Having been raised in Australia, where the separation of religion and state is understood to be a principle of democracy, it was difficult for me to accept that Israel is a state where religion and politics are inextricably intertwined. Yet, paradoxically, in the current election campaign there are pitifully few religious values being promoted as the criteria by which we should choose our leadership and I am saddened.
Religion is not just empty rituals or a way of marking the rhythm of the year. All religions have great stores of wisdom, compiled over the centuries, which are as relevant today as ever. Religions provide moral guidance and standards to live by. Consider what the Jewish religion says about leadership.
Tosafot tells us that one who is wise, humble and fearful of sin may be made a community leader. A leader should be, like Abraham, a person of integrity, impeccably honest, totally trustworthy, compassionate and pursuing justice, a seeker of peace, like Aharon, and, above all, like Moses, exemplifying humility.
Are we so cynical that we don’t seek these qualities from our political leaders?
If we look at prominent candidates and their campaigns, there is no humility, only pride. We see little genuine compassion for those in need or zeal for justice. Worse still, we seriously doubt the integrity of so many of the candidates. We cannot ignore the fact that the leadership we choose reflects all of us, as a nation. Elections are not just about the parties’ promises or policies for action which may or may not be implemented. They are about the type of leadership we want.
We hear a great deal about ‘security’ as a pivotal issue. In religious terms, security has little to do with military strength and much more to do with confidence that the human endeavour is in line with the divine will. Of course, there are disputes as to what the ‘divine will’ is, so we need to balance confidence with humility. A true leader strives to do what is right while recognizing that her decisions may sometimes be the wrong ones and will need to be corrected. That is a sign of true ‘integrity’ – the ability to be self-critical and admit mistakes – for an honest person will know that she makes mistakes. Even those for whom the ‘divine will’ is an empty term can resonate with the idea that we can never feel confident under the leadership of someone whom we cannot trust. Secular and religious alike must ask themselves if a person whose integrity we doubt can truly give us ‘security.’
In 2009, the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, representing six major religious traditions, met in Haifa on the theme of ‘Religious Leadership’. Regardless of the religion, scholars and leaders agreed on the qualities that they expect from the people who represent and lead them. Whether we are Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze or another faith, we do not accept religious leadership that falls below these standards. It would be sad indeed if Israel, a nation supposedly imbued with religious values, is willing to forgo any expectation of religious qualities in the people who make their laws and represent them to the world.
Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.