What can Christianity and Judaism teach us about good leadership?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

In this latest installment of their Jewish-Christian dialogue, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and Hebrew scholar Dr Irene Lancaster explore what the two faiths have to say about good leadership.

Rowan: We read a lot at the moment about the crisis of leadership that afflicts our society, not only in the UK but worldwide. Locally we have national leaders who seem to set little store by consistency and truthfulness, and a style of government that looks careless, reactive and short-term, courting easy popularity and ignoring the need for long-term strategic wisdom.

Internationally, we see many populist demagogues whose style is close to fascism - authoritarian nationalists, who have few scruples about violence and intimidation (whether in Eastern Europe, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India or Brazil).

At the same time, we have had a lot of discussion about the example set by Queen Elizabeth II as offering, during her 70-year reign, a very different sort of leadership - selfless, prayerful and consistent. It's surely a time for rediscovering what public leadership might mean in the light of faith - what public leadership looks like when it is accountable to God.

I don't know how this is for Jews, but for many Christians, the descriptions in Hebrew Scripture of the monarchy of David and Solomon are where many would start in thinking about this. Two things come to mind here. David is no saint, but he is willing to be challenged by the prophet Nathan when he has performed an act of gross injustice and deception (the seduction of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah).

Also, when he has organised the census of Israel and Judah in a way that offends God and is punished by a pestilence (II Samuel 24), he says to God that he alone is responsible and the people as a whole should not suffer because of his sins ( II Samuel 24.17).

And then when Solomon has his encounter with God at Gibeon (I Kings 3) and is asked what gifts he would want from God, his reply is that he wants wisdom or discernment rather than just prosperity or victory.

We have already heard (I Samuel 8 and 12) the warnings God gives his people about the dangers of monarchy. A king may be exploitative and greedy, may govern tyrannically or unjustly, may lead his people into idolatry. The spectacular failings of King Solomon seem to cast their shadow before them here. It is not that Scripture thinks monarchy is necessarily a good thing. But when there is a clear individual focus for political power, there are clear guidelines in these stories of David and Solomon about how that power is exercised.

Wealth and victory are hollow if they are not based on discernment and justice; rulers should take full responsibility for their decisions and consider their effect on those who are weaker and more vulnerable; rulers should be willing to accept the challenge of those God raises up to confront their failings.

Christians began in the fourth century to set out guidance for rulers, when the Roman Empire became Christian. It's interesting that, while some went along with very absolutist ideas about kingship and recommended what sounds like a very passive attitude on the part of believers, St Augustine took a different line and said in his City of God that the best rulers were those who shared their power with others and were willing to be challenged in the name of God.

Later on, Thomas Aquinas also believed that the ruler's power should not be absolute and that unjust rulers should be removed if they would not reform. It's an ongoing tension within Christianity - when and how should power be resisted?

I wonder whether there are any similar tensions within Jewish thinking about all this, including what sort of resistance to government is legitimate? But also what have Jewish thinkers had to say about the character we look for in leadership?

Irene: As you say, Rowan, Hebrew Scripture is a good place to start, very often with the person of Moses. Before Moses was given the mission by G-d in the Burning Bush to lead the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land, he is described as tending the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 3:1).

This is a test. If a person is capable of looking after the most recalcitrant little lamb, he may well be the right sort of person to cause a political and religious revolution of the sort described in much of the Book of Exodus, as well as the following three Books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, all of which are to do with words matching actions, as the Hebrew names of these Books imply.

After encountering G-d in the Burning Bush, what does Moses do? Does he rush to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt across the Reed Sea? No, he does not. He returns to his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 4:18) to ask his permission to leave their way of life for something ostensibly completely different. And Jethro, his non-Jewish father-in-law, says 'Go in peace.' Quite extraordinary for an ancient teaching about Judaism.

Always consult, with anyone, whatever their background, as long as they know their stuff. And Jethro, the priest of Midian, certainly does. Wasn't he, after all, the person who would later tell Moses that unless he learned how to delegate he would burn himself out (Exodus 18: 13 ff). And Moses is pleased to listen to Jethro's words of advice and heeds them well.

This trait of delegating to others is continued in Moses' successor. Unlike in our monarchies, most of the time, Moses' successor is not one of his own sons, but Joshua, son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim (mentioned in Numbers 13:8 as being one of the original spies who was sent to explore the 'Land'). Immediately after Moses' death, as described at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Joshua assumes Moses' mantle, but with some important changes (Joshua 1:10 ff).

One of the most significant differences between the role of Moses as leader and the role of Joshua as leader is that from the outset Joshua incorporates delegation as a key tool of effective leadership. Instead of doing everything himself, he 'commanded the officers of the people' and tells them what they should 'command´ the Children of Israel to do prior to entry into the Promised Land.

