If You’re Going to Use the Text, Use the Whole Text

In late July/early August, I’ll be in Farmington Hills, Michigan, at the Birmingham Temple for an IISHJ rabbinical program course on congregational management. One of the books rabbinical students have been assigned to read is Hal Lewis’s From Sanctuary to Boardroom, which is a kind of survey of leadership approaches with a Jewish…bent? Tilt? I’m not sure quite yet.

I’m not especially pleased with the book. And since part of what displeases me locks into this week’s regular Torah reading, well…blog post!!! Or as Christoph Waltz’s Nazi says in a negotiation with American soldiers in “Inglourious Basterds,” “Ooooooh, that’s a bingo!!!”

So, what’s my problem? One might think it ironic for a humanistic Jew, but it comes down to fidelity to the text.

There are a number of what I think are questionable uses of texts in Lewis’s book, but I’ll take the one from this week’s parashah, B’ha’alot’kha, as my example.

Numbers 11 has seen us return to some narrative, finally, after an exhaustive account of a census or two and some laws about sacrifices and Passover. By this point in the story, the Torah relates that the Israelites have tired of eating manna all the time; they want meat and vegetables, and complain loudly to Moses. The Torah shows Moses doing what we really should have come to expect by this point: Moses complains to Yahweh, saying, in essence, “Just kill me now so I don’t have to listen to this horde of kvetchers, going on and on about how nothing is good enough here and Egypt was so wonderful.”

The Torah’s narrative gives a solution. Yahweh is said to divinely inspire 70 leaders to step up and help address the griping. As it happens, though, Yahweh’s plan isn’t so perfect (irony?), and a couple of non-leader types, Eldad and Medad, got a shot of divine inspiration, too. (By the way, some of the most interesting stuff in Numbers is about the ins and outs of prophecy.) Joshua–who the broader Torah narrative indicates was a successor to Moses–does what Joshua can be expected to do: he gripes to Moses about how a couple of ne’er-do-wells are going about trying to rouse the rabble. Moses’s response is, in essence, “Hey man, not my problem–I’m not going to stop them, and frankly, if Yahweh would get around to commissioning a few more wayward folks, that’d be okay, too! Gey avek! (Go away!)” (Clearly, no one spoke Yiddish 3500+ years ago, so you’ve no doubt figured out that I’m paraphrasing.)

Why all this? Because I worry when Jewish texts are used as a purported basis for secular principles. In the case of Lewis’s book, this story is used as a prooftext for the proposition that focusing on the charismatic authority of one person is a bad decision, and that “Moses was the kind of leader who understood the imperative of selecting and training others while there was still time to make a difference.” (Lewis, Sanctuary to Boardroom, 79.)

But this sentence is not born out by the text. Moses isn’t interested in picking and training new leaders–he’s pissed off at the Israelites yet again and is happy for someone else to pick up the slack. Now, that is in itself instructive: one leader cannot do it all.

That makes an argument for alternate leadership schemes–except, of course, that the text doesn’t really advocate this position, either. Moses gets a “break” in the narrative only because Yahweh says so. So at bottom, the story in Numbers 11 is about divine authority running the table. This is hardly a story that supports deviation from the “Great Man” theory of leadership–even though that’s exactly what Lewis claims about the story.

When you use the text as a source of authority, but do so selectively, you risk getting it wrong in ways that undercut your message. And this, I think, cuts to a central problem with an approach that tries to root modern concepts and best practices into the world of traditional Jewish texts. When you do this, you are neither faithful to the text itself, nor to the modern concept. Because you have to choose: which of these is the thing that should be compromised? Which wins?

As a Humanistic Jew, I think you can guess my answer.