Sinai Today: How the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow

Wood choppers, water drawers, musicians and tech entrepreneurs

The view from the summit of Mount Sinai (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The view from the summit of Mount Sinai
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, Nicco Mele captures the essence of the paradigm-shifting times in which we live. He writes: “Look around you. Bloggers, rather than established news outlets, break news. Upstart candidates topple establishment politicians. Civilian insurgencies organized on Facebook challenge conventional militaries. Engaged citizens pull off policy reforms independent of government bureaucracies. Local musicians bypass record labels to become YouTube sensations. Twenty-something tech entrepreneurs working in their pajamas destabilize industry giants and become billionaires. Radical connectivity...
has all but transformed politics, business and culture...
The end of big is at hand.”
What does this mean for us? One of my favorite quotations comes from a great 20th-century leader of American Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Taitz, of Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was fond of saying, “The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow.”
What he meant is that there are some ideas in the Torah which we may not fully understand until the world has developed to a point where we can grasp their impact and significance. God gave us the Torah for all times and all places, and there are some Torah ideas which are so advanced that to fully grasp their depth, we have to wait for the world to “catch up” with Torah thinking. “The end of big” is such an idea.
One example is the Torah’s understanding of the concept of leadership. If you go into any bookshop around the world, you will find shelves of books on the topic of leadership. It is one of the most popular subjects today.
And yet, to the best of my knowledge, there are no classic Torah books dedicated exclusively to leadership.
This is puzzling, since the Torah itself – in the Chumash, the Talmud and all of our holy sources – is replete with wisdom on how to be a good leader. Why, then, are no books dedicated to this topic? I think the answer lies in the fundamental discomfort that Judaism has with the very idea of leadership. Firstly, the word “leader” implies followers, who by definition are of secondary importance to the leader. And yet a key teaching of the Torah is the equal and inherent value of every human being – as the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 3:18) says, “Beloved is the human being created in the image of God.”
Every person is created in God’s image – that is, with a God-given soul and an innate royalty and dignity. No individual has the right to rule over or impose on another.
Under Torah law, authority is always delegated and never intrinsic or assumed by right.
For example, the obligation to honor one’s parents is dependent on the fact that God commanded it. In other words, a parent’s authority is not inherent, but rather conferred by the Almighty, and consequently, if a parent exceeds those God-given parameters of honor and authority – by instructing a child to commit a sin, for example – then the child is freed from the duty to obey the parent.
The same goes for any position of political leadership, which is created and therefore is constrained by our supreme constitution – the Torah and its laws and principles.
Another reason why Torah philosophy is uncomfortable with the notion of leaders and followers is that every single Jew has direct and equal access to God and to the Torah. We do not engage with Hashem through intermediaries.
The most dramatic example of this is prayer: We pray directly to God, whom we address in the second person, “You.” In fact, one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith is that we are prohibited from praying through a person, or even an angel.
Another example is Torah literacy and knowledge, which, over the generations, has not only been made accessible to one and all, but even promoted as one of the central values of Jewish society. History is replete with examples of other societies who reserved the vital skill of literacy for its elite members as a way of entrenching their power and position.
By contrast, the Talmud states that a child – every child – should learn to read as early as possible, and describes the valiant efforts to establish what was probably the first national education system in the world, more than 2,500 years ago. Learning Torah is the calling and privilege of every Jew, not just the rabbis.
When God established a covenant with the Jewish people to keep the Torah, it was not through their leadership structures, but rather a covenant with each and every person, treated as an individual of equal importance.
As the Torah states: “You stand here today – all of you – before the Lord your God, the leaders of your tribes, the elders and officers, every person in Israel... from the choppers of wood to the drawers of water, to enter into the covenant with the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29:2-11).
We never go through another person in order to reach Hashem. There are no gatekeepers of the system. Each of us holds the key to God and the Torah.
The third reason behind the Torah’s difficulty with the concept of leadership is that we are all called upon to be leaders. As the verse says, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests [Kohanim]” (Exodus 19:6).
In the same way that the Kohanim represent God’s word and play a leadership role within the Jewish people, so too is each and every one of us called on to represent God by teaching and leading and making the world a better place.
God wants us all to become great leaders, illuminating the world with His wisdom and uplifting His entire creation.
But there is a dichotomy here. On the one hand, Torah philosophy is skeptical of hierarchical structures that create leaders and followers. On the other hand, the Torah creates very definite leadership roles.
There is the mitzva to respect Torah scholars and to turn to them for leadership and guidance. There are the Kohanim and Levi’im, who are tasked with running the Temple services and other responsibilities.
There is the judicial leadership of the Sanhedrin, the executive leadership of the king, and the religious authority vested in the high priest, among many other official leadership positions. How do we understand this? How do we reconcile this deep skepticism of authority with a system that builds authority and leadership into its very foundations? The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa. This is the first in a four part series that will run every other week.