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March 15, 2019 1:28 pm

The Torah Requires Holding Leaders Accountable

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In a Washington Post interview this past Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed unequivocally that she is “not for impeachment” of President Donald Trump.

Despite a political climate that is more toxic than at any other time in living memory, and despite mounting allegations and investigations against the president, Pelosi is of the view that “impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”

In other words, notwithstanding anything revealed by Mueller and others, if an impeachment effort is bound to fail, it is simply not worth the negatives that will inevitably accompany the process.

At first glance her sentiment seems laudable. Unity — or at the very least, less pointless fighting — is far more important than scoring political points. But reading between the lines, there is another interpretation. The Democrats have long accused President Trump of cynical manipulation of the political system for his own ends, and yet, it would appear that whenever they are given the opportunity to address their concerns by means of that very same political system, they hold their fire. If that is not cynicism, what is?

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The impeachment process is not just about getting rid of a person in power who is believed to be corrupt. It also serves another purpose: Powerful leaders can be held publicly accountable for their actions, whether or not the process ultimately leads to their removal.

Earlier this week, a New York Times article written by former Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines debunked the myth that the failed 1998 Bill Clinton impeachment process backfired on the Republicans, and although Reines’ article is hopelessly biased against Trump, he has a point.

I have my doubts as to whether President Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, but if Democrats believe he is, for anyone to abandon impeachment on the basis of cynical political considerations is nothing short of an abrogation of their duty as an elected official.

Leaders, and anyone who holds public office, must always be held up to the highest standards. And accountability is not just desirable, but essential. Over the past couple of weeks, the Jewish community in London has been reeling following the sudden resignation of a dayan (rabbinic judge) from the Court of the Chief Rabbi, and, a few days later, from his position as rabbi of the synagogue that he has led for over a decade.

In a letter to the synagogue membership last Friday, he explained that he had “fallen short of the standards expected of me,” and said that he was deeply sorry to have let the people down.

No specific reasons have been given for his sudden departure, but the swift resignation and public contrition are a welcome change from the drawn-out denials and contemptible self-serving moves of other powerful figures who have tried to hold on despite their actions. And while our Jewish world is just as prone to this disease as everyone else, this latest episode in London is truer to the way things should be done, as laid down in the Torah.

The portion of Vayikra contains the laws regarding leaders who fail, and are found guilty of having inadvertently transgressed one of God’s commandments.

The phrase introducing us to these laws is worded quite clumsily (Lev. 4:22): אֲשֶר נָשִֹיא יֶֽחֱטָא — which translates as “when a ruler sins,” but should really begin with the Hebrew word “ve’im” rather than with the word “asher” — which means ‘that’ and is never used in this context.

Rashi cites the Talmud (Horayot 10b), which explains that the word “asher” is connected in meaning to the ‎‎‏Hebrew word “ashrei,” which means ‘happy,’ declaring: “happy is the generation whose leader takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice even for an inadvertent sinful act; he will certainly do penance for his deliberate sins.”

Rabbi Yissocher Frand, quoting Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, offers a remarkable insight into Rashi’s explanation of the word “asher” — people in power almost never admit that they have done something wrong, fearing criticism and being undermined by their opponents.

How many times have we heard the President of the United States — any President of the United States — admit, ‘I have made a mistake’ … Rare is the public leader who is prepared to stand up in front of his nation and admit to having made a mistake. Happy is the generation that has a leader who is not ashamed to admit that he has erred. Fortunate are those led by one secure enough to admit that he is not perfect.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the origins of Judaism’s robust but humane teshuva (repentance) process can be found in the emotional confession of King David to Nathan the prophet in the episode of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:13): “I stand guilty before God!” he exclaimed. And Nathan replied, “God has remitted your sin; you shall not die.”

The great King David, ancestor of the Messiah, is considered our greatest leader not because he never sinned, but because he admitted to his sins, and repented.

We must always hold our leaders to the highest standards, and pursue any process that ensures those standards are upheld. But more importantly, our leaders must hold themselves to those high standards, and never fear the consequences of any revelations, nor of admitting their mistakes.

Those that follow this path are foretold to become the leaders of a “happy” generation.

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