Religious Leaders and the Need for Spiritual Audacity: Thoughts on Parshat Shoftim

The transmission of the Written and Oral Torah has been part and parcel of Jewish life since Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and began the process of transmitting it to future generations. The first chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers opens with this idea when it writes, “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly”(Chapter 1 Mishna 1). The responsibility of rabbis throughout Jewish history was and is ultimately the transmission and application of the Oral Torah in all of its multiplicity to everyday situations, mandated by the verse in this week’s Torah portion,“..You shall not turn aside from the law that they declare to you…” (Deuteronomy 17:11). The reason why the rabbis were entrusted with this monumental task was, as Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer Ha’ikarim(The Book of Principles) writes, “It is impossible that the Torah would have been given in complete form at Mount Sinai , suitable for every generation, because new situations of human interaction and modes of conduct are constantly arising and they are too vast in scope to be included in any one book. Therefore, at Sinai Moshe was taught the general principles orally, things that are hinted to briefly in the Written Torah, so that the Sages of each generation would be able to extract the newly needed details of practical halachah” (Sefer Ha’ikarim 3:23). The ability and the necessity of rabbinical input is so integral to Jewish life that Maimonides writes, “a sage who is worthy of rendering halachic judgments and refrains from doing so holds back [the spread of] Torah and places stumbling blocks before the blind” (Laws of Torah Study 5:4, translation courtesy of

Besides for the enormous amount of Torah knowledge that is required to be considered a Torah Sage and Rabbinical Judge, there are other prerequisites as well. Maimonides writes that besides for their knowledge of Torah, a judge must also possess “…a broad intellectual potential. They should also have some knowledge concerning other intellectual disciplines, e.g., medicine, mathematics, the fixation of the calendar, astronomy, astrology,”( Laws of the Court 1:1) In addition, he writes that a Torah scholar must conduct himself with the utmost refinement, examples of which he further discusses in his Laws of Character 5:1, 6, 7. Furthermore, he writes that each judge who sits on the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) must possess seven traits to be eligible for that prestigious position: wisdom, humility, fear of Heaven, contempt for money, a love of truth, love for all people and a good reputation.( Laws of the Court 2:7). I believe that all of the above qualifications are needed not only to ensure that there is a proper legal ruling, but also to ensure that the “common man” has faith in this noble body as well as a positive connection and identification with Torah scholars.

Though the above depiction of Torah scholars and the Rabbinate in general is the Jewish ideal, in recent years we have seen a downward turn in the fulfillment of these seven crucial traits as well as a slow decay in the relationship between the layperson and his Rabbi. More than twenty years ago, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik commented on the emotional poverty in contemporary Jewish life in America and wrote, “…much of this is due to the current religious atmosphere, suffused with shallow pragmatism; much is caused by the tendency towards the ceremonialization and at times the vulgarization-of religion; and much is brought about by the lack of serious ability to introspect and to assess the world and the spirit”.(Al Ahavat HaTorah u Geulat Nefesh Hador, 419). Sadly, today in the Land of Israel the situation does not seem to be very different. According to a recent survey conducted by Transparency International (an NGO dedicated to combating corruption) out of the 1,004 people surveyed in the State of Israel, a whopping 73% believe that the religious bodies in the country are corrupt/extremely corrupt, second only to politicians and government agencies.(

The obvious question that must confront us is how we can go about mending this major fracture. How can we rebuild the damaged bridges between the Scholars, the Rabbinate, and the Nation of Israel? In times like these, great spiritual and moral audacity is called for.
First and foremost, rabbinical audacity is needed in the act of leading by example, to live above the fray and to not get entangled in quarrels. As Rav A.I. Kook writes,

“Rabbis must keep a great distance from all factional disputes and differences; they must view everything that occurs in a positive light, focusing only on the positive side of each faction and every event.”( Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah,-HaRabbanut pp.52)

They also must exemplify Maimondides’ seven required qualities; wisdom, humility, fear of Heaven, contempt for money, a love of truth, love for all people and a good reputation.( Laws of the Court 2:7) Situations such as Rabbis being suspected of bribes, claims of nepotism in the religious court system, and public displays of disparaging remarks against Jews or any other group is not the mark of a true religious leader. Unfortunately, such behavior casts a negative light on the noble institution that they are supposed to represent.

Secondly, we need rabbinical audacity to make the Torah more accessible to the masses and to show the relevance, beauty and depth of a Torah life to the general public — both religious and secular alike. This can only come to fruition with the rabbinical audacity required to re-engage with the broader society. As Rav J.B. Soloveitchik wrote:
The Torah Jew need not cower in a corner and gaze with sadness and resignation as life and the world pass him by. The Orthodox Jew must demonstrate that he navigates with pride the flow and currents of the modern world and participate in a life that is racing ever more rapidly towards new horizons and great accomplishments in the domains of science of technology. We must demonstrate that in all cultural, social and scientific situations a Jew can study Torah and live as a faithful Torah Jew. We must show the world that not only doesn’t the Halacha restrain the intellectual and emotional capacities and worldly knowledge of the Jew, [but] on the contrary, it deepens and broadens them greatly. Once and for all we must demonstrate the falsehood of the complaints of all the non-religious and pseudo-religious movements and organizations that proclaim that Halachah limits the individual and estranges him from the world around him. We should not respond to their claims with theoretical arguments. Instead we should present practical examples and deeds.”( Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications , 90-91.).

In this piece, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik calls upon contemporary Jewish leaders to follow in the footsteps of Maimonides, Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel and Rashi amongst many others; Sages whose contributions were not only limited to the Study Hall, but who also went forth and engaged their broader society. A prime example in our time of such a leader whose spiritual and moral audacity indelibly shaped a nation was Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first modern day Chief Rabbi in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate. This Friday, the 3rd day of the month of Elul, marks the anniversary of his passing. Rav Kook is a figure who should be studied by all those interested in understanding how the virtues of Torah brilliance, interaction with the broader society and love for all regardless of their religious affiliation, can and should manifest itself in the persona of a single individual. It is my humble opinion that Rav Kook personified all that is exemplary in rabbinic leadership and brought about a renaissance of Jewish thought and life in Israel’s 20th Century.
As Chief Rabbi, Rav Kook had a vision for the place of the Rabbinate amongst society. He writes, “Now that we desire to reestablish and repair our national lives, we must also implement penetrating reforms into the rabbinate of the Land Of Israel, to revive this essential spiritual force…Rabbis should and must play a prominent role in Israel’s national revival. They must work with the people in every facet of the building of the Land and the national restoration… A continuous, mutual connection must exist between the rabbinate and every productive force which exists within the land.” Rav Kook continues and writes that one of the main aspirations of the rabbinate should be to “constantly strive to bring people closer to each other and introduce a spirit of peace between all factions and parties, by way of the holy sparks that are shared in each and every Jewish soul.” (Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah,-HaRabbanut,pp.53) Only with the realization of this vision and Rabbinical leaders who lead by example, show with audacity the relevance and beauty of a Torah lifestyle while being actively engaged in a dialogue with the greater world, will we be able to fulfill the dictum of “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that the Lord your God gives you.” (Devarim 16:20.)

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."