Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Snatching a glimpse of ankle PDF Print E-mail

Lucian J Hudson on what we can learn from the Book of Judges about leadership and vulnerability

A BIG highlight in the run-up to the Liberal Judaism 2012 Biennial Weekend is the very successful Rabbinic Kallah, which this year tackled theology. The world is not just split between those who believe and those who do not. There is positive theology, where God provides all the answers, and negative theology, which recognises the unknown and unknowable. I find something inspiring about the existential traditions in different religions because they wrestle with this phenomenon.

Much as I am enthralled by the twists and turns of Biblical protagonists, who have an explicit relationship with God, I relate more to those stories where we only snatch a glimpse of ankle. We either do not know, or we cannot be sure. Yet we act despite or because of the knowledge we have.

When I read the Book of Judges, I find a people just getting on the tug-of-war of life, winning some battles and losing others, regularly messing things up and crying for divine intervention.

Underpinning most stories is a cycle of sin, punishment and rescue. But a recurring theme is quality of leadership. It is a focus on the human.

The Judges – better described as Chieftains – are interesting because they are defined as much by their limitations as by their potential. Yet they are the means by which God invariably intervenes. Character becomes destiny.

What a great bunch they are, with great names: Barak, Samson, Gideon, Ehud, Shamgar, Jephthah, Othniel. Samuel and Deborah are prophets. But all are tribal leaders, delivering their people from oppression.

Some commentators read the Book of Judges as a critique of the Chieftains as a political establishment, paving the way to a monarchy, a much more stable institution. But I like the unsettling dynamism of the Book of Judges, which provides a suitable template for our changing times. Do we not have similar issues with our own leaders’ imperfections? Yet how much do we step back to reflect that their weaknesses are our own? Is that not what really disturbs?

The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein distinguished two states: paranoid and depressive. Paranoid involves dividing up the world into good and bad. Depressive means seeing good and bad in the same thing. The tolerance that is enshrined in Liberal Judaism is partly about being receptive to this dual reality. Yes, we can and should discern what is good and what is not – hence the injunction to justice.

Yet we should also seek to understand before seeking to be understood – hence compassion. Revealingly, the root for that word is not “passion” but “compass”, it is about getting one’s bearings right.

That stance will infuriate those who live by black-and-white answers, but that is the precious space Liberal Judaism holds in today’s debates on Israel, social justice and human rights. Every time we consider our response to a burning question we should remind ourselves of that Kleinian insight.

There is certain humility in vulnerability and not quite knowing. Confidence is not the same as false certainty. In fact, confidence is what you have when you are not sure, yet nevertheless persevere.

Most leaders do not make enough of vulnerability, until it is too late, and they are mere spectacle. The military commander, Barak, is often seen as weak by some Book of Judges commentators when he defers to the prophetess Deborah. But the lesson of that episode is that Barak, Deborah and Jael do not achieve success on their own. Each plays a critical part and contributes to an unfolding and divine plan.

Through Google Alerts, I have been tracking use of the word “collaboration” for the past three years. It is a word that is fast acquiring real and positive meaning, and gives a fresh twist of what it is to be a co-worker in God’s design.

Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism and author of The Enabling State: Collaborating for Success (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2009)