By Rabbi Mark Goldsmith
A recent former prime minister has been caught lying and failing to uphold the laws that he himself promulgated. A president of the United States accused of multiple felony charges and encouraging insurrection against the government still claims the right to stand for re-election. What has happened to the standards of honesty and integrity that we should expect of our leaders?
Jewish tradition combines a healthy cynicism about those whom we elevate to leadership positions with a demand that they be accountable to the people who put them there. On every Jewish festival, we include the Hallel psalms in our worship. These include the verse: ‘It is better to take refuge in God than to trust in people, it is better to take refuge in God, than to trust in princes’. (Psalm 118:8-9) The message here is that our religious values are eternal whilst the people who lead us can easily be flawed.
The Torah warns against a leader who is not guided by strong values. It warns that when you give a person great power, such as appointing a King, they are likely to ‘take many wives and amass silver and gold to excess’ unless they are constantly guided by a copy of the Torah and the learning within. (Deuteronomy 17:17-19) Without a strong and constant moral code, power will corrupt.
It is necessary for everyone in leadership positions to be accountable for their actions. The Book of Kings (2 Kings 12) records what happened when people brought donations into the Temple for a building restoration project. It became clear that the priestly leaders were siphoning off the money and failing to use it for the purposes intended. The High Priest Jehoiada, under the instructions of King Jehoash, made sure that all donations were instead placed in a sealed box which would be double counted by the royal scribe and the high priest to ensure that nothing went missing.
Despite the cynicism about leaders in these texts Jewish tradition also recognises that we do need leadership and government. It does not advocate anarchy. Rabbi Chanina in Pirke Avot (3:2) from the second century said: ‘Pray for the welfare of the government, For were it not for the fear of it, One person would eat the other alive.’
We have a right to expect high standards of honesty and integrity in our leaders. When we vote we need to be careful not to follow the blandishments of charisma and populism. Rather we should encourage and promote leaders with strong values and an ethos of service not self-aggrandisement.
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith is Senior Rabbi at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue