Reflecting on the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, the political philosopher Leo Strauss, and the rabbi and theologian Joseph B. Soloveitchik at the end of their third decade, Eric Cohen analyzes their thought and actions at a formative moment in their intellectual development. He concludes with a reflection on Moses, the paragon of Jewish leadership:
Seeing the [burning] bush aflame yet unconsumed, Moses does what philosophers and scientists have always done: he asks a question and seeks by his own powers to find an answer. “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” This is Spinoza’s Moses, who treats God’s call as an invitation to thought. But the story, of course, does not end there. The second Moses in this short passage is the Moses who “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” In his piety, he lies prostrate before the Almighty, creator of all, whose ways are not his ways and whose powers he cannot fully fathom but to which he knows he must submit. This is Soloveitchik’s homo religiosus par excellence [who confronts God through an experience of wonder and acknowledgment of his own incomprehension].
The final Moses is Moses the liberator, a political leader in the best and highest sense of the word, who comes to see the suffering of his people not as a reason to ask, or a reason to submit, but as a commandment to act. “Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” So God demands, and eventually Moses accepts the responsibility of leading his nation.
We can admire—and we should—Ben-Gurion’s statesmanship, Strauss’s wisdom, and Soloveitchik’s piety. But perhaps only Moses—the greatest Israelite of all—knew all three facets of Jewish excellence from the inside, and so he remains the enduring exemplar for Jewish leaders of every age, on whose shoulders, and ours, the Jewish story continues.