If Moses would have had to run in a modern election – such as the one you the United States just concluded and like the one we in Israel are just beginning – he likely could never have captured the hearts of the public. If King David’s scandalous court shenanigans were made public, no spin doctor would have been able to save him. And faced with today’s nonstop campaigns and coverage, it is likely that other notable Jewish leaders, including the Vilna Gaon, Ba-al Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman from Breslau, and even David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel, would never have been elected to positions of influence in today’s Israel. Perhaps they would have not even sought positions of leadership at all.
The Israeli political map is being reshuffled at this very moment, with some talented and worthy people entering the political scene. But it astonishes me that, although Israeli society is so talented and creative, many exceptional Israeli minds stay clear of politics. You can count on one hand – on less than those five fingers – the creative high-tech professionals, academics, or physicians entering the political scene. Since Israel’s creation, most governments have had doctors or leading financial figures elected to the Knesset. In this coming election, there won’t be one physician candidate or a major CEO entering the ring. Here in Israel, the vibrant social protest of summer of 2011 – in which Israelis of all backgrounds protested the rising cost of living and the deterioration of public services like health and education – showed that together, we can advocate for change and make progress. But what type of leaders do we urgently need?
Jewish text can help us. In Hilochot Sanhedrin, the Jewish scholar Maimonides defines the ideal public leader as one holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name. I believe – as do many Israelis – that our political candidates should possess most if not all these characteristics, as you, too, expect from your candidates in North America. But today there is a feeling throughout the globe that most citizens do not have the same faith in their politicians as they did a generation ago. In Israel, this is especially dire. The existential challenges Israel faces leave no room for mistakes to be made.
It is a great challenge for a community, city, or country to find a person who will meet these high standards. But we, as Jews, are always looking for the very best. Let us hope we get close to these standards not only in January’s elections in Israel but also when we elect the leaders of our communities, synagogues, religious organizations, cities, and states.
Rabbi Meir Azari is Senior Rabbi and Executive Director of the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Photography by Leif Knutsen