Shammai Engelmayer

Why Trump fails the halachic leadership test

If Jewish law were the standard in determining who should be the next “leader of the free world,” as U.S presidents often are called, Donald Trump certainly would not qualify. Come to think of it, most of our political leaders, Hillary Clinton included, probably fall short, but Trump stands out.

Neither his character nor his comments even come close to what Jewish law considers acceptable in a leader. As the great chasidic master of 200 years ago, Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, put it, “The true leader of a generation must be holy.” Especially following the recent revelations about his “locker room talk” and his conduct with women, it cannot be argued that Trump is “holy.”

Many leaders on the evangelical Christian right are coming to the same conclusion, but not all. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, excuses Trump’s comments and actions by saying, “We aren’t electing a pastor.” Dallas Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffries said, “I might not choose this man as a Sunday school teacher in my church,” but adds, “that’s not what this election is about.”

“This is not a job interview for a Sunday school teacher,” said the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed. Even Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who called some of Trump’s comments indefensible, nevertheless uses the “Sunday school teacher” argument.

From the standpoint of Jewish law and tradition, though, we do need to elect “a Sunday school teacher,” in the sense that the leader must be someone who sets a positive moral and ethical example for everyone else, especially children.

Rabbinic texts leave no doubt about this. For example, in Pirkei Avot 1:3, we are told that an early sage named Antigonus of Socho “used to say…: let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” Further on, in 2:2, we are told, “Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi, taught…: All who serve on behalf of the community should do so for Heaven’s sake.”

One trait required of a Jewish leader is humility, something Trump, who often boasts “I alone can fix” the system, clearly lacks. Thus, we are told in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chagigah 5b: “Over three things the Holy One, Blessed Be He, weeps every day…[including] over a leader who lords it over the community.”

The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 27:9) quotes God as saying to the would-be leader: “[S]ince you have undertaken this responsibility in becoming a leader, go, humble yourself at the dust of the feet of princes and those greater than you….”

Yet another required trait is respect: The leader must respect those he leads, just as the Temple priests “had their faces towards the people and their backs” to God when blessing them. (See BT Sotah 40a.) There is little Trump says that is respectful of anyone but himself.

Finally, the ideal leader must be able to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous charges that will be flung at him or her from all sides — something Trump demonstrates almost hourly with his tweets he is incapable of doing. In Exodus 6:13, we read: “And He gave them a charge concerning the Children of Israel.” Because the charge itself remained unspoken, a midrash seeks to fill in the blanks: “God said to [Moses and Aaron]: My children are obstinate, bad-tempered, and troublesome. In assuming leadership over them, you must expect that they will curse you and even stone you.” (See Exodus Rabbah 7:3.)

It is very likely that Rabbi Akiva’s family had that in mind when he was asked to become leader of the community. “Know they will curse you and they will despise you,” they advised him. [See Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 8.6.] He accepted the advice, not the offer.

All of this led the rabbis to codify these traits in setting the requirements for leadership in the Jewish world. They added the requirement (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 256:3) that a person could not be qualified as a communal leader if his conduct in any way would have barred him from being a dayyan — a judge.

That rule harks back to a discussion in BT Bava Batra 8b about who could collect and distribute charity funds for the community. The prooftext cited there is taken from Daniel 12:3, “And the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.”

Said the Talmud, “They that are ‘knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky,’ this refers to a judge who gives a true verdict on true evidence, and to the charity collectors; and they ‘who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever’ refers to those who teach young children.”

From a halachic standpoint and from tradition, then, communal leaders should be above reproach; should put communal concerns ahead of their own; should exemplify and spread the traits required of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; should not let their posts go to their heads; and should expect to be vilified for their efforts.

Trump fails on all counts.

This presents a problem for those who would support Trump on Election Day. The Takkanot of the Council of Cracow, which ruled Jewish life there in the Middle Ages (and which have been cited here several times over the years), offered guidelines for voting. They leave no doubt about who is at fault when our leaders fail to measure up to the standards of ethical and moral behavior.

Each voter, the guidelines state, “must promise to act for the sake of heaven and the common good, as he is instructed from on high, and not out of favoritism or self-interest or personal grudge….These voters should not act in haste, but should consider carefully” whom to choose, because once the votes are cast, “nothing can be changed.”

One of Trump’s favorite expressions, usually referring to himself, is, “It’s a beautiful thing.” His words and his deeds are definitely the opposite — and that must concern us deeply.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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