The recent Pew Research Center study of the habits and attitudes of American
Jews revealed a surprising gap between how most view Israel and the policies of
some of the major and most vocal Jewish organizations.
percent of those polled expressed a willingness to criticize Israel for its
actions; only 17 percent support Israel’s settlement policy.
Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Forward that
this apparent gap doesn’t bother him.
“I don’t sit and poll my
constituency,” Foxman said. “Part of Jewish leadership is leadership. We
This got us thinking. What is the ethical relationship between
Jewish leaders and the people they lead? Is Abe Foxman right, that the
responsibility of a leader is to do what he or she thinks is right, ostensibly
on behalf of the community and with repercussions for the community? Or are
leaders more beholden to the expressed ideas and interests of their populations,
regardless of whether the leader thinks these are correct? Put differently, is
leadership dependent on followership? This is not a new problem, nor is it
foreign to classical Jewish thinking. According to one well-known Talmudic
dictum, rabbis may not issue a decree upon a community unless the majority can
endure its strictures. If rabbis are to legislate behavior and create communal
policy, they must be sensitive to what their communities are capable of and
willing to do.
We might read this cynically and understand that this is
merely a good tactic to keep power; a leader who governs in a way that is
inconsistent with what the people can or will do will not govern for long. But
there is a more generous reading: While leaders bear a moral responsibility to
govern and legislate based on what they believe to be right, they have a
countervailing moral responsibility to the people whom they
Leaders should not issue policy statements that are unpalatable
to the people supposedly represented by and beholden to such
The need to hold these instincts in tension is not just good
policy; it’s an important check on leaders who may lose sight of where the
people are. Leaders who stand too far in front of their people are easily
blinded or deceived, incapable of seeing those who have turned away from their
This lesson becomes evident when we compare stories of two
leaders from the Book of Exodus.
Moses, the most prominent leader the
Jewish people has ever had, made at least one grievous mistake as he misread the
people so greatly that he found himself standing atop Mount Sinai oblivious to
the people worshiping the Golden Calf below.
A simple reading would just
blame the people for this sin.
Perhaps this is more proof that the leader
knows best, that left to their own devices, the people will worship
But the rabbis of the Talmud don’t read it that way. Instead, they
blame Moses for forgetting that his only reason for receiving the Torah was for
the sake of the people. If this is their sin, God says to Moses, why do I need
you? When leaders become so obsessed with their own idiosyncratic sense of moral
responsibility – and when they do so without aligning their views to the moral
vocabulary of their constituencies – they not only can ultimately fail to lead,
they can lead their people astray.
In contrast, take the artisan Bezalel,
one of the quieter leaders of the Torah. In parsing the qualities that Exodus
31:3 attributes to him – “wisdom, knowledge and understanding” – the commentator
Rashi explains that “wisdom” refers to what a person learns from others.
“Knowledge” refers to what one understands on his or her own, because of the
person’s own learning. “Understanding” refers to what the leader receives from
the divine spirit.
Bezalel succeeded because he didn’t try to build the
Tabernacle on his own; rather, he brought to the project tremendous artistic
skill, an appreciation for the gifts of the people, and the commitment to
working for a divine purpose rather than his personal advancement.
is true leadership. A leader must pay attention to his or her own learning and
experiences, listen carefully to the perspectives of his or her constituency,
and remain humble enough to recognize each of our dependence on the divine
spirit. Reliance on one’s own vision or knowledge alone, without communal
support, makes for either a lonely echo chamber or the rantings of an ignored
prophet. In fact, Moses belatedly realizes the need to integrate these aspects
of leadership and defends the Jewish people from the threat of divine
punishment. Despite God’s offer, he refuses to be a leader without his
Moses’s leadership arc changes dramatically as he understands
better the obligations he bears to the people.
If we learn anything from
the rapidly changing dynamics of Jewish life as reported by the Pew survey, it
is that leadership is going to have to be significantly more nimble and adaptive
in this wide-open marketplace of American Jewish free choice. Leaders should not
abandon the moral obligations to sometimes take unpopular stands, but must also
respond to the voices of an American Jewish population that will not stick
around to be led against its will.
This changing reality of Jewish life
is not a problem to be bemoaned; rather, it is an opportunity and a challenge
for leaders to demonstrate wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.
Jewish people today need inspired moral leadership, and leadership sensitive to
who Jews are and who we are becoming. We suggest Jewish leaders respond with
nuance – rather than anger – both to today’s most pressing Jewish challenges,
and to the opinions of the Jewish people in America about them.
Jill Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North
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