Ron Kronish

Needed: Real Jewish Leadership


Elections in Israel are less than two weeks away. Accordingly, we in Israel are thinking, more than usual, about what are the qualities we need from our leadership.  Many of us are worried that we don’t have the leadership that we need for the complex world in which we live.

In the Jewish Tradition, we can find different models for ideal Jewish leadership. Unfortunately, however, we don’t live in an ideal world any more than our ancestors , whether they lived in Egypt, Israel or Babylonia.

In the Torah portion that Jews will read in their synagogues around the world  this week known as Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), we find that  Aaron cooperates with the Jewish People in the desert in making the golden calf, only a short time after the Jews have left Egypt and received the Torah at Mount Sinai. This seems not to be a good example of Jewish leadership. It appears that Aaron caved in to the whims of the people. One would have thought that due to this story, Jewish Tradition would have been critical of Aaron, accusing him of helping return the people to idol worship, which they could have  easily remembered from their long period in Egyptian servitude.

Nevertheless, despite Aaron’s role in the Golden Calf story, the  Mishnah elevates Aaron to the role of peacemaker and encourages Jews to follow his ways:

“Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and drawing them to the Torah”  (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12)

Even thought it was actually Moses who played the leading role in bringing the Jews out of Egypt, Aaron became the model Jewish leader in Rabbinic Tradition.  Moses was the voice of justice, but Aaron became –in the rabbinic mind—the voice of peace.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has compared the leadership styles of Moses and Aaron. He called Aaron “the People’s prophet”:

Moses and Aaron represent two kinds of leaders. The difference between them only re-enforced the bond, cemented an alliance and a lasting friendship. At the same time, Moses never could descend altogether from the higher sphere; he did not even try to be liked or understood by his people. His whole essence, from the start of his career, was one of aloofness, almost that of the stranger or the one who comes from above. As the Torah commentator Ibn Ezra put it ‘It was decreed in heaven that Moses should grow up in the royal household so that he could appear to the people as king’.

Aaron, however, was not only the assistant or the translator. True, he did provide Moses with help and support but was also a leader in his own right. As it is apparent from any scrupulous reading of the text, he was the popular chief, one of the tribe, a Levite and a spokesman. Because he understood the people and sympathized with their shortcomings, he could guide them toward a goal that Moses had reached in a different way. Moses operated from the higher to the lower: he was the authority figure, giving orders and hardly explaining or educating. Aaron, on the other hand, functioned from the lower to the higher, trying to lead the people carefully, teaching and guiding them.

(From Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images.Koren, Jerusalem, 2010)

This poignant commentary by Rabbi Steinsaltz raises important questions which we will be grappling with in a few weeks in the elections in Israel. Who is the ideal Jewish leader? What are the qualities of leadership that are most important?

In an important article on Aaron by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, we learn how that the rabbis made Aaron the ideal Pharisaic leader:

The ideas ascribed to Aaron are the ideals by which Hillel lived and which he taught others….Hillel deliberately chose Aaron rather than Moses because he wanted to the sages of Israel, his own disciples, to be followers of Aaron who used love and persuasion, and not Moses who spoke in the name of God and exalted justice. (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, “The Apotheosis of Aaron”, Conservative Judaism, 2000, pp. 22-33)

These commentaries catalyze us to ask critical contemporary questions:

Who is the ideal Jewish leader today? Should he or she be more like Aaron or more like Moses? Or do we somehow need a combination of both qualities.

Does being a Jewish leader in Israel require someone to be more like Moses, a person of authority and power, and less like Aaron, a man of the people??

Are we disciples of Aaron? Or Moses? Or both? Don’t we need both justice and peace?

Do we have great Jewish leaders today, with the requisite qualities need to guide us to “the Promised Land” of peaceful coexistence?  Or, are we stuck with mediocrity, far from the ideals which are Tradition has taught us?

Nevertheless, we are instructed by our tradition to be disciples of Aaron. Why?

I think that the reason is that Aaron was a man of dialogue. Moreover, according to Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Aaron as a Rodeph Shalom, a pursuer of peace, Aaron’s method was not just dialogue but also included “going to listen to other people’s pain and trying to soothe it.” (From a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth at a conference at Bar Ilan University in January 2015)


This is the kind of dialogue that have pursued for more than two decades through the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel–which is now a department of Rabbis for Human Rights, and through my involvement in Religions for Peace, an international organization with chapters all over the world, including the ICCI in Israel.


This is the extra step that we will need from our leaders in this country –and this region—if we are going to some day live in peace. If our leaders can become more mindful of the pain of the other, as Aaron did, then we will have a better chance at arriving at a solution to our ongoing conflict in which for too long leaders on all sides have ignored the pain and suffering of the other side.

This is the central challenge for the leaders who will elected in less than two weeks in Israel.

(adapted from a blog post  by the same writer for the Rabbis for Human Rights website)

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttelfield, in September 2017. He recently (September 2022) published a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine entitled Profiles in Peace: Voices of Peacebuilders in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is available on Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository websites,
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