In this Jewish New Year, we find ourselves in a world shaped by leaders who have forgotten that their authority is founded on a commitment to Truth. By Truth, I refer to a religiously-informed value, what our rabbis call “Chotmo shel haKadosh Baruch Hu,” the seal of God: Reality as it is without our deceptions or stories or half-truths. The Face of the Divine is always right before us in the unfolding of the simple Truth, in a world that is “good” in its deepest essence. Our economy has faltered and our entanglements in Iraq and elsewhere have come about because time and again we have allowed our leaders, and allowed ourselves, to obfuscate Truth. We have blurred the lines, we have fudged the numbers, we have lulled ourselves into a false sense of complacency behind comforting lies we have told ourselves in order to get through the day.
The ancient sages of Judaism have exhorted us to found a society that is never in denial of Truth, that never avoids the suffering of society’s weakest members, that never turns a blind eye to the consequences of unethical behavior. Somehow these values have fallen away among our most critical world leaders. As a rabbi, I am struck by a decline in religious institutional affiliation among the younger generation of Jews and their Protestant and Catholic peers. I am seeing a younger generation who has only known world leadership that lacks integrity, and who believe that in this global world, no Truths can ever be upheld anymore. I am seeing a world where not only secular leaders, but religious leaders as well have failed to communicate a message that Truth is not the enemy of faith, that the pursuit of Truth, however unknowable that Truth ultimately may be, can heal this very broken world.
Our Presidential candidates are indeed right: we need to embrace change. In order to do that, we need religious and secular leaders who join together to seek Truth. We need leaders who, unlike fundamentalists, understand that Truth is not the “problem” to be avoided, but the source of all solutions.
In Judaism, our greatest visionary leaders were always those who weren’t afraid to see the Truth as it is. Most of us think that true visionaries are people who can see what ‘could be.’ But that’s not exactly right. Moses looked into the burning bush and saw God’s Presence that can never be consumed, even in the midst of flames. Rabbi Akiva looked at the ruins of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and was moved to laughter because he saw that even in devastation, the seeds of renewal and redemption were right there in front of him. It’s more accurate to say that most of us aren’t really able to see what’s True, and it takes a ‘visionary’ to help the rest of us see what has been the Truth all along. It takes a visionary to remind us that we must reject our own propensity to deceive ourselves and to face the world bravely as it is.
It’s not just a matter of finding leaders who have personal integrity. It’s about leaders who have the courage, humility, and faith to believe that Truth is always the greatest teacher of where to go next–not our egos, not our political platforms or our institutional agendas. We need leaders who can see the teaching, the wisdom, the insight borne of all Reality, no matter how frightening that Reality may seem at first. In so doing, our leaders can teach us that the simple Truth is kinder than we fear! This is the truest expression of faith. The Truth contains all the answers, all the seeds of renewal that we have been vainly searching for all along in our stories and in our well-meaning lies. The renewal that we seek in our faith communities, in our political process, in our whole world, lies in opening our hearts to the Truth.
Gil Steinlauf is head rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C.