Nancy Pelosi and Rabban Gamliel: A Talmudic tale of succession - opinion

Much like Speaker Pelosi, the Talmud tells us that Rabban Gamliel rules the house of study, with an iron fist, and with a desire for unity. However, Rabban Gamliel takes this desire a step too far.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announces that she will remain in Congress but will not run for re-election as Speaker after Republicans were projected to win control of the House of Representatives, on the floor of the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announces that she will remain in Congress but will not run for re-election as Speaker after Republicans were projected to win control of the House of Representatives, on the floor of the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)

With the final counts in, elections in Israel and the United States have ended and no matter where you sit politically, there are important lessons to be learned. One such lesson is Representative Nancy Pelosi’s choice not to seek reelection to the leadership of the Democratic Caucus.

After leading the Democratic Party for 20 years, Pelosi has decided to make way for new leadership. Indeed, in her speech before congress, she stated, “For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect.” Whatever your political views of Pelosi, her words demonstrate an ability to put the country ahead of self-interest.

“For me, the hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect.”

Nancy Pelosi

Watching Pelosi’s speech brought to mind a Talmudic tale of succession. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 27, we are told of an epic battle between Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi (political leader) of the Jewish community, who has inherited his power, and his counterpart Rabbi Yehoshua, a great scholar, believed by some to be the wiser of the two.

An epic battle between rabbis of the Talmud: Rabban Gamliel vs Rabbi Yehoshua

The argument is focused on whether the evening prayer service must be recited daily. In the Rabbinic world, a set prayer structure is created to replace the Temple sacrifices that had been lost with its destruction just decades before. Rabban Gamliel, as leader of the community, is eager to see this new structure take root and thrive. He takes a more stringent approach and pushes for the prayer to be mandatory, entrenching it in law, while Rabbi Yehoshua allows the prayer to be optional.

 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves her office to announce her decision about her future at the US Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022. (credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves her office to announce her decision about her future at the US Capitol in Washington, US, November 17, 2022. (credit: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters)

Much like Speaker Pelosi, the Talmud tells us that Rabban Gamliel rules the house of study, with an iron fist, and with a desire for unity. However, Rabban Gamliel takes this desire a step too far, pushing for uniformity, rather than unity. This causes a breaking point in the daily learning session, where he forces Rabbi Yehoshua to acquiesce publicly, rather than allow for a multiplicity of perspectives.

The nation is distraught by this humiliation of Rabbi Yehoshua and we learn that this is not the first time this has occurred but is in fact a pattern of behavior. This latest clash is the final straw and they decide to remove Rabban Gamliel as the head of the academy.

Once Rabban Gamliel has been removed, they turn their attention to finding a new leader. The Talmud identifies Elazar Ben Azaryah as the ideal candidate, claiming that he is smart, rich, and has the right lineage. This list might feel surprising to us moderns. Indeed, when I studied these texts recently with my colleagues at The Jewish Education Project, they pointed out several critical leadership traits missing from this list – namely empathy, compassion, self-awareness and collaborative thinking.

The Talmud however, names an additional trait, that of age, and reveals that this new choice of leader is a young man, just 18 years old. The question is posed – is Elazar’s youth something positive or negative?

On the one hand, when Elazar Ben Azaryah goes home after being offered the position and consults with his wife, she makes it clear that no one will take him seriously because he does not look the part. That very night, a miracle occurs, and Elazar develops a full head of white hair. While this is a fanciful story, it offers a brilliant insight into how much we prioritize appearance, and how we expect our leaders to appear. Elazar was the same 18-year-old inside, but with the looks of a sage, he would be respected when he spoke.

ON THE other hand, Elazar’s youth is a positive thing. Indeed, his first act as leader is to throw open the doors of the academy and allow anyone who wished to join in. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor Rabban Gamliel who had a literal guard at the gates. Elazar removes the guard, democratizes learning, and is not frightened of new voices and perspectives. And lo and behold, hundreds upon hundreds of students flock to him. Even Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel do not prevent themselves from learning in Elazar Ben Azaryah’s new inclusive house of study.

If the story ended here, we would have a clear parallel to Pelosi’s call for new leadership. But the Talmud being the Talmud complicates matters. Later in the story, Rabban Gamliel comes to understand how badly he has behaved and sets out on a mission to make amends and repair things with Rabbi Yehoshua. An act of humility and courage for both.

What to do? Do they reinstate Rabban Gamliel and demote Elazar? Do they keep Rabban Gamliel on the outs although he has made amends? In 2022, my guess is Rabban Gamliel would have been encouraged to stay in retirement and be given a comfortable Board Seat.

The community decides to reinstate Rabban Gamliel, but with a catch. He will share his power. Rabban Gamliel will rule over the house of study three weeks a month, and Elazar Ben Azaryah will rule one week a month.

While this conclusion clearly favors tradition, and the old guard, it also suggests two important lessons: 1) leaders must always be hearing new and fresh perspectives, they must not be afraid to embrace the new, and 2) leadership can and should be a shared endeavor. Sharing power ensures that leaders do not become corrupt.

Pelosi calls on us to move boldly into the future: grounded by the principles that have propelled us this far and open to fresh possibilities for the future. Perhaps one of those fresh possibilities is the opportunity to move past the binary of young and old.

Of course, there are times when a leader must move on and make room for new voices but must age be the main criterion? The Talmud teaches us that there is immense value in having both the older and younger generations leading together. We can and we must create coalitions of individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are valued for what they bring to the mantle of leadership.

The writer, a rabba, is a senior scholar and educator in residence at The Jewish Education Project.