On Jewish Leadership Today, in the light of the Torah portion of Korach

Moses and Aaron at the Sea of Reeds, Wiki commons
Moses and Aaron at the Sea of Reeds, wiki commnons

As we are about to face new elections in Israel once again, it is time to ask ourselves some basic questions about what kind of leadership we envision.

What are the qualities needed for ideal Jewish leadership?

What can we learn from the different leadership styles of Aaron and Moses as portrayed throughout the Torah? With which biblical hero do we identify more?

In particular, how was Aaron regarded by later generations, especially by the  rabbis of the Talmudic period?

Why did the great Talmudic sage Hillel declare that rabbis (and regular Jews?) should be the disciples of Aaron, rather than Moses?

And for us today, what does it mean to be a disciple of Aaron?

In this week’s Torah portion, known as Korach, both Aaron and Moses feature prominently in the story, as they do throughout the journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land.

This is a story of a challenge to established leadership (what else is new?) by a group of priests within the priestly classic during biblical times who were not satisfied with the leadership that Moses and Aaron provided to the Jewish people on their march from slavery to freedom. Like many of the people who have been grumbling throughout the journey about the difficult conditions of the desert, they are impatient and seek a more populist form of leadership (sound familiar?) that will provide them with everything they want and need right away!

Moses responds to those who challenge his leadership by destroying his opponents! With the help of a divine miracle, they are buried alive in an earthquake. On the other hand, Aaron, who was also challenged by the rebels, uses his rod to outproduce them. His staff sends forth sprouts and blossoms, whereas the staffs of the other tribes do not produce flowers.

Commentators have interpreted these verses – and other verses — to indicate the divergent main characteristics of Moses and Aaron. As we witnessed in the story of the golden calf, in the book of Exodus, Moses is the voice of justice, whereas Aaron is the pursuer of peace—the mediator — between the different sides of the conflict.

Moses is the great prophet—supposedly the greatest of all the prophets—and as such, he often focuses on admonishing the Jewish people for their sins. He demands righteousness and commitment to the covenant. On the other hand, Aaron, who is the leader of the Levites, is more of a pastor, comforting and counselling the people, helping them out with compassion in difficult times, always trying to understand them and work with them in resolving conflicts.

In tractate Sanhedrin in the Talmud, the comparison is made between the qualities of compromise and judgement. According to this passage Moses takes the position that there can be no compromise, while Aaron “made peace between people, as it is said ‘He walked in peace and quietude.’” In other midrashim, Aaron is described as going around from house to house and teaching people to recite the Sh’ma, how to pray and how to study Torah.

It is fascinating to discover that in the rabbinic tradition, Aaron is more revered than Moses. In fact, he becomes the model for the ideal leader.

In Mishnah Avot (chapter 1 verse 12), we read:

Hillel taught: be a disciple of Aaron: Loving peace  and pursuing peace. Loving our fellow human beings and attracting them to the study of Torah.

In an excellent comprehensive article in the journal Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, z’l, the former Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, explained why and how the rabbis elevated Aaron to the model Jewish leader, how Hillel painted such a glowing and warm portrait of Aaron when the Torah text is so critical of him and his actions. Despite the ambivalence of the Torah toward Aaron, especially after his role in the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron becomes the high priest and therefore the leader of the priestly group. In our parashah of Korach, it is very clear from the Torah text that Aaron is the chosen of God. Proof of this is given by the blossoms that appear on his staff.

In Rabbi Hammer’s view, the rabbinic portrayal of Aaron is much more sympathetic and positive than the ambivalent one found in the Torah. The rabbis—particularly the great sage Hillel—turned the figure of Aaron into the ideal Jewish leader.

Rabbi Hammer wrote:

Hillel has given us a two-part description of the basic qualities of Aaron, which he calls upon his students to emulate. These basic qualities are (1) love of peace (shalom) and (2) the love of all human beings. Each of these ‘loves’ has an operative definition, a way of translating the emotion of love into action. The love of peace is demonstrated by the pursuit of peace. The love of human beings is shown by bringing them closer to Torah, the teaching of God. It is important to note that Hillel speaks of the love of human beings and does not confine himself to the love of Jews.

Hillel made Aaron the archetype not only of the ideal Jew but the ideal Jewish leader, one who leads through love rather than fear, with persuasion rather than force.

In another work, Third Party Peacemakers in Judaism, which focuses on Aaron as a peacebuilder, Rabbi Daniel Roth, Director of the Religious Peace Initiative of Mosaica in Israel (who works with Rabbi Michael Melchior), teaches us about the importance of the archetype of Aaron in Jewish Tradition. In so doing, he brings  to bear the earliest rabbinic commentary on this Mishnah about being the disciples of Aaron in the post-Talmudic tractate Avot d’Rabbi Natan, which states:

A lover of peace and a pursuer of peace: Even if you run after it from city to city, from district to district, from country to country, do not desist from making peace. For it is equal in weight to all the other mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah… and Scripture says, ‘Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15).’ Rabbi Yosei says: If a person sits in his house and does not go out to the marketplace, how will he make peace between people? Rather, by going to the marketplace, he sees people fighting and enters between them and effects a compromise between them.

Rabbi Roth adds: This  commentary emphasizes that to be a “pursuer of peace” one must proactively go out to make peace wherever there is conflict. It is not enough to passively be a “lover of peace”. One must take the initiative, not simply wait for conflicts to come to you to be resolved.

Who is the ideal Jewish leader today?

Is he or she more like Aaron or Moses?

Do we have any ideal Jewish leaders anymore? In Israel and in the Diaspora?

Does being a Jewish leader in Israel require someone to be more like Moses – a person of authority, of power, of strict justice—or more like Aaron, a man of the people, a person of compromise and persuasion?

Are there any disciples of Aaron around anymore—leaders who love peace and pursue it?

With elections coming up in Israel (again!) these questions are undoubtedly as relevant as they were in biblical and rabbinic times.






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 LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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