Jerusalem & Babylon / Modern-day Moses

Shimon Peres listens closely to the chief rabbis' advice on how he should lead the nation

If you thought that President Shimon Peres, at 87, after having twice served as prime minister and in numerous cabinet posts, could not possibly add yet another title to his portfolio, it seems you were wrong. Peres has just been appointed - more accurately, anointed - to an even loftier post than president of Israel. How did this happen?

Apparently, last week, he was scheduled to fly here on Friday from the United Nations General Assembly in New York but instead stayed two more days in America. He didn't stay the extra weekend in the Big Apple to catch up on his shopping or see a show; he was acting on the suggestion of the chief rabbis that he should not fly on the second yom tov shel galuyot, though as an Israeli, he does not have to observe any restrictions on that day.

Peres at UN - AP - Sept 20, 2010

I'm not going to go into the archaic reasons why religious Jews outside Israel observe an extra day or Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot or examine the practice whereby secular Israeli presidents and prime ministers make as if they observe Shabbat and High Holidays. What I'm interested in is the reason the rabbis gave for this ruling. According to Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, Peres should pretend to be a frummer as "it is accepted that the president of Israel is also the president of the Jewish people."

There is, of course, nothing about this anywhere in the law on the president's responsibilities and authority but, to be fair, the current chief rabbis were not the first to try and instill a global dimension to the Israeli presidency. Originally, it was designed as an honorary post to satisfy Zionist elder statesman Chaim Weizmann and keep him out of the way; he memorably said of the office that "the only place I can stick my nose in is my handkerchief." It was Peres' mentor, David Ben-Gurion who tried to create the equation between Israel's president and the most important Jew in the world. After Weizmann's death, he tried to get Albert Einstein to take the job, but the physicist wisely preferred to remain in his leafy retreat at Princeton.

Ben-Gurion had no choice but to take an Israeli, historian and Labor party worthy Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, thus establishing the practice of the president's usually being a veteran politician who had failed to make the upper reaches of the cabinet.

Peres is a departure from the norm, the only president so far who had served as prime minister, but the idea that he is by extension also president of the Jewish people is preposterous.

That would mean that also his predecessor, Moshe Katzav, was top Jew, while allegedly raping his assistant. Not that questionable sexual conduct disqualifies a man from being king of the Jews, if the Bible is anything to go by. But it's not only the character of the office holder, the very title is absurd.

Peres was voted in by a majority of Knesset members. Not only does he lack any sort of mandate to lead or represent any non-Israeli citizen, but the very idea is impossible. While Israelis certainly feel they are at the center of the world, the patronizing idea that they are in a position to lead also the other Jews not living in the country shows just how much they are out of touch.

While millions of Jews were still behind the Iron Curtain, an argument could be made that they had no voice and therefore someone else had to represent their interests. Today, there is not a Jew in the world who cannot emigrate and if lacking the funds, there will be an organization prepared to finance his or her travel.

For the first time in history, every Jew not living in Zion is doing so by choice; no Israeli leader can presume to speak for them and any attempt to do so leaves them open to accusations of dual loyalty and conflicting interests in their own land.

Too many opinions

The very idea of a world Jewish leadership, much beloved of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists but also by Jews who would see themselves as members of such a body, is ridiculous. For a significant minority, the only reigning authority could be a religious one, which automatically means that a rabbi could never be the leader of the Jews while the majority is secular.

Anyway, the religious could never agree on one chief rabbi. Lubavitch tried to crown Rabbi Schneerson as a modern-day king of the Jews, even as the Messiah, only to have the non-Hasidic wing of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy dismiss them as "a sect" or "the closest religion to Judaism." When the Messiah does come, at least half of the Haredim will be heartbroken when they realize he's either a Sephardi or a she. And it's no coincidence that the largest and most successful Jewish community in history, that of North America, has never had a chief rabbi. The entire concept seems inimical to democracy.

But neither has the secular side produced any real leaders. Indeed, the very word has been constantly devalued.

Have you ever noticed that almost every convention in the Jewish world is a "leadership forum;" every group that visits Israel a "leadership delegation;" and every gathering of Jews under the age of 50 is "young leadership."

On Sunday, Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, held an event under the rubric "Leaders Inc.: The Jewish Peoplehood Leadership and Entrepreneurship Conference," where I was relieved to hear Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein lightly admonish the participants at the summary plenum that "to be leaders, you also have to someone to lead."

My contribution to the plenum (apparently, I'm also a leader ) was to pose the question of whether Jewish leaders were not by definition second-rate. None of Mr. Edelstein's cabinet colleagues, while all belonging to the tribe, can be called "Jewish leaders."

At best, they are concerned for the welfare of Israeli citizens, Jews and others; more typically, they serve the narrow interests of their constituencies.

The typical senior Israeli official in a major Jewish organization is there because he failed to make his mark on the local political scene. Even former minister and current Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky admits he was a "bad politician."

Nor is there such a thing as a Jewish leader outside of Israel. The most influential Jew in the United States, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, preferred to be a congressman to running his local federation and now wants to be mayor of Chicago. Why be synagogue president when you can serve a much broader community?

Judaism is much too anarchic to have a pope. Jews are too independent to have any form of unified leadership. And any Jew with real leadership skills or aspirations would prefer to run a city, a big business or an entire country to just the Jews within it.

Our problem is not a lack of Jewish leaders, but rather our expectation to have any.