In the Laws of Offerings, the Bible Teaches an Important Lesson about the Perils of Political Power

March 19 2021

In this week’s reading of Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5), the Torah details a number of ritual sacrifices, among them those brought to atone for an accidental sin. These come in four varieties, dependent on the person seeking atonement: for an individual, the high priest, the Sanhedrin (as the Talmud understands the passage), and the nasi—a word meaning “president” in modern Hebrew but originally meaning chieftain or leader. Examining the treatment of the last instance, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks derives a powerful meditation on political theory:

In three of the four cases, the law is introduced by the word im, “if”—if such a person commits a sin. In the case of the leader, however, the law is prefaced by the word asher, “when.” It is possible that a high priest, the Supreme Court, or an individual may err. But in the case of a leader, it is probable or even certain. Leaders make mistakes. It is unavoidable, the occupational hazard of their role. Talking about the sin of a Nasi, the Torah uses the word “when,” not “if.”

Why does the Torah consider this type of leadership particularly prone to error? . . . One [reason] is that politics is an arena of conflict. It deals in matters—specifically wealth and power—that are short-term, zero-sum games. . . . The politics of free societies is always conflict-ridden. The only societies where there is no conflict are tyrannical or totalitarian ones in which dissenting voices are suppressed—and Judaism is a standing protest against tyranny. So in a free society, whatever course a politician takes will please some and anger others. From this, there is no escape.

Politics involves difficult judgments. . . . The reason leaders—as opposed to judges and priests—cannot avoid making mistakes is that there is no textbook that infallibly teaches you how to lead. Priests and judges follow laws. For leadership there are no laws because every situation is unique. As Isaiah Berlin put it in his essay, “Political Judgment,” in the realm of political action, there are few laws and what is needed instead is skill in reading a situation.

The Jewish approach to leadership is thus an unusual combination of realism and idealism—realism in its acknowledgment that leaders inevitably make mistakes, idealism in its constant subordination of politics to ethics, power to responsibility, pragmatism to the demand of conscience. What matters is not that leaders never get it wrong—that is inevitable, given the nature of leadership. . . . The most important thing . . . is that a leader is sufficiently honest to admit his mistakes. Hence the significance of the sin offering.

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Read more at Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

More about: Hebrew Bible, Jewish political tradition, Jonathan Sacks, Sacrifice

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror