A Time for New Leadership

The recent disaster at Meron leads inevitably to the question of responsibility, which nobody seems eager to accept. In turn, this brings up the matter of leadership. It is time to think about civic leadership and responsibility in our community: Who bears it, and what does it require from each one of us?

Sivan 5781; May 2021

“For death has come up into our windows; it has entered our palaces” (Yirmiyahu 9:21).

The first response to the terrible Meron disaster was shock and silence: “Aharon was silent.” Over time, however, the initial reaction gave way to two sets of serious questions that pierced the veil of silence. One set relates to the realm of the spiritual. How can it be that such a disaster should befall righteous and innocent Jews, seeking closeness to God? What is the message that God wishes to send us? In which areas should we strengthen ourselves? There is no single answer to these questions. Some rabbinic leaders lent their support to personalized approaches, along the lines of “the heart knows the bitterness of its soul” (Mishlei 14:10). Others proposed messages of public repentance of one kind or another.

In the present article, I wish to consider another, no less important set of questions—one that relates to the earthly, material realm. This, too, is part of our duty to “search our ways and inquire.” In the obligation to erect a fence around our roof, the Torah clarifies that failure to do so could cause people to fall to their death (Devarim 22:8). When a homeowner is negligent in this duty and the worst of all happens, attention must clearly be focused first and foremost on the fence (or lack thereof). Spiritual factors might be relevant too (as the Sages mention in studying the verse), yet they are of course secondary. The inquiry into the Meron tragedy from a safety perspective is therefore not solely a matter of the “secular”; to the contrary, it is a fundamental element of the good and the just path that Hashem expects us to follow.

In this spirit, I would like to discuss an issue I consider central to the disaster: the matter of leadership and responsibility. In the wake of the disaster, harsh criticism has been leveled at the Charedi political leadership, not least from within Charedi society itself. Those operators who were always first off the mark to take credit for organizing the Meron event simply disappeared when called upon to take responsibility following the tragedy; the refusal of Charedi politicians to unequivocally support a state commission of inquiry has likewise drawn widespread condemnation. Paraphrasing Joseph Trumpeldor’s famous last words, one Charedi journalist reflected the popular sentiment when he quipped that as Charedim, “it is good to die for our politicians.”

I have no intention of defending Charedi politicians and operators. Yet, I will argue in the following lines that the safety failure leading to the disaster, which many have warned of for over a decade, is the result (among other things) of a lack of a Charedi civic leadership worthy of the title. The problem is not whether our leaders can declare, with hand over heart, that “our hands did not shed this blood”; the problem is that there is virtually nobody from whom we can demand or expect the making of such statements. With nobody leading, it is hardly surprising to find a lack of readiness to take responsibility. And with nobody taking responsibility, the question of how Charedi society will adapt to changing circumstances—a question compounded by the corona period, by the Meron tragedy, and by the political upheavals we continue to traverse—looms heavily.

After characterizing the problem, I will try to suggest a different type of “leadership mindset,” whose adoption could bring us much benefit. Without undermining the present leadership—neither its political version nor (of course) the Rabbinic leadership integral to Charedi society—I will highlight a leadership model in which we are all partners. I will call this a leadership of solidarity. In Torah terminology, it is called Arvut.


Leadership Through a Torah Lens

Leaders of the Jewish people are required to lead, and not to be led. When Moshe Rabbeinu turns to God and requests Him to appoint a leader that will replace him, he notes that the new leader must be one “who comes out to them and comes before them and who brings them out and brings them in” (Bamidbar 27:17). The leader needs to be “a man containing a spirit within him,” as it was said of Yehoshua. Rashi explains: “who knows how to go against the spirit of each one.” In other words, he must know how to lead, to follow through with his own policies rather than incessantly looking over his shoulder to gauge public opinion and adapting policies in response.

