Pinchas Goldschmidt

Biggest, Strongest, Best Connected? In Judaism, it’s Knowledge that Makes the Leader

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What makes a leader? In some cultures, leadership – of government, institutions, or even in the realm of thought or ideas – is restricted to those individuals who, often by virtue of their birth, affiliation, wealth, or connections are elevated to positions of power. That is definitely not the case in Judaism. Our parsha, Behaalotcha, makes it clear that being a leader depends not on wealth and connections, but on knowledge and wisdom. Thus in Judaism, essentially anyone can become a spiritual leader of the people.

In the aftermath of a spiritual deterioration among the Jews in the desert, when they complained about the heavenly Manna and pined for the food of Egypt, Moses throws his hands up in frustration, telling God that leading this “stiff-necked” people was more than he could handle. In response, God tells Moses to appoint 70 elders–individuals with a personal record of selfless leadership under Egyptian slavery who would help him lead the people, dispensing justice, and teaching the Law. The parsha goes on to say that God would furnish these individuals with the Divine wisdom they would need to take on the job.

Moses was commanded to select six individuals from each of the 12 Tribes. And each of these were imbued with prophecy, as God promised Moses. But now there was a problem; 72 individuals were given the gift of prophecy, but only 70 could sit on this Council of Elders. To solve that, Moses conducted a lottery, which would exclude the extra two candidates. These extras, Eldad and Meidad, in their humility were convinced that they would be the ones to pick the shorter straw and didn’t even bother to come to the lottery.  As they remained in their tents, their prophetic skills endured, unlike the other elders. This happened to the extent that Joshua, Moses’ “first officer,” complains to Moses that “Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp,” and that the prophecies – among them that Moses would die in the desert and that Joshua would lead the people into the Promised Land – were blasphemous. To which Moses responds, “it would be ideal if all the people be prophets”.

But not everyone qualifies for the presence of the holy spirit and prophecy; the qualifications include personal characteristics, leadership abilities – but most important is knowledge and learning. This importance of knowledge and learning remains today in Judaism. The leaders of our people – who replace the prophets in the post prophecy-era – have historically had a high level of scholarship. And in fact, such scholarship has become the main criteria for leadership – which means that anyone who has a sufficient level of learning and knowledge can lead the people.

Contrast that with the leadership criteria of many other religions, where knowledge – and leadership – is restricted to a small caste of insiders, who place themselves above the people as privy to Divine secrets. They ensure that this esoteric knowledge remains a secret, and sometimes even use this to control their followers. They know that once that knowledge becomes public, their claim of being closer to the truth expires.

Although Catholicism was not the only religion to conduct itself in this manner – the phenomena is found in a number of Eastern faiths, as well – it provides a good example of the process. For centuries, the priests and nuns, the designated “Family of Christ,” were the representatives of God on earth, dispensing reward and punishment both in this world and the next. According to many historians, this monopoly on leadership began evaporating when the printing press was invented – and printed bibles became available to the masses. Reading the Word as it actually was – as opposed to what the Church said it was – inspired rebellion and revolution, culminating in the spread of Protestantism in formerly Catholic lands, and the creation of all kinds of new churches.

But even in those events we see the impact of Judaism’s democratization of knowledge and how it encourages anyone to take on a leadership role. Some of the secondary leaders of the new Protestant movement were of Jewish descent, imbued with the legacy of learning that typifies Judaism.

It was this tradition of learning that turned us into the “people of the Book” – and that Book gives every Jew, and convert to Judaism, the authority and ability to lead the nation. Rabbi Akiva, the famous first-century rabbi and spiritual leader of the Bar Kochva revolt against the Roman occupation, was known to be a descendant of converts. This legacy of learning has also turned Jews into leaders of many of the sciences and arts. There are far too many to mention, but since Jews were allowed into academia in Europe, names like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber (who essentially invented modern fertilizers), and many others illustrate this truth. In fact, Jews are commanded to reach high levels of scholarship. The Torah itself instructs us to “dwell upon the Word of God morning and evening.” Judaism’s democratization of knowledge has changed the world – and it gives every Jew an opportunity to be a part of, and even lead, that change.

Our Sages said: “Israel was crowned with three crowns.” Of the three crowns, two– the Priesthood Crown, and the Royal Crown– are inherited. The other one, the Crown of Torah, is attained by the actions of man – and this crown is the most important of all.  “The crown of priesthood was taken by Aaron and the crown of kingship was taken by David – but the crown of the Torah is available and attainable for all Israel,” as the great sage Maimonides (Talmud Torah 3:1) tells us. Maimonides goes on to put this in perspective by citing other Biblical verses: “’The Torah was commanded to us by Moses, and bequeathed to the community of Jacob’ (Deuteronomy 33:4). Anyone who wants can come and take it. Lest you say that those crowns (of priesthood and royalty) are greater than the crown of the Torah, the holy writings say (Proverbs 8:15-16): ‘In me kings will reign and princes will enact justice. By me the kings will rise”, this implies that the crown of Torah is greater than both of the other ones.”

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and exiled Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is also the recipient of the Aachen International Charlemagne Prize in 2024.
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