Since the days of Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Judah and Tamar, the Jewish People have been blessed with hundreds of great leaders. Some of their names would be recognized by more than half of the entire world’s population.
Yet most of them, especially the most famous, had very flawed personalities. They were not inspired by God because they were already fully realized, perfectly ideal, god-like individuals; but because like all of us, they had the potential to be much greater than they thought they could be.
Moses, the greatest Hebrew prophet of all, thought he could not be a spokesperson for God because he had a serious speech impediment. David was an adulterer. Solomon was both wise and foolish.
Rabbi Akiba supported Bar Kochba’s disastrous revolt against the Romans because Akiba believed Bar Kochba was a Messianic figure. Rabbi Elijah, the Vilna Gaon, opposed and persecuted the Hassidim of the Baal Shem Tov because they challenged the rabbinic scholar class he led.
A century later most Hassidic leaders strongly opposed Theodore Herzl’s Zionist movement as well as the Reform, Conservative, and even Modern Orthodox movements. Nevertheless, these leaders did much that they and later generations could be proud of.
The first leaders of the Jewish People were people like Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob and Joseph; dedicated individuals who believed that they could bring blessings to their descendants and to other people’s descendants throughout the world.
Then came two to three dozen prophets, starting with Moses and his sister Miriam (Exodus 15:20) who composed the melody for the song at the Reed Sea (Exodus 15: 20-21) and was inspired to write down the oral narratives found today in Genesis 12 to Exodus 2).
During this same period there were dozens of machers, judges and kings. Some like Deborah, Gideon, Hezekiah and Josiah were good; and others were like Samson, who used his strength foolishly, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam, whose greedy tax policy led to a division of the 12 tribes into two states.
There were also thousands of priests and scribes. Some were priests like Asaph, who contributed psalms (75-83), and some were scribes like the mother of Lemuel who added to the proverbs of Solomon (Proverbs 31).
Yet Amaziah the high priest opposed the prophet Amos (Amos 7:10-17) and the High Priest Jeshua supported pushing away many people who lived in the land of Israel, and, while they were not Judeans or Benjaminites, wanted to help rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:3).
At the beginning of rabbinic leadership Hillel’s disciples differed from Shammai’s disciples over more than 300 issues of Jewish law. The Talmud states that while both groups taught the words of the living God; the law should be according to Hillel’s disciples because they were like the gentle and flexible Hillel, and not like the strict and ridged Shammai. (Shabbat 31a).
But in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the majority of rabbis shifted from more liberal reform like thinking to stricter less permissive thinking. In the centuries after the sixth century close of the Talmud, reform like thinking became rarer and rarer.
The increasing oppression of Jews in Europe following the First Crusade and the ensuing codification or Jewish law, created an Orthodox rabbinic community that stressed the details of Jewish life more than its joys.
This situation was first challenged by the Hassidim in Poland in the mid to late18th century, and then again, in a very different way by the Reformers in Germany in the 19th century, and then again in an even more different way by the Zionists in the 20th century.
Most Jews in the past have benefited from our great and flawed leaders, and the same is mostly true today. We have rarely covered up the flaws of out great leaders in the past; and we must continue to do so now. This is what makes our great prophetic heritage so miraculous and sadly so unique.