaved, without Torah, without rabbinic tradition, and without even the possibility of political sovereignty. In other words, we wouldn't exist.

While the existential threats of our time are real, we live with the blessing of Jewish sovereignty and the political leadership willing to take risks to defend the physical existence of the Jewish people.

But Jewish spiritual and communal existence in North America is — while not under existential threat of physical destruction– much in need of more Jewish leaders attuned to ethical imperatives of another sort. Jewish leaders today — professional and lay, young and old — must have the capacity to fully respond to an unprecedented reality of what some call a post-ethnic Jewish era, an age characterized by what was unthinkable just a few decades ago. We are blessed to live in a time of egalitarian Judaism, women rabbis, Jews of patrilineal descent, families of intermarriages, and Jews of a wide spectrum of sexual orientations. Multicultural and multi-layered identities are (generally speaking) accepted if not embraced by the majority.

This kind of Jewish communal reality probably demands that we rethink everything. But it also presents us with enormous opportunity. Given such expansive affirmation of the ethical demands of many who were previously disenfranchised, we are also likely to be living in a time in which there ought to be greater sensitivity to the needs of those still seeking a place or a voice within our communities and in the world altogether.

It is also likely that this diversity holds within it not only the ethical sensitivities and the social capital to lead the transformations necessary to become more of what Jewish tradition wants us to be, but this diversity should also breed more leaders who have the knowledge, capacity, power and the willingness to take risks.

The challenges of our time are also filled with opportunity to find expanding ways of responding to God's call that we be an Am Kadosh, a holy nation (Leviticus 19). But our holiness only matters if we can be both free and good. Now we just need more leaders attuned both to the sacred call and the real needs of our time.

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She writes regularly for the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.

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