So Joshua personifies the importance of delegation and involving others if you are to be an ongoing leader after the death of Judaism's major prophet, Moses Rabbenu. In the Book of Exodus, Moses was the sole person to advise the enslaved people on their exit from Egypt. Leaving a place of servitude may be one thing, but entry into the Promised Land is quite another matter, and for this to happen, everyone needs to feel that they have a proper stake in the future.

And this fact of Jewish life has to be borne in mind if we are to consider the last 2,000 years or so of Jewish existence. These two millennia have of course coincided with the rise of Christianity, and under regimes even only nominally Christian, Jews have been in a position of what we can call 'relative slavery' in diaspora. Other people call this 'voluntary self-censorship'. Therefore, because of Christian persecution and worse, the hands of the Jewish communities worldwide have been tied as to what to advocate about leadership, whether religious or political.

We may not think that our present society in this country is particularly Christian, but its hinterland certainly is. For a Jewish person living here, that is obvious. So, fear is the norm and so-called Jewish leaders (mostly self-appointed) take the line of least resistance, always supporting the status quo. Others, who are braver, and actually do have leadership qualities, sometimes speak out, but risk a backlash from a Jewish leadership which is not fit for purpose.

The last resort, which is happening increasingly, is emigration to Israel, a place where at least disillusioned diaspora Jews know they will be 'home', warts and all, and can take part as equals in the conversation, without having to constantly watch their backs.

So, as Jews living in diaspora have had to watch their words, they have therefore often ended up, and quite understandably, supporting the status quo, be it in Protestant Holland, Anglican England, or in Orthodox Russia under the Tsars. The later Communist regimes were simply Tsarist Empires under another name.

That is why successive leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church were so often uncritically supportive of Soviet leadership – a tradition continued by the present Patriarch of Moscow, as we see in Ukraine at the moment. This is also why religious leaders, including the present Pope in his comments on the war in Ukraine, still tend to lean towards the interests of the more powerful.

But if you are to be a true leader, simply preserving the old ways and endorsing the powerful isn't enough and can end up being self-defeating, especially in a religion like Christianity, which advocates (like Judaism of course) the very opposite of this, i.e. looking after the weak and powerless.

The only exception to the rule that Jews in diaspora have tended to remain silent on matters of leadership and political direction may have been the American Jews. Certainly the Jews of the USA have always felt that, as 100% equal citizens (never subjects), they have contributed far above their numbers to the up-building of the USA from the time of the Pilgrim Fathers onwards (although actually arriving from Recife, Brazil, a few years later, in 1655).

And the Jews of America have also felt that, having reached a country free from the negativity of monarchs and royalty, which they had often experienced first-hand in Europe, they now had a sacred mission and a duty to be the first to help the poor, the stranger, the 'huddled masses yearning to breathe free', as Sephardi Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) put it in her own poem The New Collosus (1883), engraved on the Statue of Liberty, which continues to welcome newcomers to its shores.

Alas, in recent years, to the outsider at least, it seems very much as if the USA is going the way of all flesh and that the Jews of that country are finding it very uncomfortable, to say the least, as citizens in the 'land of the free' to which they have done so much to contribute in every way possible.

Rowan: In a strange way, Christian Scripture in itself doesn't offer very much about political leadership as such - I suppose because it's written by a minority group who have no political power at this point. There are general things about living well; there are thoughts about how and how not to exercise power over others (when St Paul writes about how slave-owners should treat slaves, passages that grate on the modern ear pretty unpleasantly); and there are quite a lot of bits of advice for *religious* leaders about not bullying or exploiting others, not provoking quarrels or pursuing vendettas, and always remembering that you will be held accountable before God for the spiritual well-being of those you are expected to look after.

You can to some extent draw out some ideas about political leadership from this, perhaps. But it may be a risk to put them too closely together. It's surely true that religious leaders or people with religious influence and authority need to be challenged about how they exercise it - if this doesn't happen, that's when you get all the different kinds of abuse with which we're so painfully familiar.

Do you think Jewish sources, ancient and modern, make connections between how the authority of a religious teacher ought to work and the authority and credibility of a political ruler?

Irene: Yes, there are various attempts, including the 12th century 'Law of Kings and their Wars', by Moses Maimonides (the Rambam: 1135-1204). However, very many other great Jewish thinkers were against the idea of monarchy as such, and the largest group of diaspora Jews, those living in the USA, are particularly averse to this idea. They support the idea of republicanism 100%, in line, no doubt, with the vast majority of fellow Americans, for whom getting rid of Hanoverian King George III is one of their seminal collective points of memory.

