Searching For Moses

Searching For Moses

A case against leadership by default.

A review of Jewish leadership programs reveals that a significant portion of their curricula is dedicated to literacy education. Courses such as “basic concepts of Judaism” and “surveys of Jewish history and thought” dominate their educational agenda. Numerous adult education programs, some of them consisting of just a few weeks of learning, add the highly coveted term “leadership” to their name in order to attract participants and donors. In this milieu, it is difficult to distinguish a student of Judaism from a leader in training. Both learner and leader have collapsed into each other. This presents us with educational and policy challenges.

Is leadership the result of increased knowledge, or does it germinate from the acquisition of a set of values and skills? What is the role of knowledge in the formation of identity? Can leaders be imported from other environments and transformed into Jewish leaders just by increasing their knowledge and involvement, or does Jewish leadership entail more than this kind of metamorphosis? What is the role of self-exploration and inner development vis a vis the acquisition of literacy in the formation of leadership?

In contemporary times, the right to choose among multiple competing identities and the sovereignty of the self have redefined the profile of the leader. The question of who is a Jewish leader is commonly answered with “anybody who cares enough to be one.” Willingness to lead has increasingly become a sufficient reason for leadership. Leadership programs are forced to relinquish their primary function and operate as recruitment agencies in search of a few interested Jews.

There is an inner contradiction and fatalism to a leadership by default. Minimalist conceptions of leadership generate a mediocre community. We must at least strive to imagine a model of leadership to which leadership programs and institutions can aspire. Historically, the biblical figure of Moses has been the character through which the ideal leader has been imagined. Exploring how Moses was dressed with the leadership mantle in different eras may guide a search for the features of Jewish leadership.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE), who wrote a biography of Moses (Da Vita Mosis) the only such work until this century, models Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace on the most rigorous Hellenistic curriculum. As a child Moses was always serious, never frivolous, dedicating himself to the perfection of his mind. In a short time he surpassed the erudition of his tutors, mastering all branches of knowledge. However, this intellectual perfection was placed at the service of a higher purpose: the control of his passions. Philo’s Moses is stoic, disciplined, self-controlled, a master of every appetite and impulse. He rejects the advantages of his royal position. He is incapable of sin or of acting impulsively. Even Moses’ problematic killing of the Egyptian is interpreted by Philo as a virtuous act because “righteous it was that one who lived only to destroy men should be destroyed.” Philo’s tendency to naturalize the biblical narrative prompted him to imagine Moses’ advice to the Israelites to patiently endure their suffering until fortune changes. Moses is thus portrayed as a teacher and law giver and not as a liberator.

Philo shapes Moses’ leadership as a reflection of the best virtues of his time; Moses was the perfect citizen of the Hellenistic city-state.

Although embedded in Hellenistic culture and raised among royalty, Moses “still felt a desire for and admiration of his kinsman and ancestors.” The success and status acquired in the culture of the diaspora could not sever Moses’ ties with his people. Moses’ virtues peak with his resisting the temptation of “assimilation.”

Moses develops his leadership by acquisition of general knowledge with the aim of developing a set of virtues, which protected him from the temptations and excesses of society and connected him to his people. A leader thus represents the best of his society while maintaining his ancestral roots.

Once Moses positioned himself as a leader he rejected any material excesses which could have conveyed a life of privilege and superfluity. As an individual shaped by virtues the leader must maintain and project a life of measurement and humility. Literacy must lead to virtue.

