It’s all our fault
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It’s all our fault

Congress returned to Washington this week, allegedly to find a way to keep this nation from falling off the so-called fiscal cliff. The members really came back because it would have looked terrible if they were home fiddling as Rome burned.

Regardless of whether Congress manages to keep us out of the financial abyss, that we are on its verge at all only proves how dysfunctional our government has become, and how leaderless. When I say “leaderless,” I mean no leaders, period. We have none, in either party, in either house of Congress, not even in the White House itself. We are paying big bucks for small minds, petty posturing, and negligible productivity. If Congress wants to eliminate waste in government, it should fire itself.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day Israel, of course, is no better. The ability to govern is stifled by an election law that provides a two percent threshold for a party to win a place in the Knesset. The last time around, 33 parties competed for the 120 Knesset seats, 3.5 million people voted, and a mere 70,000 votes were enough to secure a voice in the Knesset. Twelve parties received more than the requisite 70,000 votes – 12! The top two vote-getters, Kadima and Likud, between them did not add up to the 61 seats to govern. Not that it would have mattered, as they would not serve together. In the end, the Number 2 vote-getter, Likud (27 seats), was given the task of forming a government. To do so, it made deals with four parties – left-leaning Labor, far right Yisrael Beteinu, the even farther right Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), and the Sephardi religious party Shas. The composition was such that accomplishing anything was a practical impossibility.

Next month’s election is shaping up to create an even more impossible-to-govern coalition. Likud united with Yisrael Beteinu, and now the combined party is losing seats to Habayit Hayehudi. A new party by an old Labor leader is costing Labor some seats. Shas, with its three-headed hydra of a leadership (above which sits the real leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), is gaining some strength, but will likely lose seats if its tenuously trifurcated governance sinks into fractious factionalism.

Who is to blame for such absurd situations in the United States and Israel? The voters – we the voters here in the United States and they the voters there in Israel. On both sides of the ocean, we know how dysfunctional our governments are. We also know what we have to do about it. As we proved here last month, we in the United States do not want to do anything about it. We like dysfunction. Israelis, it seems, are preparing to prove the same thing next month.

This excerpt on how to choose a leader comes from the Takkanot of the Council of Cracow, which ruled Jewish life there in the Middle Ages. It sums up the guidelines for voters very well and leaves no doubt about who is at fault when our leaders fail us: “…that no one of them [meaning us, the voters] has made any deal or deals with any other individuals or groups regarding the election [“I’ll vote for you if you lower my taxes even if it is not prudent to do so”]. Also, each must promise to act for the sake of heaven and the common good, as he is instructed from on high, and not out of favoritism or self-interest or personal grudge [“You need to cut Social Security and welfare, and get rid of this health care thing, because I am tired of paying the freight for everyone else”]….

“These electors should not act hurriedly, but should think carefully…, for once they have signed their opinions…, nothing can be changed.”

Bad leadership is not how Judaism construes leadership.

There are paradigms on whom Judaism bases its ideal criteria. Abraham and Moses quickly come to mind, as I have noted in the past. Abraham showed concern for the wayfarer, was quick to launch a military campaign to rescue relatives, and even challenged God on behalf of an unworthy community for the sake of the few among them who might be worthy.

Moses, for his part, stood up for his people even when he knew them to be in the wrong and despite an amazing offer from God. Exodus 32:10 tells us: “Now, therefore, let Me alone, that My anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them,” God says to Moses following the sin of the Golden Calf; “and I will make of you a great nation.”

On this occasion and at several others, Moses makes it clear that he would have none of it. His job, given to him by God, was to shepherd and protect Israel. To accept God’s offer would be to violate a trust he held sacred. (There is a wonderful midrash on this conversation to be found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 32a.)

As Abraham and Moses were humble, so any leader in Israel must be humble. Thus, we are told in BT Chagigah 5b: “Our Rabbis taught: Over three things the Holy One, Blessed Be He, weeps every day…[including] over a leader who lords it over the community.”

The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 27:9) even quotes God as saying to the would-be leader: “[S]ince you have undertaken this responsibility in becoming a leader, go, humble yourself at the dust of the feet of princes and those greater than you….”

The great chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav added yet another requirement. “The true leader of a generation must be holy,” he said.

All of this led the rabbis to codify these traits in setting the requirements for leadership in the Jewish world. They added the requirement (Shulkhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 256:3) that a person could not be qualified as a communal leader if his conduct in any way would have barred him from being a dayyan (a judge). The rule harks back to a discussion in BT Bava Batra 8b about who could collect and distribute charity funds for the community.

From a halachic standpoint and from tradition, our leaders should be above reproach; should put communal concerns ahead of their own; should exemplify and spread the traits required of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; should not let their posts go to their heads; and should expect to be vilified for their efforts.

Does this sound like anyone we know?

I didn’t think so, either.

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