Tradition Today: Choosing a leader

The difficulty in picking out a proper leader may also be seen in the fact that the first king of Israel, Saul, also had to be replaced.

Actors from the political satire show ‘Eretz Nehederet’ (‘Wonderful Country’) portray Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)
Actors from the political satire show ‘Eretz Nehederet’ (‘Wonderful Country’) portray Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As election time approaches, the question of leadership and proper governmental function becomes more and more important in our lives.
Choosing a leader and forming a government are serious issues; it is not an exaggeration to say that the very future and existence of our nation depends upon proper leadership.
It is not my intention to enter into a discussion of which party to vote for – although I have definite views on the matter – but rather to bring to light some aspects of the way our tradition has viewed the matter of proper leadership.
It has never been easy to find a good leader. Even the first “Jewish” leader, Moses, appointed by God Himself, eventually committed a grievous error for which he was punished. His term of office was brought to a close and he was replaced with someone else who could lead the people into Canaan. To his credit, when this happened Moses expressed his concern for the people and asked God to “appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in – so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).
The difficulty in picking out a proper leader may also be seen in the fact that the first king of Israel, Saul, also had to be replaced. As God said to Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and not carried out My commands” (I Samuel 15:11). If God regretted His choice, I imagine there are times when we too regret choices we have made.
All the more reason to be careful now in our choices, so that we will have no need for later regrets.
The Torah records the advice Jethro gave to Moses concerning the appointment of a council of judges who would help Moses guide Israel. “You shall seek out from among all the people capable people who fear God, trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exodus 18:21). That is not a bad definition of what we should seek in all our MKs.
Unfortunately, there have been all too many there and in other positions of leadership who were not trustworthy, and were all too ready to take “ill-gotten gain.”
Some of them are running for office even now, to our great shame.
One of the problems with our system of government occurs because there are no direct elections – and we the people have no power to vote out of office an MK who is unworthy. All we can do is vote for a list that was determined, depending on the party, either by a primary or by the leader of the party (or a council of sages). It is time for that system to change, so that we have leaders who are responsible to the people alone.
It must be admitted that in the Torah and even later in our history, the choice of a leader was not in the hands of the people. Democracy as we know it – the ability of the people to vote and freely choose their leaders – is a modern concept, and one that is not universally accepted even now. We in Israel are fortunate to live in a democracy, even if it is not perfect. But then, no democracy is perfect; as Churchill is said to have remarked, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
The system of government envisioned in the Torah was not a democracy, but neither was it a human monarchy. The Torah describes a situation in which the true ruler of Israel is none other than God. As the Israelites proclaimed when they crossed the Sea of Reeds, “The Lord will reign for ever and ever!” (Exodus 15:18). Similarly, Moses declared in his farewell blessing to Israel, “He [God] became King in Jeshurun when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together” (Deuteronomy 33:5). God alone was the true king, and it was God who appointed human leaders as needed – Moses, Joshua and then the socalled judges.
It is not accidental that Moses’s children did not succeed him as leaders of Israel.
Indeed, much later when the people demanded a king from Samuel, God said to Samuel – who was appalled at the people’s demand – “Heed the demand… for it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king!” (I Samuel 8:7) and the people themselves said, “… we have added to all our sins the wickedness of asking for a king” (I Samuel 12:19).
There is no question that the Torah originally opposed the institution of human kingship, selecting instead charismatic leadership in which an appropriate leader would function but not bestow his position on his progeny. Indeed, in such a situation a woman too could assume leadership, as we see from the example of Deborah.
Only in the Book of Deuteronomy, a very late book, is there any mention of the possibility of human kingship, and even there the choice is left to the people.
They are not commanded to have a human king, but permitted to have one if they so desire. (See Deuteronomy 17:14-15.) Furthermore, all the rules stated in Deuteronomy concerning a king tell only what the king may not do, never outlining his prerogatives.
The Torah strongly warns that he may not acquire too much power and wealth for himself, but must have a copy of God’s commands with him at all times and be limited by what is written there.
Samuel’s warning about kings is even stronger. He tells the people that such a ruler will take the fields belonging to them and virtually enslave them. “The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen…” (I Samuel 8:18) – and tragically, he was right.
The monarchy Deuteronomy describes is as close to a constitutional monarchy as could be achieved in ancient times. All of this, of course, was revolutionary – since every other nation at that time was ruled by a human monarch who had absolute power and was worshiped as divine.
The Torah was far ahead of its time in this as in so many other matters. Moses’s original plan of a nation ruled by God alone proved too utopian and too impractical to survive in a world of powerful kingdoms, but the idea of limiting human sovereignty and elevating the law above any human ruler influenced civilization and pointed toward democratic ideals.
These concepts are important, and should help us in deciding upon proper leadership for Israel today.
The writer, an author and lecturer, is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Seminary of Jewish Studies (now the Schechter Institute). Twice awarded the Jewish Book Council prize for the year’s best book of scholarship, his forthcoming volume is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, Jewish Publication Society.