It is this trait that separated King David from his predecessor to the throne. King Saul excused his sin (of not eradicating Amalek) on the grounds that he did as the people wished: “For I feared the people and listened to their voice” (I Shmuel 15:24). It is precisely for this reason that God rejected his kingship. As the Gemara states, “Saul (sinned) once and it cost him (his rule); David (sinned) twice and it did not cost him (his kingdom)” (Yoma 22:2). King Saul was found unworthy not because of sin per se, but because he was dragged into sin by the people. He could not fully regret and repent his iniquity because it was not his to regret—it was the people’s. By contrast, God forgave King David for his sins and accepted his repentance because he remained loyal to the leadership principle that Hashem demands: readiness to perform the just and the good without bending to popular will.

In their communication with David, the tribes of Israel mentioned that even during Saul’s reign, “You were the one who brought Israel in and out” (II Shmuel 5:2). In other words, David’s reign was marked from the outset as a “leading leadership,” while Saul was a leader who was led. It follows that King David was also able to take full responsibility for his actions and repent of his sins—a repentance God accepted. When a person is in control of his actions and chooses to perform them, he can also take responsibility for them and declare “I sinned.” Saul, on the other hand, inclined after the people; he could never take full responsibility for what he did.

A similar message arises from the famous statement of the Mishnah, whereby during the period immediately prior to the coming of Mashiach we will reach a condition in which “the face of the generation is as the face of the dog” (Sotah 49b). Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l (as cited by several mussar works) explained that the way of dogs is to run ahead of their owners, so it seems the dog is leading and guiding its master. Every so often, however, upon reaching a crossroads, the dog stops and looks back to see where its master wishes to go—at which point we learn that rather than leading, the dog is in fact being led. When leadership itself does not know how to lead, the face of the generation is as the face of a dog.

This characterizing of the period prior to Mashiach is all too apt for our own era, in which the dominant form of government is democratic. One of the most serious problems of a democratic society is that instead of leading the people, political leaders are prone to conducting polls and adapting their positions to the “will of the people.” As I will show below, when it comes to this point, it seems that our own society is very much a democratic one.


Public Opinion is Everything

“Public sentiment is everything.” So said Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most prominent and beloved Presidents. He was largely as good as his word, paying close attention to public opinion and devoting large portions of his day to receiving constituents, hearing their arguments, and understanding their desires and their plights. In the political sense, too, Lincoln was committed, within reasonable limits, to carrying out the people’s will. His underlying assumption was that a policy unaligned with popular sentiment will fail: “Against [popular will], nothing can succeed.”

In his words and his actions, Lincoln granted a lucid and living expression of the powerful democratic spirit prevalent in the United States of the nineteenth century. No longer was the king sovereign, but rather the nation itself, and each member thereof. Those who governed were the nation’s representatives, civil servants, agents of voters who gave them offices. In a democratic system, all leaders are “populists” of one form or another, despite the negative connotations this word has acquired in recent years. Given a political order in which leaders are up for reelection every few years, it is but reasonable that public opinion should become central and significant.

The problem is that this approach, prima facie, does not leave much room for leadership. Saying everyone leads is akin to saying that nobody leads, or negating the very possibility of leadership. Roy Hattersley, a senior figure in British politics for several decades, noted in this spirit that there was never a time in which it was harder for a politician to declare “I will lead and not be led.” And yet, we all need leadership. As the wisest of all men put it, “Without vision, the people are lost” (Mishlei 29:18). How, then, can we find leadership in the democratic age?

It is interesting that this problem has not sparked the passion of academic scholars, a deficiency that led some thinkers to write that “Democratic leadership is a blind spot for most democratic theorists and students of leadership because democrats have difficulty in articulating a proper democratic role for leadership.”[1] But the problem is very clear: “On the one hand, democracy seems to require good leadership if it is to function effectively; on the other, the very idea of leadership seems to conflict with democracy’s egalitarian ethos.” It is a catch-22 situation: “The more strongly democratic leaders lead, the less democratic they appear; the more they act like good democrats, the less like true leaders they seem.”

Lincoln himself, a great leader by all accounts, provided his own solution to the problem. In his words, “Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.” In other words, Lincoln was loyal to public opinion, but he still considered himself a leader who does not passively follow the masses, working instead to shape public opinion according to what he considered right and just (such as when it came to freeing slaves). But a brief look at present-day politics shows us how partial a solution this really is. In any event, it seems that Lincoln’s solution is not relevant in the context of Charedi politics.


