Every so often the big black limousine would roll out of the White House, and Mrs. Harding, the empty whisky bottles tucked under the lap robe, would give instructions to head for a remote ravine. It was all right for Warren Harding, the businessman and editor, even the Senator, to be casual about his habits. It was decidedly wrong for Warren Harding, President of the United States”
So historian Eric F. Goldman describes President Harding’s personal imbibing, even as he presided over a newly tea-totaling nation coming to terms with prohibition. Goldman’s 1952 essay “The Presidency as Moral Leadership” points to a question that remains pressing: should we hold our leaders to higher ethical and moral standards than we might keep for ourselves?
The commentaries on the Book of Ruth, which Jewish communities read this week as we celebrate Shavuot, point to at least one compelling approach.
The Book of Ruth tells the story of an Israelite family suffering under a profound famine. With nowhere to turn, Elimelech brings his family to the land of Moab – the home to Israel’s historic rivals. There, he settles with his family, and his sons – disregarding the prohibition in Deuteronomy—marry Moabite women. Instead of finding the relief they sought, the journey to Moab brings calamity to Elimelech’s family: he and his sons die leaving his wife and daughter-in-law widows. While one daughter-in-law returns to her Moabite family, Ruth famously pledges allegiance to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and returns with her to Israel to be reconciled to her family.
Rabbis reading the book of Ruth have long been baffled by the story’s tragic beginnings. What could Elimelech and his family have done to deserve such an awful fate?
Moses Alshekh, a 16th Century rabbi who had grown to prominence as a communal leader in the holy city of Safed, offers an explanation. He cites a story in the Talmud that justifies their punishment:
וכן היה ר”ש בן יוחאי אומר: אלימלך מחלון וכליון גדולי הדור היו ופרנסי הדור היו. ומפני מה נענשו? מפני שיצאו מארץ לחוצה לארץ.
“And Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai would likewise say: Elimelech and his sons Mahlon and Chilion were prominent members of their generation and were leaders of their generation. And for what reason were they punished? They were punished because they left Eretz Yisrael to go outside of Eretz Yisrael…” (Bava Batra 91a; William Davidson Edition of the Talmud available from Sefaria).
While the text in the Talmud appears clear, Alsheikh wonders if the crime of leaving Israel is sufficient reason for Elimelech’s punishment. After all, the Talmud also teaches, “If there is a famine in your land, spread your feet!” (Bava Kamma 60b) Even if leaving the Land of Israel was a sin, should a guilty person really be put to death – especially if the law is unclear?
Alsheikh contends that if Elimelkh were a normal person, the punishment would have been unfair. But Elimelech and his family were leaders in their generation, and as such had special responsibilities towards the law. Alsheikh highlights the ways that the Book of Ruth calls attention to Elimelech’s unique position: The Book of Ruth calls him “the man Elimelech,” using the definite article to highlight his stature and notes that he is from Bethlehem and an Ephrathite – a lineage that is synonymous with the royal House of David. Even his name Elimelech – which contains the Hebrew word for king (melech) – points to his position of leadership within his people.
Elimelech, then, did not just go to Moab; his journey was on behalf of people who trusted in him, hoped in him, and who were depending on him for their very future. Yet as soon as he arrived in Moab, he forgot about them. The land where he was meant to sojourn became his permanent home. The trust of his community became a vehicle for his own financial enrichment. It is this abdication of responsibility that transforms what would have been a smaller offense into a crime punishable by death.
God is exacting with the righteous,” Alsheikh reminds us, “to the extent that their margin of error is only a hairsbreadth.” Bava Kamma 50a.
It is easy to say that leaders are human like the rest of us and subject to human failings. Indeed, they are. At the same time, though, in assuming positions of power and prominence, leaders accept responsibility for the safety, security, and welfare of their communities. Their authority is based on trust and goodwill. When a leader suffers a moral failure, it is this trust that is most damaged. When manifesting in a leader, flaws that are forgivable a normal person are often outer symptoms of deeper problems.
In the same 1952 essay, Eric Goldman calls our attention to a speech given on the floor of the Senate by William J. Fulbright:
Scandals in our government are not new phenomena in our history. What seems to be new about these scandals is the moral blindness or callousness which ·allows those in responsible positions to accept the practices which the facts reveal. It is bad enough for us to have corruption in our midst, but it is worse if it is to be condoned and accepted as inevitable.”
Alsheikh’s reading of The Book of Ruth reminds us that we don’t have to accept moral failings as acceptable or inevitable. This Shavuot, as we prepare to accept Torah anew, let us commit to demanding of our leaders that value the rule of law as we do; that they seek truth as we do, and that they share our commitments to lives and communities of integrity.
The author expresses his gratitude to Professor Daniel Boyarin for introducing him to Alsheikh’s commentary on Ruth.