Sermon: What rabbinic texts about reptiles can teach us about strength in leadership

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 February 2020

“Va’yivchar Moshe anshei chayil mi-kol yisrael va-yitein otam rashim al ha-am” –
So Moses chose anshei chayil – we translated it this morning as ‘capable men’, but literally ‘men of strength’ – from all of Israel and appointed them heads over the people.

As our Bar Mitzvah, Jonah, has taught us this morning, the Torah presents a particular understanding of what anshei chayil, men of strength, means:  seven characteristics found in this portion and in the retelling of the story in Deuteronomy.   Jonah has shared his reflections on these strengths, beautifully emphasising different ideals of leadership to those found in our portion.

As he did so, perhaps inadvertently, Jonah added his voice to a thousand years of conversation; generations in dialogue with each other, grappling with this same question.  What makes someone suitable for a position of leadership? What does strength in leadership mean?

There are hundreds of voices in this Jewish conversation across thousands of years.
Inevitably, some of the ideas expressed in our past might, at first hearing, seem to be from a different age.  So, for example, in one place the Talmud tells us that the exemplar leader of our story, Moses, must have actually been physically bigger than other men.  How do we know? “The Divine Presence only rests on those who are wise, strong, rich and tall” it states.

Similarly, in a Talmudic discussion of the qualifications required to be appointed to the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of ancient Judea we find in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that: “They place on the Great Sanhedrin only men – sorry, it is men again – of height… men of imposing appearance, and of an appropriate age”.  One explanation, given by the commentator Rashi, is that only if you look the part can you lead, can you command the respect necessary to be heard.

We might well laugh at something so ridiculous to us – indeed some of the other rabbis probably laughed at this idea, too.  Wisdom, yes.  But what have strength, wealth, physical appearance, height to do with the ability to lead or to judge?

But then perhaps we will stop and reflect that these preconceptions remain remarkably live today.  Ideals of anshei chayil – strong men of leadership (and this is a rather male vision of leadership) these continue to resonate in the world of modern populism.  Wealth as a condition of power may well see two billionaires competing for the US presidency later this year.   And in our social media age, physical appearance has become more not less important.  We too struggle to see beyond the superficial in our leaders.

Importantly, this is not the only voice in the conversation.  Immediately after the tradition from Rabbi Yochanan comes a very different perspective.
The Talmud states,
“Rav Yehudah says that Rav says: They appoint to the Sanhedrin only one who knows how to render pure by Torah law the corpse of a sheretz.”

This might need a little unpacking.

The sheretz to which the text refers is normally translated as a creeping animal, or a thing that swarms on the earth – reptiles and rodents.  And of these, Leviticus states explicitly that they are unclean, and that someone who comes into contact with the corpse of one of them is made ritually impure.
So what the text is saying is really quite extraordinary.  That a qualification for a position of leadership is to be able to produce a convincing argument against an explicit statement in Torah, against a direct ruling from God.

What this text prioritises is not physical strength but strength of imagination and reasoning and the strength of intellectual independence – enough to make the case against the accepted truth.

To those familiar with classical Greek education, there are echoes here that may sound familiar.  We know from Cicero that the ability to argue both sides of an argument was a prized skill in their context.  Aristotle, he tells us, would train young men “that they might be able to uphold either side of a question in copious and elegant language”

This is a very different ideal of strength in leadership – one not based on appearance, but on the ability to construct an argument you don’t agree with – even against the very instructions of God. Leadership to this text is in our ability to see the viewpoint of others.  Not the unifocal strength of the modern political leader, but the strength demonstrated by hearing other voices, giving opinions other than your own time and reflection.

Rather unexpectedly, there is another Talmudic leadership text about the corpses of reptiles.

Elsewhere we find this:
“Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: They do not appoint someone a leader over the community ‘Eilah im kein kuppah shel sh’ratzim t’luyah lo mei’achorav’ – not unless he has a basket of sh’ratzim – those same creeping animals – hanging behind him.”

Again, this isn’t obvious so I’ll take a moment to unpack it.

The text tells us that to be a leader someone needs to have a sheretz or two – a blemish of some sort in their history.  The idea is that if a leader then gets too big for their boots, too over-confident, lording it over the community, one can always say, “Turn and look behind you and be reminded of where you’ve come from.”

Again there are classical echoes here – of the days of the Roman Empire in which victorious generals might be granted a triumphal parade through the streets of Rome.  They would be accompanied in their chariot by a special slave who would ride with them with one task – to whisper in his ears “memento mori” – “remember you will die”.  And further, he would say “Respice post te, hominem te esse memento” – Look behind you and remember you are a man.

Each of us carries our own kuppah shel sh’ratzim – our own basket of reptiles – with us on our backs.  Our vulnerabilities, our failings, the things we have done of which we are less than proud.  The insight of this text is that this should not be seen as a disqualification from leadership but as a requirement of it.  Strength in leadership requires that level of self-awareness, not to fall into overconfidence, thinking that you are invulnerable.
True strength in individuals – and importantly, in institutions too – is our ability to recognise our failings, to address them, the ability to make teshuvah when we have erred.

“Va’yivchar moshe anshei chayil – So Moses chose ‘men of strength’”
It is easy to be seduced by images of strength – by physical appearance, by wealth and apparent success, by the strong man leader.  These voices are there in our textual history too.
But to be true anshei chayil – people of strength, requires other virtues too.  Somewhat surprisingly, two texts about reptiles present some other ideals – the ability to hear, indeed to argue for, the position of the other; the intellectual strength to make the case against accepted opinion; a level of humility and humanity coming from real human experience.

Or, as the newest voice in the conversation put it a few moments ago: “true leadership is the ability to admit when you are wrong, to open your heart, to have empathy, to listen, and to inspire.”