Judah - Profile in Jewish Leadership

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

“Let him who elevates himself above humanity…say if he pleases, ‘I will not compromise’, but let no one who is under the frailties of our common nature disdain compromise.”

These are the famous words uttered by Henry Clay, known as the “Great Compromiser.” One of the most adept politicians in American history, Clay was renowned for his ability to unite opposing factions and bring about what would be considered a palatable resolution. These qualities would seem to be ideal for any leader, especially in this era of political correctness – but are these qualities necessary in a Jewish leader as well? In this week’s parsha, the spotlight shines for the first time on Judah, the leader amongst his brothers, from whom the lineage of Jewish kings would emerge. Judah exhibits a natural ability to forge compromise between factions, and yet, his initial demonstration of this ability causes his “demotion” by his brothers.

After the completion of Joseph’s sale to the Midianites, the Torah offers the well-known verse (38:1):

“And it was at that time, that Judah, descended from his brothers. He turned away [from them], until [he came to] a man, an Adullamite, whose name was Chirah.”

The focus of many of the commentaries on this verse lies in the experience of "descending". Rashi explains (ibid):

“Why is this narrative [of Judah] placed here, thereby interrupting the narrative of Joseph? This is to teach that his brothers demoted him from his important position. When they saw the anguish of their father they said, "You advised us to sell him. Had you advised us to return him we would have listened to you."”

What exactly was Judah’s plan? 

Looking back at the story of Joseph’s sale, we see that the brothers were initially intent on killing Joseph. Reuven intervenes, giving Joseph a temporary reprieve. At this point, the brothers remain undecided about how to proceed. Noting the approach of some Ishmaelite travelling merchants, Judah suggests a solution (ibid 37: 26-27):

“Judah said to his brothers, "What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?

Come let us sell him to the Yishmaelites, and let our hands not be upon him; for he is our brother, our own flesh." His brothers listened [to him.]”

This plan seems to be the perfect compromise. On the one hand, the brothers rid themselves of Joseph. On the other, Joseph avoids death at their hands. And yet, the brothers view Judah’s solution as a fiasco, resulting in Judah’s exile from his family. Where did he go wrong?

There is one other question that needs to be raised. Obviously, the story of Judah’s exile and the resulting episode with Tamar was not simply a diversion from the Joseph storyline. Instead, we see from the events surrounding Judah, his sons and Tamar, an evolving personality. The crux of the story involves Judah’s preventing his third son, Shelah, from marrying Tamar. Tamar, through her intimate encounter with Judah, and later bringing to light certain evidence, is able to expose his irrational attachment to his son as the reason for his refusal to allow the marriage to take place. The culmination is Judah’s declaration of “tzadka mimeni” – “she is more righteous than I” (ibid 38:26) - his admission of Tamar’s greatness. Studying this story, one can see how this helped correct his personal flaw regarding his attachment to his son. What about the flaw surrounding his leadership qualities? 

The Torah is showing us that leaders make their decisions based on one of two motivators. Some leaders act on the basis of creating consensus, trying to please as many of his constituents as possible to ensure that he remains popular and loved. No doubt, while this type of leader may be partially motivated by a notion of offering proper representation of his followers, for the most part, ego and self-image are prime factors in how his decisions are made. He cannot stand to lose the admiration of his followers, and so, regardless of the virtue of his decrees or insights, he always gives the people what they want. But there is another type of leader --the one that acts in accordance with truth, and in doing so, sets the appropriate standard for his followers. He might not be the most loved or the most popular, though he is generally respected. But this leader is guided by a true analysis of the correct remedy for the situation. He is guided by justice rather than expedience and is capable of ignoring the possible immediate negative image his decisions may elicit. There are times, of course, when that which is right and consensus overlaps. However, the desire for consensus is merely a byproduct – the essential drive is only to act in line with that which is true and proper.

This differentiation helps bring to light the progression of Judah’s leadership. 

As mentioned above, our first glimpse into the evolution of Judah’s leadership capabilities takes place with the sale of Joseph. Judah’s logic was impeccable. He procured a solution that should have brought about satisfaction in the eyes of his brothers, while keeping Joseph alive, a classic win-win. But was it correct? Judah had the opportunity to reverse what had happened. Joseph had already been taken from the brink of death and Judah had the opportunity to bring him to safety. Yet Judah’s suggestion demonstrated a greater concern for keeping others satisfied than for doing what was right. Rashi is telling us that though the brothers should have been appeased, they understood the nature of Judah’s decision, that he let his position as leader, and the value he placed on it, take precedence over what he knew to be correct. He did not want to disappoint them—they wanted to be rid of Joseph and he wanted them appeased. But in compromising his position, the brothers saw that he was unfit for leadership, that he had the opportunity to lead them to the correct path and he shied away, and so he was kicked off his perch.

How was this flaw rectified? Admitting that Tamar was correct was obviously of great benefit. However, would that alone solve the problem? The Ramban (ibid 18), among other commentaries, writes that Judah was recognized as the judge, officer, ruler and overall leader of his new community. Of what importance, though, is it to know Judah’s role as leader in his new environment? When the truth came out about Tamar, Judah pronounced the judgment that she was to die, as she acted in a denigrating manner to someone of his status (the merits of the decision to subject Tamar to death is taken up by various commentaries). The Ramban explains that the local populace came before Judah, ready to act based on his judgment. The evidence was clear, the decision made, she was sentenced to death. With the new evidence exposed, Judah faced a pivotal moment in his evolution as leader. Judah could have found a face-saving solution. He could have commuted her death sentence, while keeping the rationale quiet. He certainly could have used mercy, taking on the personae of a benevolent leader, and use the sympathy of the masses to gain their support. There was no need to declare publicly “tzadka mimeni, an admission of his error. A leader confessing his mistake publicly is something that can adversely affect his status and may appear weak in the eyes of his people. Yet Judah, at that moment, was more interested in making sure that the people understood Tamar’s brilliance. What we see, then, is a leader whose sole motivation is the truth, a reflection of God’s justice. 

Was Henry Clay a compromiser for poll numbers, or was he guided solely by principles? It is difficult for us to know for sure, especially as he was certainly not guided by the Torah’s principles of morality and justice. The Torah, though, is clearly demonstrating the need for a Jewish leader to operate under one premise – lead in line with truth. He must be able to confront unpopularity and disunity amongst those he leads, as long as he is guided by what is correct. This may seem intuitive to most everyone. Yet in this era of political correctness, which has managed to creep its way into some Jewish leadership, the desire to compromise, to please and appease, has managed to erode away at some of the our most important principles. We must turn to the story of Judah to help guide us in the Jewish way to lead.