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Isha Bekia

What makes a Jewish leader?

Sep 15, 2020 | Leadership, Media


Published in Jewish Action | A publication of the OU (USA)

So many books have been written about leadership. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, there are no classic Torah books dedicated exclusively to the topic. 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 there no Torah books on leadership?

To answer this question, we need to redefine what it means to be a leader, by going back to our Torah sources and understanding what leadership means for each of us, personally.

Who is a leader? What does leadership mean? And why are these questions relevant to each one of us? The answers, I believe, will help us find a path to a brighter future.


Some discomfort with the idea of leadership

The Torah seems to have a fundamental discomfort 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 says, “Beloved is the human being created in the image of G-d.” Every person is created in G-d’s image – that is, with a G-d-given soul and an innate royalty and dignity.


A second reason why Torah is uncomfortable with the notion of leaders and followers is that every single Jew has direct and equal access to Hashem and His Torah. The most dramatic example of this is prayer: we pray directly to G-d. We address Him in the second person (“You”). In fact, one of the Thirteen Principles of 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 been made accessible to one and all. History is replete with examples of 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 at an early age, and describes the valiant efforts to establish what was probably the first national educational system in the world, more than 2 000 years ago. Learning Torah is the calling and privilege of every Jew, not just the rabbis.


When G-d established a covenant with the Jewish people to keep the Torah, it was not through their leadership structures; it was 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 Hashem your G-d, 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 L-rd your G-d”. 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 G-d and His Torah.


The third reason behind the Torah’s difficulty with the concept of leadership is that we are all called on to be leaders. As the verse says, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests [Kohanim]”. Just as the Kohanim represent G-d’s word and play a leadership role within the Jewish people, so too is each and every one of us called on to represent Hashem, and to teach and lead and make the world a better place. G-d 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 sceptical of hierarchical structures, which create leaders and followers. And yet, on the other hand, the Torah creates very definite leadership roles. There is the mitzvah to respect Torah scholars, and we turn to our rabbis for leadership and guidance. There are the Kohanim and Leviim 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 spiritual leadership of the Kohen Gadol, among many other official leadership positions. How do we understand this? How do we reconcile this deep scepticism of authority with a system that builds authority and leadership into its very foundations?


Inside-out: a radical new leadership paradigm

The answer requires us to explore a completely new paradigm of leadership. There are, of course, different ways to understand leadership. The Western tradition is to view leadership in a political, hierarchical sense – top-down. On the other hand, there are certain African traditions in which leadership is structured bottom-up. A classic example of this is the Imbizo custom: in certain African tribes, before the king can make any decision, he needs to call a gathering of the tribe – an ‘Imbizo’ – where everyone states their opinion, and from those opinions the chief formulates a consensus for the way forward.


Leadership in Torah philosophy is neither ‘top-down’ nor ‘bottom-up’. It can best be described as ‘inside-out’. What does this mean?


Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, questions whether any notion of absolute leadership is even possible. Because each human being is created in the image of G-d, authority cannot simply be imposed; it has to be granted, at least to some extent, by the governed.


There is one person in the world, however, observes Rabbi Bloch, that every single one of us can truly rule over – ourselves. The starting point for real leadership, he explains, is self-leadership – self-mastery, personal integrity, inner greatness. Leadership begins with self-mastery.

This is best captured in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people … Who is powerful? One who is able to conquer his own inclination … Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot … Who has honour? One who gives honour to others.”

This mishna recounts all that people strive for in life: wisdom, power, wealth and honour. The common denominator, explains the Maharal, is how the mishna makes the attainment of all of these goals dependent on personal mastery rather than on comparisons with the attainments of others.

Conventional thinking defines wisdom, power, wealth and honour in relative terms, in comparison to the achievements of others. The mishna defines these concepts using internal, personal criteria, giving us aspirations that we can live by, and which are in our own hands to fulfil. With self-mastery, we have the humility to learn from every person, and so become truly wise. With self control, we can transcend the temptation to do things which are wrong, and so become truly powerful. With serenity and gratitude, we can find joy in what we have, and so achieve true wealth. And with generosity of spirit, we can give honour to others, and so achieve true honour ourselves.

Leadership begins with the self, but doesn’t end there. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, explains that as a person progresses through life, their circle of responsibility and influence expands. In their early stages of life they merely focus on themselves – with mastering their own self; when they marry and start a family, their circle of responsibility and influence extends to a spouse and children; it also widens further to include friends, community and society. Life is a journey from the inside out – from achieving greatness within ourselves to the point where we can positively impact the lives of the people around us.

And so, we lead ourselves so that we can become leaders of others, through a process of ever-widening circles of influence. We lead from the ‘inside-out’.


Now we can solve the puzzle of the Torah’s philosophy of leadership. We are all called on to be leaders – to lead and influence the people around us. Those who have been given official leadership positions merely have a wider circle of influence than others – but there is no categorical difference. Our rabbis guide and direct and influence us in the way of Torah and mitzvot. But each of us must also assume responsibility to lead ourselves and influence others. Whether we have “official” titles or not, each of us has a responsibility to impact the world through our own circle of influence and make the world a better place.

The Torah philosophy of leadership finds particular expression in a few crucial mitzvot. The mitzvah of learning Torah, for example, is defined by the Rambam as “learning and teaching”. The mishna in Pirkei Avot says “establish many students”. This, explains the Tiferes Yisrael, is referring not only to the official rabbis and teachers of the community, but to each and every one of us. Obviously we have to teach with integrity and not profess knowledge and expertise we do not have – but, subject to such limitation, we have a responsibility to share the wisdom of Torah with as many people as possible.

There is the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying Hashem’s name. It is a mitzvah for every single one of us to promote Hashem’s reputation in the world. Of course, the most fundamental way to do this is to set an example – living an exemplary, G-dly life can be a beacon to our family, our friends, our community and greater society. Part of this is the mitzvah to love Hashem, which the Gemara expands to include “making the name of the Heaven beloved to all”. In other words, we have an obligation to inspire as many people as possible to love Hashem. The Gemara explains that this is achieved by speaking gently and kindly to people and showing respect for their dignity, as well as by conducting ourselves with integrity; when others see how those who subscribe to Torah values live their lives in such an elevated manner, then they want to be a part of it.

Building a better world

These Torah perspectives on leadership can guide at this crucial time. Over the past few months, we have been through a most traumatic challenge. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown is the most dramatic interruption to ordinary life in modern history, and perhaps the biggest international crisis since the Second World War. Our own communities have been pushed to breaking point. We lost leaders and loved ones, our schools and shuls were shuttered for months, our ability to earn a living was severely curtailed.

Now is the time to rebuild. And we can’t just leave it to the people in official leadership positions alone. The responsibility falls on each one of us – to rebuild our families, our communities, our shuls and schools and places of business. We need to look for every opportunity to contribute, to be kind and offer support to those in need, to make a real difference in the world.

We need to redefine leadership – assume the mission ourselves -– and ensure the coronavirus crisis is not just something we withstood, but an inflection point; something we learned from, and emerged better and bolder and stronger as a result.

We are all leaders. We all have the responsibility to impact society through our circles of influence. As we venture out into a brave new world, encountering all the challenges and opportunities it brings, let us all embrace this responsibility – and build a better world for all.