The kohanim were essential to ancient Israel. They gave the religious life its structure and continuity, its rituals and routines, its festivals and celebrations. Their task was to ensure that Israel remained a holy people with God in its midst. But they were an establishment, and like every establishment, at best they were the guardians of the nation’s highest values, but at worst they became corrupt, using their position for power and engaging in internal politics for personal advantage. That is the fate of establishments, especially those whose membership is a matter of birth.
That is why the prophets were essential. They were the world’s first social critics, mandated by God to speak truth to power. Still today, for good or otherwise, religious establishments always resemble Israel’s priesthood. Who, though, are Israel’s prophets at the present time?
The essential lesson of the Torah is that leadership can never be confined to one class or role. It must always be distributed and divided. In ancient Israel, kings dealt with power, priests with holiness, and prophets with the integrity and faithfulness of society as a whole. In Judaism, leadership is less a function than a field of tensions between different roles, each with its own perspective and voice.
Leadership in Judaism is counterpoint, a musical form defined as “the technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.” It is this internal complexity that gives Jewish leadership its vigor, saving it from entropy, the loss of energy over time.
Leadership must always, I believe, be like this. Every team must be made up of people with different roles, strengths, temperaments and perspectives. They must always be open to criticism and they must always be on the alert against groupthink. The glory of Judaism is its insistence that only in heaven is there One commanding voice. Down here on earth no individual may ever hold a monopoly of leadership. Out of the clash of perspectives – king, priest, and prophet – comes something larger than any individual or role could achieve.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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