Wood choppers, water drawers, local musicians and twenty-something tech entrepreneurs.
In The End of Big, 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 organised 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 pyjamas destabilise 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 favourite quotations comes from a great twentieth century leader of American Jewry, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Taitz, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who 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. Hashem gave us His 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.
How so? Let’s examine 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 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. And so, no individual has the right to rule over or impose on another. In Torah law, authority is always delegated and never intrinsic or assumed by right. For example, the obligation to honour one’s parents is dependent on the fact that Hashem commanded it. In other words, a parent’s authority is not inherent, but rather conferred by G-d, and consequently, if a parent exceeds those G-d-given parameters of honour 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 Hashem and to His Torah. We do not engage with Hashem through intermediaries. 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 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 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” (Devarim 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 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]” (Shmot 19:6). In the same way that 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 turn to them 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 religious authority vested in the Kohen Gadol (the high priest), 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?