Democracy in Our Camp

In the not-very-distant-past, Charedi society, like every traditional society, was entirely stratified by class: “Tell me your last name and I’ll tell you your social status.” But aside from the leadership structure of some Chassidic communities, Charedi society has over time become more egalitarian and more democratic. This trend is readily apparent in the reality whereby every average young man is a yeshiva student, while every married man receives the automatic title of “Rabbi.” A heavyweight family name might still be useful, but it is certainly no longer an assurance of a senior position. With the erosion of the Charedi aristocracy, we have also become democratic at the political level. If Charedi parties in the past could suffice with election slogans of “you shall do all you are instructed,” the average Charedi individual must today be appealed to on grounds that voting for Charedi representatives will deliver maximal benefit for Torah society and for preserving Israel’s Jewish character.

Charedi society has not adopted the entire value system of western democracy, replete with fundamental principles of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. Nonetheless, it appears that democratic culture has deeply penetrated our society and the way it functions on many levels. Public opinion, powerfully expressed on new media platforms, has become a tremendous force, as we can witness from many hot-button issues such as public Shabbos arrangements, the Western Wall, the attitude to Reform Judaism, and others. In these, alongside many other issues of public policy, the broader public has asserted a strong influence on the decisions of their representatives, occasionally forcing them to change initial plans and reverse policies. The absolute identification of Charedi politics with the Israeli Right, to the chagrin of representatives such as Moshe Gafni, is but one example.

A person is inevitably influenced by his surroundings. After decades of life in modern society, it seems the rules of the democratic system have been fully absorbed, both in terms of procedure (free elections) and the central importance of public opinion. Of course, Rabbinic leadership remains a staple of Charedi society, and its delicate relationship with popular opinion requires separate treatment. Yet, to borrow from the “reasonable person” standard used in legal systems, it would not be far off the mark to state that the Charedi standard for policy issues (at least for the Litvish sub-group) has become that of the “reasonable avrech [Kollel student].” His opinion is the one that truly matters.

A conversation I had some years back with a certain high school principal comes to mind. After beseeching him several times to accept the daughter of close friends into his school, he gave me his final answer: “I would gladly accept her, but it isn’t my own decision; I am only reflecting the opinion of my clientele, the general community.” This might sound feeble, and principals could certainly do more for the sake of fairness and equity, but it is not untrue. The hands of principals are indeed tied by popular opinion—of the sub-group that counts, of course, and in this case of the “reasonable avrech.” Leadership, institutional or even rabbinic, has little power to influence such matters. The people are sovereign.

This brings us to the problem of leadership: “From where shall come my help?”


Whose Responsibility?

As noted at the outset, the reaction of Charedi politicians and political operators to the Meron tragedy has evoked strong disapproval within Charedi society. Why, many ask, is nobody taking responsibility? Why are our own representatives opposing the highest level of inquiry? And how will we prevent the next tragedy?

The sweeping disavowal of responsibility and the opposition to forming a state commission of inquiry is, indeed, shameful and unacceptable. Any party, Charedi or not, that flees responsibility, is ultimately disrespecting the victims and their families. However, it seems to me that the strong expectation of responsibility involves a mistaken assumption, namely, that politicians and political operators are “leaders” who make decisions and must therefore be held to account. There are certain political figures, including those acting within democratic frameworks, who can indeed be called leaders, but this is not the case for Charedi politics. Rather than lead, Charedi representatives are the kind who identify public opinion and operate accordingly. In these circumstances, the expectation of responsibility is futile.

In other words, the Charedi political leadership does not claim to determine policy. It did not do so on dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, and it did not do so when it came to the disaster in Meron. In its self-conception, its role is to fight the people’s fight. If public opinion—the relevant public, based on group affiliation—is for ignoring corona instructions and regulations, then this position must be defended by all necessary means. And if public opinion is for massive attendance at Meron, then even that must be defended. Without compromise.

