(November 20, 2022 / JNS) One of the most frequently asked philosophical questions is why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. The Talmud relates that Moses himself was perplexed by this question, but instead of receiving an answer, he was told by God to simply accept the world as it is and humanity’s inability to fully understand it. Ramban and others tried to minimize the question by explaining that good and bad are frequently subjective and not all people agree on what they are. Still, the question remains.
In our generation, the question has taken on another dimension. We are faced with the paradox that bad people sometimes do good things and good people do bad things. This is particularly the case with prominent leaders or other authority figures.
We are frequently disappointed when people we admire make mistakes or commit grave sins, while we are sometimes surprised when people we despise act in admirable ways. While it’s easy to explain this paradox by positing that people are complex, and never fully good or evil, we are still faced with the question of how to deal with such leaders.
In the past, we usually did not have to answer this question, because the actions of good or bad leaders were easily concealed. This has changed with the advent of the internet and social media. With news and rumors spreading at the speed of light, acts that in the past would have been swept under the rug are now exposed for the world to see in mere hours if not minutes.
There are many benefits to this new transparency. Victims of authority figures, who in the past were often traumatized, shunned and alone, now see themselves validated and supported. Possible future victims, who were once unaware of the danger they faced, are now forewarned and thus protected.
Before this change, failed or dangerous leaders and authority figures would often go from position to position, city to city and victim to victim. Today, as word spreads quickly of their deeds, evil people are stopped and often imprisoned.
In some cases, while these leaders’ actions were sickening, they were not illegal, meaning public shaming would have been the only way to stop them. But in the past, the public was unaware of their behavior, and thus could not shun them. As a result, they sometimes rose to positions of considerable power. It is a good thing that this is often no longer the case.
But perhaps even more baffling is the case of bad people who are nonetheless good leaders and do good things. A person can have a bad personal character and act like a boor to their family, constituents and supporters, but also use their position to do good for people and institute policies that benefit the public. It’s easy to condemn a leader who has poor character and does bad things. It is not as easy when a leader has poor character but uses their talents and skills to the benefit of the community.
When should a community condemn such leaders? All great Jewish authority figures have failed and sinned at certain points, sometimes grievously. Abraham, Moses and King David all made mistakes. It’s unrealistic to demand perfection from our leaders. So, where is the line between acceptable failings, even sin, and condemnable behavior?
The line between acceptable and condemnable sin should be drawn at the point where the sin causes irreparable harm and the sinner refuses to make amends and change their behavior. If the leader’s sin did not cause irreparable harm and they repent and make amends to those they harmed, while also reforming their behavior, they should be permitted to continue in office. While these requirements do not necessarily apply to every single case, they draw a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable leaders.
To build a better society, people of quality are needed to lead each community. We can tolerate mistakes and sins, but we should not accept leaders—however effective—whose character and behavior continuously fail to meet the most elementary moral standards and will not mend their ways.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.
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