Being Held to a Higher Standard

In biblical times and today, religious leaders must be paragons of righteousness.

Print this page Print this page

Moses and Aaron would eventually be judged by the same exacting standard. When Moses in a state of exasperation failed to follow God's command to extract water from the rock by speaking to it, God deprived him and Aaron from the fruition of their lifelong labor. Someone else would take the Israelites into the land promised their ancestors.

While most of us might be readily forgiven for an infraction executed in justifiable pique, not so the symbolic exemplars of God's will. Nor is this an isolated case in the pages of the Bible. Throughout, God demands of religious leaders a loftier standard of moral rigor and fidelity, prompting the Rabbis to observe that God permits the righteous no more than a hair's breadth of deviation (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 121b). In the same exacting spirit, the Rabbis insisted that when the wicked finally get their just deserts, the disaster will consume the righteous first for failing to have reversed the widespread moral decline (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kama 60a). To work for the Lord has its price!

Religious leadership constitutes an island of calm in a turbulent sea, a beacon for those gone astray. For the Rabbis anything less is an act of sacrilege. The Torah commands that every community must have its judicial officers: "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 16:18). A few verses later we are warned: "You shall not set up a sacred post beside the altar of the Lord your God ..." (16:20). The two verses seem to be unrelated. Yet from their proximity the Rabbis derived a profound proposition: "That whoever imposes a judge on a community who is unworthy is guilty of erecting an artifact of idolatry in Israel's midst" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7b). It is clarity and not confusion, constancy and not arbitrariness, self-respect and not self-deprecation that should emanate from those who have assumed responsibility for elevating the Jewish people to "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.