PAL 127 Moral Leadership 

Self, Other, Action


A Pedagogy of Moral Leadership


Bernard Steinberg




“If I am not for myself, who am I?

When I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?”

(Hillel, a first century Jerusalem sage)


I.  What is “moral leadership”?


What do we mean by moral leadership?  Can it be taught? And if so, how? 


“Leadership” here describes not a position, but form of action, specifically: to engage and motivate others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. Experts, technicians, managers may be called upon in situations where purposes are self-evident, goals clearly defined and clear-cut, values neutral or black-white. Such situations do not require leaders. The leader may or may not be in a position of authority, but a person qua leader functions in complex, elusive situations where overarching purpose, goals and outcomes are far from certain.


Leadership becomes “moral” when three inherently moral dimensions ground, infuse, and energize leadership:


1. Agency--the self-conscious choice to accept responsibility to engage and motivate others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.  This parallel’s Hillel’s focus on self.


2.   Active deliberation on and articulation of shared meaning, the purpose to be achieved in the face of uncertainty.  This parallel’s Hillel’s focus on “relationship”.


3. The capacity for hope, the exercise of courage, and the recognition of intellectual limitation because and in spite of uncertainty.  This parallel’s Hillel’s focus on action.


II. A Pedagogic Framework: Hillel’s Questions


Hillel’s fundamental questions of human identity underscore the interactive relationship between self, other, and action that informs moral leadership. The struggle with each question can activate agency, clarify and deepen articulation, sensitize us to the limits of our knowledge, while inspiring courage and hope.


The question ‘Who am I?’ provokes me to think hard and deep about identity, inevitably in terms of moral purpose and values revealed in the choices I have made in the course of my life journey.  In a deep sense ‘I am’ the story of my action with respect to what and who matters to me.  In my self-exploration I need to ask:  What do I deem important and why?  What are the sources of my values?  How do I understand these values intellectually and experience them emotionally?   What are the resources that sustain, nurture, and inspire them?  What picture of the world do I envision to frame and describe my life-story?  How do I express my identity, and purpose in action?


As I further reflect on such questions, I realize that ‘who am I?’ organically provokes the question ‘who are we?’ For the values and purpose that infuse my identity are grounded in others--parents, siblings, friends, coaches, teachers, and mentors who have inspired and shaped me. Of equal importance, I realize that I am defined and nurtured by “significant others” in the present, individuals and communities with whom I interact, work and live, and with whom I want to build a purposeful future.  I recognize that my very selfhood is relational, and that my future rests on the reality and the value of interdependence. What is my role and the scope of my responsibility in an interdependent world?


Hillel’s third question, ‘If not now, when?’, a direct implication of the first two, underscores the urgency of decision and action, despite real limits to our knowledge, and thus, risk. Individuals and communities need to make urgent choices about actions that express ‘who I am and who we are’.  For only through concrete actions do we realize our values; achieve our purpose; actualize our selves.  Fear, which can provoke reaction or paralysis, is a primary obstacle to our capacity to freely and creatively choose action.  How do I and how do societies summon the capacity to hope and to act with courage with eyes fully open to complex, even brutal realities which provoke fear?



III. Pedagogic Method:  Havruta Learning


Because Hillel asks questions of self, relationship, and action, he invites, even urges active response, and on three levels:  1) internal reflection; 2) deliberation and articulation with others; 3) motivation for and external action.


Of equal importance, Hillel’s questions are dynamic because our identities, relationships, and life-situations constantly move between flux and continuity.  Both the action and the learning of moral leadership therefore demand an on-going, energizing process of self-reflection, articulation, deliberation with others, response in action and learning by doing. 


To these ends, we utilize a pedagogic method which both teaches about moral leadership while engaging in the practice of moral leadership: havruta learning. Havruta learning refers to a method widely practiced in the classical Jewish academies where students explore fundamental questions of moral purpose and practice through text study in pairs with study partners.


Three fundamental principles of havruta inform the learning and practice of moral leadership.


1) Havruta learning is relational. The Aramaic word havruta means friend. Havruta learning reflects another teaching of Hillel: “Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; judge every person on the scale of merit”


Although there are many ways to interpret this elusive aphorism, the general sense is the threefold analogy between teachers, friends, and giving benefit of the doubt. The qualities we associate with friends and the qualities we associate with teachers somehow overlap, inform, support, and complement each other. And the teacher/friend relational ideal both presupposes and results in trust, an expression of generosity of spirit.


One commentator says that to acquire a friend means: “a person should get a friend for himself, to eat with him, drink with him, study the written Torah with him; study the oral teaching with him….and reveal to him all his secrets, the secrets of the Torah and the secrets of worldly life.”  (Avot DeRabbi Natan 1:6, 8th century CE)



Building on this commentary, philosopher Moses Maimonides adds:  “…When a man achieves this much trust in his friend, he will find great calm in his words and his love….A real friend ethically inspires and instructs.. the two of them share the same desire and purpose, namely, the good. