The discussion at the Shabbat table revolved around the subject of leadership. What exactly is the Jewish view on the parameters of being a leader and what responsibilities should one have when assuming a leadership role?
Some of the prerequisites that evolved in our discussion were that a leader must not be arrogant. Our Sages tell us about arrogance: “G-d and that an arrogant person cannot dwell in the same place.” A person who displays humility understands the significance of his role and treats it with the respect and gravity that it deserves.
Ultimately, the discussion shifted to the subject of responsibility. A leader must be responsible to his constituency and must also be a role model to them. A leader who falls short of understanding this could very well come to bear the brunt of condemnation and disapproval of the value of his leadership.
It was then that my son asked me the most baffling and penetrating question. “Abba,” he said. “How can we believe our gedolim and their decisions when there are so many examples of corruption and abuse amongst them?” He continued, “I mean, how can anyone follow the psak of a rabbi who was once very respected and is now being accused of child molestation or fraud? Don’t these actions cause one to reject the tenets of Judaism? Aren’t our leaders a reflection of our religion? Don’t their actions impact on our listening to them and following their advice?”
His insight and questions troubled me greatly. How should we respond when our leaders have serious accusations brought against them? After thinking about the gravity of the issue, I realized, however, that one cannot reject or question an entire religion or its validity based solely on a few actions that some of its leaders took or some bad decisions they made. My conclusion to my son was forthcoming: “Judaism is wholesome and good; its leaders, however, must be looked askance at in these situations and their role as leaders questioned.”
The Torah specifically deals with the case of a nasi (tribal leader) who sins, and the sacrifice that he must bring after committing a crime. Obviously, by providing for a scenario where a sacrifice was required of a spiritual leader who made a mistake, the Torah must have perceived of the possibility of such an occurrence. Leaders also can err!
Perhaps this is also the reason why not only the spies but also all the people of Israel were punished during an episode narrated in the Torah. There the Torah tells us that Moshe sent out 12 spies to investigate the land of Israel. Ten of them returned with a bad report, and because of their sin in slandering the land of Israel and the influence of these leaders on the congregation of Israel, the Jewish people were punished to wander in the desert for an additional 40 years until a new generation arose.
One may ask: Why were the Jewish people held accountable? They were only following the words and advice of their leaders, the gedolim? Why should they be blamed? Aren’t we supposed to follow the counsel of our gedolim? Don’t they, in their role as leaders, define Judaism and whom we should emulate? Don’t they model how we should act?
The answer is a resounding no! We look to our leaders for guidance, but ultimately we are responsible for our own actions. Leaders point us in the right direction, but we are held answerable and accountable for following in the direction that we choose.
“So, my dear son,” I responded. “Criticize our leaders to your heart’s content, express your disappointment in them if you’re disappointed – it’s permitted. But you must always remain true to our mesorah and our Torah, for it is always honorable and virtuous, though our leaders may, from time to time, be wrong.”