The solution Lincoln had for the problem of democratic leadership—a leader’s ability to influence public opinion—is inapplicable for Charedi representatives. Being “representatives” of the people rather than elected by them, they lack public legitimacy to change public opinion. They can only defend it. As “agents of the public” (shluchei tzibbur) and perhaps also “agents of the Rabbis” (shluchei derabanan), they are seen by both the public and themselves as contractors rather than policymakers and public opinion shapers.

The Torah expects the elders of the city to take responsibility, publicly declaring that “our hands did not shed this blood” (Devarim 21:7). In other words, there is a clear demand to bear responsibility for the tragic event of bloodshed. But in a state where the people are sovereign, who exactly must be told to stop the buck-passing? If there is no responsibility, there is no leadership, and vice versa—if there is no leadership, there is no responsibility. Of course, the main problem is not accountability for the past but taking responsibility for the future: Lacking a mechanism combining leadership and responsibility, how can we prevent the next disaster?


A Leadership of Solidarity

A verse in Parashat Behukotai is eerily reminiscent of the Meron disaster: “And people stumbled into their brother as though before the sword—and there was no pursuer” (Vayikra 26:37). Terrified of its adversaries, the verse describes a reality in which the Jewish People trample each other and kill themselves, despite the absence of an actual enemy. Somewhat surprisingly, it is precisely from this verse, which marks a condition of disaster and calamity, that the Sages derived a central principle for the general function of the Jewish People: Arvut, mutual responsibility and solidarity. Commenting on the verse, Rashi notes: “People stumbled into each other, meaning, on account of each other—they failed on account of each other’s sins. We learn from here that each one of Israel is responsible for each other.”

The general way of the world is that a shared responsibility effectively amounts to no responsibility. The same is true for leadership. Yet, this is not the case for the Jewish People. For us, the principle of national solidarity defines an internal, personal sense of responsibility that applies to all Jews. This solidarity is constituted by means of a covenant with God, each person being responsible for the maintenance of that covenant in its entirety. Every person thus takes responsibility for the full maintenance of the covenant. He himself is the leader; on his shoulders rests the responsibility for maintaining all of Jewish society.

To use an example from outside of the Jewish world, Alexis de Tocqueville identified this sort of mutual solidarity in nineteenth-century America. Though he does not reference the leadership problem, it seems he considered it to be an appropriate substitute for the lack of strong leadership in a democratic society. His focus was on the ability of ordinary citizens to band together in voluntary associations and realize a range of goals through “civic leadership”:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds – religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.

Leadership of this sort lacks the coercive power of the state, yet this is not where its strength lies. It can reach great achievement outside of the political arena, and over time those achievements penetrate politics by means of the democratic process or via various lobbying groups. I see this as an impressive realization of the ideal of mutual solidarity. Anybody can have a positive influence in his field and within his circles, and within a society driven by solidarity, this influence will only increase. Different groups will work in the name of different ideas, each side will have its own charismatic leaders, and the democratic system will ultimately work its magic.

Mutual solidarity means mutual responsibility, and mutual responsibility means we are all leaders. We tend to narrow our perception of mutual responsibility to the sense of halachic observance: We are responsible for the halachic observance of both ourselves and our neighbors. But our responsibility goes beyond that narrow ambit, including the entire Torah, its beliefs, values, foundations, and principles. In many areas, we are well-acquainted with the model, and demonstrate exceptional mutual solidarity, whether in the field of halacha or in initiating a wide range of charities and “gemachs” (free loan societies). On the other hand, in areas such as public reform, systemic problems, proper management of institutions and organizations, and so on, there seems to be a lack of such solidarity.

Why do we suffer such a lacuna? Several reasons come to mind: The expectation of social conformism and the fear of sanctions against those who stand out; the belief that significant changes on the ground are not possible; the universal tendency to rely on those who will take responsibility for us; and others. But without such leadership, a leadership of mutual solidarity, our society, while filled with charity and kindness, will end up deficient in crucial respects. The Meron disaster is a particularly tragic reminder of this.


