All societies require leadership and guidance in order to function correctly and efficiently. Though we all state that we crave less intrusive government in our affairs it has become patently obvious that anarchy is even a worse state of affairs. In Jewish life there existed in both First and Second Temple times two parallel systems of leading and governing the people. One was the temporal secular government if you will, the judges and the monarchy. The other group of leaders was the spiritual, Torah, tradition-bound scholars and prophets of Israel.
Sometimes in instances such as Moshe, Yehoshua and Shmuel both forms of leadership were combined within one person. But for the majority of Jewish history, the two systems ran parallel to each other and more often than not were actually aggressively competitive one to the other. When the Exile began the two sets of leaders remained in vogue with only certain exceptions when the leadership of one person, such as Rabi Yehuda HaNassi was recognized by all and was paramount.
In the Exile, after the demise of the Sanhedrin structure in the fifth century, the temporal leadership of the Jews was concentrated in people of wealth, social standing and, especially important, those with connections to the government and rulers of the countries and localities where the scattered groups of Jews resided.
The counterweight to this group of leadership usually was composed of the rabbis and scholars of Israel who oftentimes clashed with the other government-recognized lay leadership group. As can be seen from the records of the Council of Four Lands (sixteenth to eighteenth century Poland and Lithuania) there was no shortage of internecine conflict between the two groups that vied for ultimate leadership of the Jewish community.
The Christian world came into an accommodation after centuries of bloody strife between Church and State where the influence and power of the Church has been greatly diminished. The Church today at best advises but it certainly no longer leads. This is not true in the Orthodox Jewish world where the struggle between the temporal and religious leadership continues unabated.
The rabbinic world continues to lay claim to its prerogative of leadership even when the Jewish people has finally achieved an independent temporal state of its own. We are witness to the recognized phenomenon of our time that hundreds of thousand Jews ignore and some even vehemently oppose the temporal wishes, laws and leadership of the country and rather follow the dictates of their particular religious leaders exclusively.
And this situation must inevitably lead to power struggles, which periodically engulf our Jewish society, usually to no benefit or permanent solution. All it takes is the appearance of some issue, major or minor, to arise on the political scene to touch off this contentious struggle. The current contentious debate regarding a new Tal Law to regulate the service of the religious in the Israeli army is an example of such a power struggle.
The issue of military or national service, which is certainly amenable to practical solution – both sides tacitly agree that this is the case – is secondary to the struggle as to who has the authority of leadership over the tens of thousands of young men who are personally to be involved in serving or not serving the state in one way or another. And it is in this struggle over leadership rights there appears to be little room or hope for compromise.
I have often felt that we are living in times very similar to the period of the Judges and of Second Temple times. Many of the problems of our state are very similar to those faced by those societies thousands of years ago. The inability to amicably settle the struggles between the Torah spirit and the necessity of governing led those societies to disasters and long lasting bitter consequences.
In perfect hindsight we are aware that both sides then engaged in a power struggle that neither of them could win, or for that matter, should have won. I think that this bleak assessment is true for our current contentious situation. It is naïve in the extreme to think that religious Jewry will listen to the demands of the state exclusively and ignore the opinions and dictates of its rabbinic leaders.
It is also unrealistic and unwanted that the rabbinic leadership can or should run the matters of state and temporal governing. We are left to hope and pray that the power struggle will be shunted aside for the greater good of all of our society and that our two parallel systems of leadership will devote their efforts to complement each other and not to constantly oppose one another.