Tradition Today: When leaders become criminals

In religious circles, we must remind ourselves that although holiness is the goal, it cannot be attained without righteousness.

Police car in Tel Aviv at night 311 (photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
Police car in Tel Aviv at night 311
(photo credit: Yoni Cohen)
‘Woe to the generation that judges its leaders, and woe to the generation whose leaders need to be judged.’ This ancient rabbinic statement comes to mind all too often when we are confronted with the sad spectacle of highranking leaders of Israel entering jail to begin years of imprisonment for serious offenses. Woe indeed. One wonders if there is a need to construct a new prison here exclusively for government officials.
Yet all of this should not be so surprising. Leaders who transgress are hardly without precedent in the annals of nations, or even in the annals of Jewish governments.
The sons of Eli the High Priest were castigated by their father for sexual offenses with women who did work at the sanctuary. Samuel’s sons took bribes and subverted justice. We look back in our history and see monarchs who, if not imprisoned, committed offenses that would have landed them there today. David and Ahab and Jezebel, among others, committed crimes that were boldly criticized by prophets and that stand exposed for all to see in Scripture. I am certain that leaders of other nations, past and present, have committed crimes as bad as those of our leaders.
Yet all of this is of little comfort, because we have high expectations of ourselves – and indeed we should.
When Jeremiah saw what was going on in his society, he said that the Temple had become a den of thieves. “I planted you with noble vines, all with choicest seed; alas, I find you changed into a base, an alien vine!” (Jeremiah 2:21) We are supposed to be a people that keeps “the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19). So when our leaders become criminals, we wonder what we have come to.
Is this what Zionist thinkers meant when they dreamt of becoming a normal nation like everyone else? I hope not. It seems to me that on the contrary, the Zionist dream was of a just society, a nation we could be proud of, a light for others.
I suspect the problem is not only corrupt leaders, but that respect for law and for moral norms has been eroded throughout Israeli society. There is an extremely serious crime problem in Israel. Gangs control many of our neighborhoods; organized crime exists on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. On another level, we have seen prominent bankers and business leaders brought to court because of corruption and bribery, and their connections to similarly corrupt government officials on the city and national levels are all too well known. A simple drive through our towns or on our intercity roads, any day at any time, will reveal how many drivers think laws are only made to be disobeyed. Speeding, driving through red lights, making turns when none are permitted – all this is symptomatic of a general lawlessness that pervades our society.
What is to be done? On the highest level, we need to reform our government so citizens have the power to call their elected representatives to account. They can only do that if they have the right to vote for them as individuals and not as party slates. We need a revision of our election laws so that each government member is responsible to those they serve.
On another level, we need stricter law enforcement so people know that the law is meant to be obeyed and that there are consequences for flouting it. And most of all, we need rabbis, teachers and parents who are concerned with honesty and ethical behavior and who make it their business to convey this to their children and their students.
Perhaps we should reinstitute the “mussar movement” and its emphasis on ethical teachings to stress to all – religious as well as non-observant – that the very essence of Judaism is in the treatment of our fellow human beings, and that honesty and decency are more important than fame or financial success. In religious circles, we must remind ourselves that although holiness is the goal, it cannot be attained without righteousness. In the words of God to Hosea, “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.