Entering the Arena

Above, I quoted the words of President Lincoln. I would like to end by quoting one of the more celebrated speeches of another American President, Theodor Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

We are pretty good at criticism. Indeed, it is easy to sit in one’s armchair and shoot arrows at the targets of our wrath. But leadership is not about criticizing but about operating inside the “arena.” Leadership is fighting for justice and for charity, for the just and the good in Hashem’s eyes, even when it is not necessarily the popular route. Leadership is the courage to act for good causes in the knowledge that there will be mistakes and with a willingness to take responsibility for them—as King David did. Leadership is about being attentive to others without becoming passive followers, leading based on an internal sense of modesty and humility. It is about erring and failing, but also, given some Divine assistance, succeeding.

In these challenging times, I believe that more than anything else, we need to have more people “in the arena.” We are, after all, a “nation of priests,” a people dedicated to serving God and bringing His word into the world. When Eldad and Medad prophesied despite the fact that they were not among the seventy elders, Moshe Rabbeinu rejected Yehoshua’s idea that they should be killed. On the contrary, he was content with the situation: “But Moshe said to him: Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Hashem’s people were prophets, and Hashem would place His spirit upon them!” In an age without prophecy, each one of us possesses the capacity to articulate the word of Hashem and to infuse many darkened areas with light. The concept of Arvut, moreover, means that this is not optional. We are duty-bound to be in the arena.

The arena, moreover, is far from small. Our primary responsibility, of course, is for our own families, and beyond that for our neighbors and our communities—the “little platoons” of human associations that most command our affections. Growing up in London, I always recall with pride Margaret Thatcher’s statement (upon receiving Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1979) that in all her years she never knew of a Jew in poverty and desperation, because “they are always so well looked after by their own.” But our responsibility also extends beyond, embracing the Jewish State and, indeed, the entire Jewish People. There is no “them and us,” Charedim and those who are not, in the Jewish concept of Arvut. “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” This is the leadership we need, and the leadership we need to supply.

I end with a prayer we recite thrice daily: “Restore our judges of old, and our counselors as before, and remove from among us suffering and agony.”


[1] John Kane and Haig Patapan, “The Neglected Problem of Democratic Leadership”, in y Paul ‘t Hart and John Uhr (eds) Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices (2008).

5 thoughts on “A Time for New Leadership

  • I’m wondering what role women might play in this concept of Arvut, which calls on ALL of us to be duty bound to be in the arena.
    This is one area that has yet to be tested — women in a prominent role in charedi political and civic leadership. Could it be that women, with their more extensive, less hierarchical, real-life experience have something to contribute? Could it be that decisions made in a room where ego and testosterone are somewhat diluted might end up being better decisions?

    • The truth is that a significant part of the current Charedi non-political civic leadership – I mean people who are active in a variety of projects and initiatives in fields such as education (formal and informal), employment, community-building, and so on – is comprised of women. Without commenting on who makes the better decisions, this “arena,” by contrast with the establishment leadership (rabbinic and political) certainly enables women to participate.

  • it would seem to me that when daat toreh preempts others who may have real expertise in various areas to take control, effective leadership has a harder time developing. the reality of how traditional Jewish communities operated has been distorted in support of the notion of all-encompassing rabbinic leadership.

    as well, commitment to a less than perfect status quo diminishes the need for leadership whose primary mission is effective change. it is not surprising in my mind that leadership has not developed.

    what might have to happen is that current rabbinic leadership vacate parts of their domain, perhaps by first appointing responsible and empowered lay leaders.

  • Your analyis of Charedi leadership , the need to accept responsibility and leadership and the compariosn with Lincoln and Dovod HaMelech was excellent. Another great leader who admitted to mistakes but was also a great leader was none other than Churchill.

  • It’s not enough to convince current leaders to restrict themselves and call in the right help. The wrong help would be the existing all talk / no action crony class. Who exactly can properly fill the void? What can help Israel form a capable leadership cadre that actually knows the nuts and bolts of governing our people in our best interest? Which, if any, models of leadership developed among Jews of past centuries, inside or outside Eretz Yisrael, will work now?

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