Seeking Wisdom Through Learning: The Three Crowns of Leadership
The concept of balance of powers is a fundamental principle in Judaism. The Torah teaches us that power, in the human arena, is to be divided and distributed, not concentrated in a single person or office. In biblical Israel, there were Kings, Priests and Prophets. Kings had secular or governmental power. Priests were the leaders in the religious domain, presiding over the service in the Temple and other rites, and giving rulings on matters to do with holiness and purity. Prophets were mandated by God to be critical of the corruptions of power and to recall the people to their religious vocation whenever they drifted from it.
The Mishna cites the source of the three types of leadership in Judaism, called by the Sages the “three crowns”: priesthood, kingship and Torah.
“Rabbi Judah said: be careful in study, for an error in study counts as deliberate sin. Rabbi Shimon said: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name supersedes them all.” (Pirkei Avot 4:13)
Hence, in Judaism the King was the executive; the priesthood in biblical times was the judiciary. The “crown of Torah” worn by the Prophets was a unique institution: a Divinely sanctioned form of social criticism – a task assumed in the modern age, not always successfully, by public intellectuals.
This is the first statement in history of the principle, set out in the eighteenth century by Montesquieu in L’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of Laws), and later made fundamental to the American constitution, of “the separation of powers.” Montesquieu’s division, followed in most Western democracies, is between legislature, executive, and judiciary. In Judaism, primary legislation comes from God. While Kings and the Sages had the power to introduce only secondary legislation, to secure order and “make a fence around the law.”
The Torah tells us that a king should not “acquire great numbers of horses,” or “take many wives” or “accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (Devarim 17:16-17). These are the temptations of power, and as we know from the rest of Tanach, even the greatest – King Solomon himself – was vulnerable to them. It is not easy to be humble when everyone is bowing down before you and when you have the power of life and death over your subjects.
The great statesmen of modern times understood this, at least in secular terms. William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Britain, had a library of 32,000 books. We know – because he made a note in his diary every time he finished reading a book – that he read 22,000 of them. Assuming he did so over the course of eighty years (he lived to be 88), this meant that he read on average 275 books a year, or more than five each week for a lifetime.
He also wrote many books on a wide variety of topics from politics to religion to Greek literature, and his scholarship was often impressive. For example he was, according to Guy Deutscher in Through the Language Glass, the first person to realize that the ancient Greeks did not have a sense of color and that Homer’s famous phrase, “the wine-dark sea” referred to texture rather than color.
Visit David Ben Gurion’s house in Tel Aviv and you will see that, while the ground floor is spartan to the point of austerity, the first floor is a single vast library of papers, periodicals and 20,000 books. He had another 4,000 or so in S’de Boker. Like Gladstone, Ben Gurion was a voracious reader as well as a prolific author. Benjamin Disraeli was a best-selling novelist before he entered politics.
Winston Churchill wrote almost 50 books and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading and writing are what separate the statesman from the mere politician. The two greatest Kings of early Israel, David and Solomon, were both authors, David of Psalms, Solomon (according to tradition) of The Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The key biblical word associated with Kings is chochmah, “wisdom.”
Solomon in particular was known for his wisdom:
“When all Israel heard the verdict the King had given, they held the King in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.” (Kings I 3:12)
“Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt … From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the Kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” (Kings I 5:10-14)
“When the Queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon… she was overwhelmed. She said to the King, ‘The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told to me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard…’ The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.” (Kings I 10:4-24)
We should note that chochmah, wisdom, means something slightly different than Torah, which is more commonly associated with Priests and Prophets, than Kings. Chochmah includes worldly wisdom, which is a human universal rather a special heritage of Jews and Judaism. A Midrash states:
“If someone says to you, ‘There is wisdom among the nations of the world,’ believe it. If they say, ‘There is Torah among the nations of the world,’ do not believe it.” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13)
Broadly speaking, in contemporary terms, the word chochmah refers to the sciences and humanities, to whatever allows us to see the universe as the work of God and the human person as the image of God. Torah is the specific moral and spiritual heritage of Israel.
The case of Solomon is particularly poignant because, for all his wisdom, he was not able to avoid the three temptations set out in the Torah: he did acquire great numbers of horses, he did take many wives and he did accumulate great wealth. Wisdom without Torah is not enough to save a leader from the corruptions of power.
Though few of us are destined to be Kings, Presidents or Prime Ministers, the general principle still applies to us all. Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others. To be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah and chochmah: chochmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it ought to be.