Author Archives: Rabbi Lewis Warshauer

About Rabbi Lewis Warshauer

Lewis Warshauer teaches topics in Judaism to adult study groups in a variety of venues. Among his interests are family dynamics in the Bible and art as interpretation of Jewish texts. He was ordained at Jewish Theological Seminary and is based in New York.

Attributes of a Leader

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Much of the Book of Deuteronomy is taken up with Moses‘ farewell address to the Israelite nation. He has served his people as their leader in every sphere: military, administrative, judicial and spiritual. Now, he reviews the events of the 40 wilderness years, and presents, from his own perspective, a report of how he has led the nation.

Moses does not offer a dispassionate review of the past; to the contrary, he rebukes the nation for its failings.Moses on the mountain

It falls to midrash to examine Moses’ words and not only offer interpretations of his meanings, but to construct leadership principles based on what he has said and done. A number of midrashim, taken together, use Moses as an example of what constitutes ideal leadership. Three components stand out: his views on what a leader must avoid; on the necessity of many people sharing leadership tasks; and on the core attributes of a leader.

In response to the question of what right Moses had to rebuke his people, one of Moses’ earlier statements is cited. When Moses defended himself against charges of self-interest leveled at him by the rebellious Korah, he replied: “I have not taken a single donkey, nor done evil to anyone.” (Numbers 16:15) This midrash, in other words, emphasizes what a leader must not do; one must not use a position of power to steal from the populace or otherwise harm them. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:5) This is to politicians what the Hippocratic oath is to physicians: first, do no harm.

In his address to the people, Moses tells them that he was not able, by himself, to bear the burden of acting as judge in all cases. He required that additional judges be appointed so as to have a more manageable case-load. A midrash turns this necessity into a virtue. It states that, as a matter of settled law, a rabbi or judge of a community may not administer justice alone. Only God judges alone. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10) Ideal leadership is not a solo act. It is more like an ensemble.

The third area has to do with the personal qualities that a judge or, by extrapolation, other types of leaders must possess. The account in the opening chapter of Deuteronomy of the start of the Israelite judicial system is the second time the issue is dealt with in the Torah.

In the Book of Exodus, the idea of delegating authority is attributed to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. A midrash asks why in the Book of Exodus version, (18:21) four attributes of a judge are mentioned, while in Deuteronomy (1:13), three are listed. The answer offered is that the lists must be combined to yield a total of seven attributes, with a judge having all seven. However, if the community can find candidates with only four of these attributes, or even only three, those candidates should be made judges.

What if a potential judge has just one of these attributes? He should be chosen, only if he possesses the quality of hayyil— valor, strength, or capability. Another verse in the Bible also cites the quality of hayyil as constituting the core value of a woman of valor, adding, “who can find her?” (Proverbs 31:10) It is significant that this particular Biblical verse is chosen, given that in traditional Jewish law, women may not serve as judges.

Returning to the issue of leader as rebuker, the midrash inserts a line that does not actually appear in the Biblical text. God is imagined as saying, “Moses, you have rebuked the people. They have accepted the rebuke meekly, now bless them.” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:9)

It is relevant to assess leadership in the Jewish community today in view of these midrashic descriptions of ideal leadership inspired by Moses’ farewell speech. Most people would agree that communal leaders should do no harm and should be capable. Yet what about promoting a model of shared leadership? In a variety of Jewish institutions, this model is not yet in place. As for the quality of knowing both how to rebuke as well as how to bless people, that skill, in most cases, needs further cultivation.

Memories of Mother

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

A newspaper reader knows from the headline what the topic of the article will be. Not so with the Torah. The title of each parashah is its first significant word; whether that word tells what will follow is somewhat up to chance. In Parashat Noah, the title does tells us who will be the central focus of the narrative. In this week’s parashah, the title Haye Sarah seems to be irrelevant, misleading and yet, perhaps, fraught with meaning.

Haye Sarah means “the life of Sarah.” It is thus a strange introduction for a series of events that begins with her death. The opening verse of the parashah reads, literally, “Sarah’s life was one hundred twenty-seven years” (Genesis 23:1). It then goes on to tell of her death and burial. The rest of the parashah describes the recruitment of Rebekah (Rivkah) to be Isaac’s wife, her return to Canaan with Abraham’s servant and her marriage to Isaac. If parshiyot [Torah portions] were given a title corresponding to their central character, this one would be Haye Rivkah (“the life of Rebekah”), not Haye Sarah.

Toward the end of the parashah, Sarah does reappear–not in person, but as a memory. We are told that after Isaac meets Rebekah, he:

“… brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent and took Rebekah and she became his wife and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).

First Love

This is the first instance where the Torah notes that someone loved someone else. No such mention is made of the feelings between Adam and Eve, Noah and his (unnamed) wife, or Abraham and Sarah. Why then, would Isaac’s feelings be mentioned here?

Nahmanides explains that the Torah hints that Isaac was greatly sorrowed by his mother’s death and that comfort was distant from him until he was consoled by his love for Rebekah; what other reason is there that the Torah should tell of a man’s love for his wife? He loved her and was comforted by her because of her likeness to Sarah in righteousness andaltruism.

