Leadership: The Jewish Take

What are the characteristics of a good leader?

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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.


One of the ways in which Judaism seeks to protect against leadership abuses is to insist that power be shared and not hoarded. Throughout history, Jewish communities have been governed by a tripartite system in which religious, scholarly, and political leaders share responsibility for the welfare of the people. Singular individuals claiming to have all the answers, who insist on aggregating power, are viewed with suspicion and disdain. Far from glorifying the model of a charismatic leader who solves problems unilaterally, Jewish sources prefer leaders who are willing to share responsibility and empower others.


In asserting qualifications for office, it is popular for would-be leaders to emphasize their strength and toughness, above all else. Attention is focused repeatedly on heroism, militarism, and boldness. Much of what passes for leadership throughout the world is a form of machismo, the leader-as-alpha-male, dominant and overbearing. Instead of embracing this top-down, command-and-control style, classical Jewish sources insist that successful leaders function not as rulers, but as servants. “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” insists the Talmud (Horayot 10a). In this view, leadership is not about superimposing personal will, or coercing others to “follow the leader.” Neither is it about amassing power in the name of ego or cause. Rather, leaders must see themselves as serving the needs of their followers by enhancing their capacity, by motivating and empowering them, and by developing leadership in others.

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Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the Dean of Continuing Education & Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Spertus College in Chicago. Prior to joining Spertus, he served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Columbus Jewish Federation. He is the author of The Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership (Edwin Mellen), and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership (Rowman and Littlefield).