The Talmud does not speak of democratic elections as we think of them. However, our ancestors did choose their leaders and those leaders needed to be responsive to the communities they served. Yesterday morning, I shared a text with my Tuesday morning class about the selection of leaders in the Talmud. As I have spent the last six hours or so trying to digest and make peace with what happened in our country yesterday, I keep coming back to that text – BT Berachot 27b. It’s the story of a leader who had some bullying tendencies and how other leaders responded to him.
When the great scholars came in, someone rose and inquired, ‘Is the evening Tefillah [prayer] compulsory or optional?’ Rabban Gamaliel [the head of the Academy] replied: ‘It is compulsory.’ Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Rabbis: ‘Is there anyone who disputes this?’ Rabbi Joshua replied to him: ‘No.’ He [Rabban Gamaliel] said to him: ‘Did they not report you to me as saying that it is optional?’ He then went on: ‘Joshua, stand up and let them testify against you!’ Rabbi Joshua stood up and said: ‘Were I alive and he [the witness] dead, the living could contradict the dead. But now that he is alive and I am alive, how can the living contradict the living?’
Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and Rabbi Joshua remained standing [only students stood; rabbis were supposed to sit], until all the people there began to shout and say to Huzpit the Turgeman [the person who repeated Rabban Gamaliel’s words so that all could hear], ‘Stop!’ and he stopped. They then said: ‘How long is he [Rabban Gamaliel] to go on insulting him [Rabbi Joshua]? On New Year last year he insulted him; he insulted him in the matter of the firstborn in the affair of Rabbi Zadok; now he insults him again! Come, let us depose him!’
The rabbis who objected to Rabban Gamaliel’s treatment of Rabbi Joshua followed through and found a replacement for Rabban Gamaliel. They installed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah as the new head of the Academy. This got Rabban Gamaliel’s attention. He ultimately apologized to Rabbi Joshua for his bullying tactics. Seeing Rabban Gamaliel’s contrition, the rabbis created a system whereby Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah shared the responsibilities of leadership.
I don’t know how things will play out in a Trump presidency. (I’m still having difficulty even typing those words!) My personal objections have nothing to do with policy. My objections are moral ones. I have protested – and continue to protest! – his bullying behavior vis-à-vis Jews, Latinos, the disabled, Muslims, women and others. Although he has attained a position of power and our power seems diminished, we must remain vigilant in calling out this unacceptable behavior. Our electoral system is obviously different than rabbis’ process for choosing their head of the Academy. However, we can still hope that through our words and actions, we will get his attention just as the rabbis of old got the attention of Rabban Gamaliel. Then, perhaps, he too will reconsider his bullying ways.