What the Shema Tells Us About Moral Leadership


I’ve always felt we recite the Shema three times a day as a reminder that actions have consequences.

After the famous declaration of God’s singularity, the Shema tells us that if we obey God’s commandments, God will grant us rain for our crops and grass for our cattle. If not, if we serve other gods, the sky will dry up and the ground will be infertile.

I’m not a farmer, and I am skeptical of the theological certainty of reward and punishment. I join those who regard the passage as a metaphor for moral ecology: We have been shown what it means to act justly, consume wisely and treat our fellow creatures with dignity, which are the goals of any moral code. If we don’t, there are consequences: Our societies will rot, our health and livelihoods will suffer, our relationships will sour, nature itself will turn on us.

The most maddening thing about the Trump era is the lack of consequences. Trump has violated nearly every norm of American political leadership, and invented a few violations the Founding Fathers may never even have thought of. He has personally and coarsely insulted his perceived enemies, used his high office for personal gain, and lied compulsively and unapologetically as no other president has ever done. He has turned the Justice Department into a personal law firm in ways that would have made Nixon blush – or green with envy. He has surgically cleaved this country by not even trying to pretend that he is the president of those who didn’t vote for him. He has emboldened white supremacists and conspiracy theorists because of their perceived loyalty to him. He has mounted a concerted attack on our voting system because he fears he will not be reelected. And rejecting science, he continues to downplay a deadly pandemic in the face of unassailable evidence that it is getting worse.

I should say, there appears to have been a lack of consequences for Trump. He has escaped impeachment. Republican support for him seems unshakable. Once bitter critics have become toadies. His base remains unfazed. The abnormal has become the norm.

On a truly global scale, however, the providential logic of the Shema seems to have been vindicated. The obvious example is climate change. Although Trump is hardly alone in ignoring the warning signs, he does lead a superpower that could try and restore balance to a global economy that is endangering life on the planet. The consequences of indifference to a warming planet are more than metaphorical: The fires, the floods, the droughts, the looming extinctions and the human suffering are very real, if not biblical.

The moral logic of the Torah suggests that if individuals and especially leaders act unjustly, then society will pay the price. Sure enough, Trump’s assaults on science and the rule of law have discredited governmental institutions in the eyes of the citizenry. His supporters don’t trust the “deep state”; his critics think once trusted government institutions have become hopelessly politicized.

The moral logic of the Torah suggests that if individuals and especially leaders act unjustly, then society will pay the price.

Similarly, Torah reminds us that decency generates decency, and that “the reward for sin is sin” (Avot 4:2). Trump’s disdain for the truth has turned us into a nation of cynics, fracturing consensus and undermining the very notion of common cause. Who knew that by embracing rumor and conspiracy theories the president of the United States could poison public discourse, perhaps irreparably? Who knew that his bullying and vindictiveness would make the country angrier, nastier, more polarized? Anyone with a Twitter feed, for starters.

I could go on: Trump is a controlled experiment in how bad-faith actions and erratic leadership can leave a society in shambles. And if you doubt that, consider the Covid-19 crisis. Let’s grant Trump the consolation that this pandemic was going to be bad no matter who was in charge. But can you imagine any recent president, or presidential candidate, who would have used a deadly, demoralizing plague as a tool for dividing blue state from red? Who would have turned simple public health precautions into political loyalty tests? Who would have spurned their own experts as “idiots” and “disasters,” and – this is the key – would have offered no comprehensive plan or cogent sense of national purpose after eight months and 220,000 deaths?

The Shema is a daily reminder of the human condition. We have been given a rulebook for just, sustainable living — so “that you and your children may endure.”

There are various versions of this rulebook, but over the past century we seemed as a species to be moving towards a consensus that saw public health, human rights and increasing equality as a goal of functioning societies and signs of a healthy planet. We ignore the lessons of moral ecology at our own peril. And that peril is now.

This week I stumbled on a text that inspires me at a time when I fear another experiment – the American experiment – is in danger. It’s a lyric by Stephen Sondheim, written for but cut from his 1990 musical “Assassins.” It’s called “The Flag Song,” and it captures its Jewish-American author’s unshaken faith in a country that has often failed to live up to its ideals:

You can gripe
All you like,
You can sneer,
“Where are the heroes?”
You can shout about
How everything’s a lie.

Then that flag goes by…

You can snipe
At the greed,
At the need
To be a winner,
At the hype
You keep hearing
From on High,

And you think, “Why try?”
And you want to cry.
Then that flag goes by,
And you think, “That’s why:
‘Cause of that idea,
That incredible idea.”

What you want to do is brag,
“I’m a part of that.
Yeah I know it’s just a flag,
Okay but still…”
For a minute you say, “Hey,
We could—we will
Fix everything tomorrow…

That it’s fixable tomorrow,
We’ve a chance,
There’s a choice.
We can change ourselves tomorrow,
We’re in charge,
We’ve a voice,
An idea about tomorrow
To remember
When the flag has gone by.”

One the eve of the 2020 elections, it feels less like a lyric than a prayer.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week. The views he expresses here are his own.