The dishonored honorables

The dishonored honorables

The president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is about to be indicted on a charge of rape, even as Haim Ramon’s trial for sexual harassment is under way; Ramon is a Kadimah Knesset member and Israel’s immediate past justice minister. Another former justice minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, is under a corruption indictment. This would suggest that the title "justice minister" is often loftier than the people who hold it.

Then again, in Israel, being a member of the Knesset Inquiry Committee for Uncovering Corruption in the Government System of Israel is also no guarantee of honesty. MK Naomi Blumenthal (at the time, number 9 on the Likud list) was on that committee for most of the three years she was being investigated and tried on bribery and election fraud charges. She was convicted a year ago and sentenced to eight months in prison and a concurrent 10-month suspended sentence that only just ended.

Israel’s National Fraud Squad, meanwhile, is keeping itself very busy. It is investigating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding his role in the sale of Bank Leumi; Olmert’s bureau chief, Shula Zaken, for her possible involvement in a growing Tax Authority scandal; and Olmert’s chief rival, the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, for receiving illegal gifts. For Bibi, that is his second bite at the illegal gifts apple; he was also investigated on that charge when he was prime minister, giving him the distinction of being the first ever sitting prime minister to be the subject of a criminal probe. His three immediate successors — Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and now Olmert—followed in his flawed footsteps.

Netanyahu’s dubious distinction may soon be obscured by Olmert. Before it is all over, the current prime minister may be the subject of at least three criminal investigations. Israel’s Justice Ministry is still weighing whether to go after him in two matters that were before him when he was minister of industry and trade, and there are still questions about a private real estate deal.

To be sure, most of the cited instances — a laundry list of corruption better suited for a banana republic than the county seat of God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation — are probably more about politics and less about substance. Such smoke-and-mirrors vilification is as old as we are as a people. The Midrash itself acknowledges as much when, regarding Exodus 6:13, it claims that God warned Moses and Aaron, "My children are obdurate, obstreperous, and obstinate. In taking leadership over them, expect them to curse you and even to stone you."

Rabbi Akiva apparently needed no one to tell him that. When advised to accept a leadership position, he replied: "[Should I do so] even if it means being abused, even if it means being regarded as reprehensible?" (See the Jerusalem Talmud tractate Pe’ah 8:6, ‘1a.)

To be sure, there are paradigms on whom Judaism bases its ideal criteria. Abraham and Moses quickly come to mind. Abraham showed concern for the wayfarer, was quick to launch a military campaign to rescue relatives, and even challenged God on behalf of a godless 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. In Exodus 3′:10, "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 3’a.)

Both Abraham and Moses share another trait: humility. 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 ‘7:9) also notes the need for humility when it quotes God as saying to the would-be leader: "See that you know what to do; and since 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 would add yet another quality shared by Abraham and Moses. "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 ’56:3) 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.

It is a tall order and not one that is easily filled, if it can be filled at all. That may be why the Talmud (BT Berakhot 55a) insists that the people have a say in who will lead them. Having made their decision, the Talmud tells us elsewhere that the people must respect their leaders, not revile them. (See BT Rosh Ha’shanah ‘5b.)

As Israel’s politicians — and America’s for that matter — must realize by now, however, respect is a two-way street.

This, too, is a talmudic principle, based on the conduct of the kohanim, who "had their faces towards the people and their backs" to God when blessing them. (See BT Sotah 40a.)