Anyone who has ever been to kiddush and “had a word” about a shul’s board of management knows there is an ancient Jewish tradition of fulminating against authorities. So is it kosher to criticise our leaders?
The answer begins with the first word of our verse, Elohim. Rashi draws on rabbinic tradition and notes that Elohim can mean both God and a court of judges.
Nachmanides goes a step further and equates God and a court of law, commenting: “The sages say that the word Elohim includes not only the Judge on high but also the judge who sits on earth in place of God.”
In the days when the Israelites were ruled by judges, cursing leaders was understood as a rejection of God’s authority. Yet we know from the Torah that Israelites constantly find fault in their leaders.
When King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and sends her husband Uriah off to war to face certain death, the prophet Nathan sharply chastises him.
Therein lies the difference. When one person curses another in the Tanach, its purpose is to cause harm. Our verse prohibits cursing the judge or king but it does not forbid critique.
Nathan reprimands David with a different goal in mind; the prophet prevails on the king to atone for his actions and recognise their impact on his leadership. Nathan does not seek to damage but to warn the king of the outrageousness of his behaviour.
Though an oft-repeated principle, critique and dissent are an essential corrective to leadership, providing necessary feedback about injustice and wrongdoing, whether it is in a synagogue, an organisation or government.
Thin-skinned authorities may reject criticism but wise leaders understand that the path to fair and effective governance is to take critique to heart, even when its severity stings.