Jews in diaspora tend to think within the framework of the political/religious system in which they reside. Therefore, a truly modern take on leadership may only be possible for Jews in their own land, the State of Israel, which is about to have its fifth election in 3 years! Nevertheless, despite the lack of stability at the heart of government, Israel is the only place where Jews are the majority, fully responsible for their own present and future.

Moreover, in the wake of the Shoah, during which the world either colluded or turned its back in time of greatest need, Israelis now endeavour to become as self-reliant as possible. It is therefore not really surprising that in recent years only Israel has been capable of providing a number of cogent Jewish thinkers on these questions, whether rabbis or otherwise (incidentally, there are so many rabbis now, that, frankly, a bit like the number of university graduates in this country, the term 'rabbi' is in danger of becoming devalued), who are seriously intent on redefining leadership for the 21st century.

For instance, the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016), speaking of his early teenage years, mentions that when he studied at the Yeshiva (religious seminary) of Merkaz Ha-Rav, founded by the great Rav Kook (1865-1935), first Chief Rabbi of the Land during the British Mandate period, his teacher Rav Moshe Charlap (1882-1951), who was born in Jerusalem, used to teach in Yiddish.

However, Shear Yashuv had (most unusually for the son of a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community) been brought up in Hebrew, the relatively new language of the country, and not Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi diasporic religious communities. In Rabbi Cohen's own words:

'This meant that at first I wasn't able to understand Rabbi Charlap's classes. But he felt truly responsible for his flock, and the little lamb mattered as much as the fully grown sheep, and so Rabbi Charlap would invite a group of us into his room to hear the lesson again, this time in Hebrew. So we often ended up in his presence on a Friday morning, when he would go over the same lesson again in Hebrew just for us.'

And I bet that Rabbi Charlap, one of the truly great minds of that era, didn't ask for overtime, either!!

Rabbi Charlap is a prime exemplar of leadership from whom we can learn today. And he is only one of many who helped to build up the State of Israel, always teaching by example.

Rowan: Ultimately Jews and Christians alike have a belief that 'the LORD is King', in the words of the Psalms. This is obviously a statement about the complete authority of God in and over the universe he has made. But it is also surely a reminder that kingship needs to be defined in the light of what it means to say that God is 'King'.

Political power must reflect some aspects of God's way of exercising power if it is not to be destructive. So if God's power is never acquisitive (because God has no need of anything), never aggressive or directed at humiliation (because God is never threatened in his majesty and never envious or fearful), always consistent (because God can never betray himself or go back on a promise), and always creative of new possibilities (because God never ceases to be the creator who sustains the life of all, and wishes the well-being of all), that may be a basis for some kind of ethic for those in leadership.

I think that approaching it in that way would take us straight back to those texts in Samuel and Kings - both the warnings about how monarchical power, hierarchy, supreme control, can go wrong, and the stories about David and Solomon - what went right and what went wrong for them.

Irene: Yes, but we mustn't forget that G-d is beyond any of us. Religious leaders may want us to emulate their image of G-d. But often, religious leaders are well protected from real discussion or debate. In addition, religious leaders tend to have all their material needs catered for by others, which leaves them free to expect others to follow their own very high standards.

In fact though, earning enough to put bread on the table is a real and present problem for so many people. It is very hard to be magnanimous if you are shivering from cold in an unheated home, as many are currently experiencing, in this country, for instance.

At these times, it really does need leadership of an exceptional quality to pull us through. Winston Churchill was one such person, suited to a war situation. However, Churchill was not regarded as being caring enough to lead the subsequent peace. But at this country's worst hour, he stepped up to the plate. There don't appear to be many Churchills around at present, nor Rav Kooks for that matter.

Rowan: I agree completely that the one thing we should never do is somehow identify earthly authority with God. The insight from both Jewish and Christian sources seems to be that one of the most important ways a leader can show their integrity is recognising that they are never beyond challenge and always in need of other voices and other skills (as in the stories you cite about Moses).

There's a whole complicated set of issues around what standards we expect of leaders. I don't think we can expect them to be saints, any more than King David was, but we can expect them to recognise that when they make costly and hard decisions they don't pretend that there are no problems with the outcome. Sometimes a leader may have to decide on a course of action that is far from ideal in absolute terms – whether it's going to war or raising taxes or imposing lockdowns or whatever.

They won't be universally popular and they have to have the strength of character to live with that. But they must also send the message that they understand the price that will have to be paid and they don't make light of it. When an earlier government said that 'we're all in this together' after the financial crisis, their actions and lifestyles didn't exactly imply that they believed this! And you're right that religious leaders should be careful of blithely imposing impossible standards on other people who may not have the resources to cope.