When comparing Philo’s Moses to his contemporary rabbinic counterparts interesting differences emerge. In one of the popular midrashim, God chooses Moses because of the care he takes for one of the sheep that goes astray. He carries the animal on his shoulders presaging his capacity to bear the burdens of the Israelites and to love each one of them. The midrash asks how Moses felt as he witnessed his brethren’s burden. Differently from Philo’s Moses, this Moses weeps and runs to partake of their heavy labor (Exod. R. 1:26). A man of practice, more than of reflection and contemplation, Moses designs all kind of strategies aimed at releasing their afflictions. Thus, for instance, he convinces Pharaoh of the advantages of a day of rest as a technique to increase productivity, instituting the Sabbath. (Exod. R. 1: 27-28; Lev. R. 37:2). While the Philonic Moses advises the Israelites to be patient as the ties of fortunes change, the Rabbinic Moses acts in the here and now. Similarly, the killing of the Egyptian is not the Hellenistic manifestation of what is reasonable and virtuous but is in direct response to the protection of the weak and defenseless. Lusting for a Jewish slave, an Egyptian taskmaster defiles her and subjects her husband to physical punishment and savage labor with the intention of killing him. Moses acts, moved by empathy and a deep sense of justice. He cannot remain passive in the face of flagrant injustice (Exod. R. 1:28-29). In the same vein Moses advocates for the Israelites when God threatens their existence (Exod. R. 43:6). Certainly, the Midrash presents a kaleidoscope of Mosaic images. Moses is humble, a law giver, a rabbi and a prophet. But the thread that unifies them is a leader who cares for his people, has high moral standards and acts according to the demands of the moment.

In the writings of first Temple historian Flavious Josephus, Moses undergoes another metamorphosis. Mimicking the confrontation between Romans and Judeans in his own time, Josephus imagines the struggles between Egyptians and Israelites as a political and cultural confrontation. The murdering of male infants is not the product of the Israelites’ threatening soaring birth rate but, in the best tradition of political intrigues, is the result of a prophecy that predicted the birth of an Israelite who would overthrow Pharaoh. This prophecy sets in motion a tension between Moses as part of the royal court and Moses as a representative of his people. Exhibiting the qualities of the best Roman general, Moses saves the Egyptians from an Ethiopian invasion. Paradoxically, they mistrust him precisely for his strategic skills and his growing popularity. Within this frame, Josephus imagines Moses as the consummate political tactician. The leader must function and represent the community within the large political structure of the government in the society in which the Jews reside. History, not philosophy, is the discipline that assists the leader in his task. The cultivation of virtue and intellect is downplayed, giving center stage to the “art of survival.” The Jewish leader walks the tight rope between operating in the general political scenery and representing the interest of the community. The training of the leader consists of the development of diplomacy, lobby skills, policy making, and a deep understanding of current politics. Charisma is central to the leader, resembling “the Caesar of the Jews.”

Sigmund Freud stands mesmerized by Michelangelo’s Moses, who calmly holds the tablets of the law and conceives of an alternative to the impulsive and irascible biblical counterpart. Carved from solid marble, Michelangelo disclosed the real Moses who, in a reflective and tranquil disposition, incarnates reason. This Moses represents Judaism as the driving force in human intellectual evolution. The biblical prohibition of images engenders the impulse of an incremental journey of intellectual abstraction. Judaism’s destiny is to advance that intellectual evolution and of the Jews to be their avant garde. Psychoanalysis, conceived from the entrails of Judaism will set humanity free from its traumas. For Freud, the roots of anti-Semitism are not planted in socio-political or economic processes. Anti-Semitism is originated in unresolved traumas. Thus, the victory of psychoanalysis will terminate anti-Semitism. In this frame, the leader of the Jews must emerge from the highest intellectual quarters. Politics, tactics and actions are secondary. The leader does not emerge from the business or political spheres but from the social sciences. The leader must transcend the ritualistic and outer layer of religious narrative in post of the subterranean traumatic forces that preclude fulfillment. History is thus discerned through psychoanalytical categories.

Then, who is Moses? In his 1904 essay “Moses,” Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzberg, 1856-1927) proposes that the right question is not “Who is Moses?” but “What is Moses?” He writes, “I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him.” Ahad Ha’am sets Moses free from historical chains and invites a redefinition of “Mosesness” in each generation. The different “Moseses” of Judaism emerged from a profound understanding of the cultural, ideological and aspirations of Judaism at different junctures. They went beyond basic literacy and the willingness to participate.

In our culture, leadership models must emerge from out of an open dialogue rather than the pen of a sage. Nonetheless, before we continue investing millions into leadership programs, we must have a serious conversation about what is expected of a leader today. This may result in a multiplicity of coexisting Moseses. That’s wonderful as long as none of them arises by default.

Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski is the executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El and founding rabbi of Congregation Sulam Yaakov in Larchmont, N.Y.