Nahmanides appears to be saying that Isaac loved Rebecca not so much for herself as for her moral resemblance to his mother. It is as though he was comforted not by a flesh-and-blood person, but by an idea of a person; Isaac was in love with what Rebekah represented. One might object to Nahmanides’ explanation; is this not taking a simple expression of love andemptying from it any romance? And yet, the Torah itself encourages this conclusion by reintroducing Sarah in a later scene that features Isaac and Rebekah.

Problems for the Future

My student Sally Magid suggests that the type of love Isaac felt toward Rebekah was the root of their future family problems. He admired her, which was different from loving her in the way a wife wants to be loved. The result was an overall incomplete communication flow between the two and a lack of agreement on how to raise their twin sons. We learn in the next parashah that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob; instead of agreeing on which son to bless, Isaac makes a unilateral move toward Esau and Rebekah thwarts him by arranging for a disguised Jacob to get the blessing.

Perhaps Haye Sarah is, after all, a revealing title for this parashah. It might be that for Isaac, Sarah is not really dead. Her character is reincarnate in Rebekah. If this is so, we can sympathize with Rebekah, excuse her for arranging Isaac to be tricked in the matter of the blessing, and maybe even applaud her for it. It is hard to be the object of a certain kind of admiration, where the admired one is just that–an object. A better kind of admiration is that which develops from reciprocity and a healthy relationship. From this parashah one can draw the lesson that even God does not crave an admiration so strong that it blinds the admirer to the desires of the admired.

The Death Penalty Reconsidered

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

In the closing days of his administration in 2003, outgoing IIlinois Governor George Ryan pardoned or commuted the sentences of all prisoners on the state’s death row. The governor’s action sparked a renewed debate about the death penalty in the United States. For Jews, this debate presents the opportunity to review and clarify the stance of Jewish law on capital punishment not only for our own information but in light of public policy discussions now underway.

One might think that the Jewish view of capital punishmentis governed by one of the verses in this week’s parashah, "He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:12). However, it is not that simple. In Jewish law, one cannot form a defense simply by taking one’s pick of biblical verses and ignoring others.

What Christians Believe

A good example of why we cannot do this is a panel that was sponsored in June 2001 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. On this panel, a Catholic, a Jew, an African-American Protestant, and a Southern Baptist presented their different religions’ and denominations’ views on the death penalty. Each spokesperson arrived at this position by citing distinct sources that supported his denomination’s viewpoint.

The Catholic spokesman emphasized the development in his Church’s thinking–a development away from capital punishment. He did not quote Bible, nor mention religious law per se. He did, however, cite three sources: the catechism of the Church, the statements of the current Pope, and the statements and advocacy of the US Catholic Bishops. The Church’s position, he said, is that while the state has the right to impose capital punishment, it should forego that right for a variety of reasons.

The Southern Baptist spokesman, Barrett Duke, stated that his denomination favors capital punishment because the Bible supports it. Hecited as his key verse: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). Mr. Duke notably chose not to quote a different verse from the Bible: "A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses. He must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. Let the hand of the witnesses be the first to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7), because it would not have served his case to do so.

The African-American spokesman, Joseph Lowery, a minister and former associate of Martin Luther King Jr., used primarily secular points to argue against the death penalty. He quoted a verse from the Bible "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24, this week’s parashah), saying that Dr. King had denounced that verse.

The Jewish spokesman, Nathan Diament, an attorney by training who works for the Orthodox Union, quoted extensively from the Talmud, showing that Jewish law employs procedural safeguards to limit false convictions in capital cases. As discussed in great detail in the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (particularly chapters 4 and 5), these safeguards include the requirement that two witnesses be present at trials and that judges interrogate witnesses thoroughly. Mr. Diament finished by saying that since sufficient questions have been raised about the accuracy and fairness of jurisprudence in capital cases throughout the United States, there ought to be a moratorium on the death penalty while these issues are examined. He said that because the death penalty, when properly applied, implements justice for society, it should not be abolished outright.

Conservative Movement’s Views

In 1960, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a paper by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser that advocated abolition of the death penalty. We as Conservative Jews should raise this issue again today as a contribution to the public policy debate. More than that, it would be a chance for us to demonstrate our emphasis on the legal tradition in Judaism–a careful, thoughtful, subtle tradition developed over many centuries and still evolving. It is a tradition that avoids both vague pronouncements on one hand and selective Bible quotation on the other. Many people have been executed on the testimony of one person alone or, worse, in the absence of eyewitness testimony. Although Jewish criminal law is no longer applicable in any jurisdiction, its methods and lessons have much to recommend.

I would advocate for abolition, on the grounds that the capital punishment system in too many states in America is so broken that it cannot be fixed. It is not just a question of procedural safeguards. The criminal justice system in the United States is driven by prosecutors whose main goal isto obtain convictions. Judges are being sidelined. The Jewish legal system, however, is judge-driven. The judge is supposed to be interested in obtaining justice, not in securing the conviction of the defendant. These are not always the same thing.

Because execution is irrevocable, inequities for the meantime have to be tolerated. Capital punishment should be abolished until the system can be overhauled. Only then can it correctly be called a justice system.