It's why, of course, there is a difference between the leadership of someone like the Queen – who doesn't have to take tough and possibly unpopular decisions – and that of a Prime Minister – who does. In one way, it might seem easier for the Queen to exemplify values and virtues: she has a symbolic not an executive role, and that's important enough but not the same thing.

And of course, the Queen's position is still fraught with cost and difficulty - because living as a 'symbol' is not exactly easy, when you have day by day to set aside your own personal thoughts and preferences and try to go on being a 'still point' where others can find common allegiance.

For religious leaders, the challenge is often that they have both symbolic and executive positions. As our society changes, the importance of symbolic figures declines and people understand less and less how symbolism works – but that's another story.

I used to think, when I was Archbishop of Canterbury, that I was representing not just the Church of England but a whole set of traditions that were increasingly strange to the country I lived in. But of course there were decisions to be made as Archbishop; and very, very few of them were plain matters of right and wrong. You always had to face the possibility not only of being wrong in an abstract way, but of being wrong in ways that would actively damage people.

If I learned anything about leadership in that context, it was probably (i) that there were no (or hardly any) decisions of any importance that didn't risk hurting someone, (ii) that you had to get used to this and not try to preserve some ideal innocence at the expense of making choices that had to be made, (iii) that you had to go on listening to the people you had hurt once the decision had been made, and not just ignore the cost to them, and (iv) that you had to be cautious of the temptation to make decisions too quickly, because what mattered was whether a decision would actually stick once it had been made.

This needed a lot of listening and consulting before and after any significant choice. And it meant never assuming you had got it right (which can make you a bully and a liar) but always assuming that God could make something of what you had done, so that your failure or error wasn't the end of the world – which meant that you could admit failure, and not pretend.

I'm not saying that I managed to do all that; far from it (I was never very good at consultation, and always tempted by my own longing to be liked). But at least I could see a bit of what a good leader might look like even if I couldn't quite make it to that level!

Irene: I think it is admirable that you have given your own personal view of leadership and painted a picture for us of your time as Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of around 80 million adherents worldwide, with a far greater outreach than even those huge figures would suggest, in the realms of art, politics, music, literature and mores. I am sure readers all round the world will appreciate your honesty about the huge difficulties of leadership in a role where the normal leadership qualities so admired by the world are often at odds with what true leadership could be really about. This can't be easy to do, so mazal tov for trying at least.

But just think of all the people in whose footsteps you followed when you took up the challenge, probably like many of those truly great biblical characters, such as Moses and David, against your will. When we think of King David, together with Moses, the most famous character in Hebrew Scriptures, we mustn't forget that he was the youngest of seven, disowned by his brothers because of his mother, who isn't even named, and inured to life as a shepherd from which he was so suddenly and rudely extricated.

However, it is David who is the unlikely person to be called by G-d to greatness. And what did David experience as King? Every day of his life he suffered the agony of some sorrow or other, including countless enemies and people who wanted to see him dead. And how did David respond? He tried his best by writing his Psalms (probably the best-loved Book of the Hebrew Bible) and, as you point out, heeded the words of Natan the prophet regarding the sins that he had committed. Yes, leadership and great poetry can go together, as I'm sure you are aware. But in the end, just as Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land, neither is David awarded the great honour of building the Temple.

So leaders can only try their best, and sometimes 'the best-laid schemes of mice and men ....'

Taking the biblical characters of Moses and David as role models, I therefore think that the solution for our contemporary leadership might be access to a mentor, someone they can talk to, as the examples of Jethro and Natan provide to Moses and David respectively.

In our own age, it was impressive to observe at first hand the way in which such a wise and popular Jewish leader as Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen always consulted people he regarded as knowledgeable on every conceivable matter under the sun. No subject was too insignificant to discuss with people who might be able to shed extra light on an issue. And this was simply an extension of what he and other Jewish people who go through a yeshiva or seminary education understand: 'Two minds are better than one', always, as Solomon is reputed to have stated (Ecclesiastes 4:9 ff).

I have enjoyed thinking about this very difficult question with you Rowan, and am becoming increasingly aware of how much Jewish thought has been coloured by Jewish experience as a tiny, oppressed minority in diaspora. No more, thank goodness, and that is why the Jewish people can find such inspiring leadership in the State of Israel – be it in integration of minority groups, medicine, transport, water desalination, and maybe greatest of all, the real possibility of putting into practice the laws of Shemitta and Jubilee, the laws of care for the land, remission of debts, and the complete abolition of slavery (whether physical, mental or spiritual), so essential to the sustenance and continued survival of our one world.

I would like to end with my favourite sayings of Rabbi Tarfon from one of my favourite books of the Mishnah, Pirke Avot: 'it's not up to us to finish the job, but we mustn't give up and at least try our best.'