Reprinted with permission from the author.
American Jews preparing to enter the voting booths were bombarded by an array of (often conflicting) opinions as to which candidate was better on so-called “Jewish issues.” Partisans on all sides were quick to assert that their candidate’s views on everything from Israel to church-state relations, from anti-Semitism to education, were in the “best interest” of the Jews.
More than any particular policy stance, however, our tradition suggests the ultimate “Jewish issue” is a candidate’s ability to lead. Classical Jewish teachings offer valuable insight into how to measure the efficacy of leadership, what we should seek in our leaders, and the optimal relationship between leaders and followers. Jewish voters, therefore, would do well to consider these precepts as they engage in the electoral process.
Not surprisingly, Judaism’s wisdom on effective leadership is diverse and complex. Though impossible to encapsulate it all, it is possible to extrapolate several overarching principles that can serve as guideposts in helping to evaluate those who wish to be our leaders.
On the Use and Abuse of Power
For reasons both theological and historical, Judaism always maintained a certain distrust of human leaders. Jewish sources recognize there is a direct relationship between high office and the likelihood of abusing the power accompanying that post. As a result, power was circumscribed. Strict limits were placed upon those who held positions of authority, from kings and judges to rabbis and philanthropists.
While human societies have benefited greatly from what Sa’adia Gaon of the 10th century called the “aspiration toward leadership” (“On Dominion,” The Book of Beliefs and Opinions), Judaism insists that power remains a dangerous allure. To lead effectively, one must avoid being ensnared in the infatuating trap of leadership. The ability to overcome the intoxication of prominence, triumph over the tendency toward grandiosity, and embrace the virtue of limited powers–these are the hallmarks of effective leadership.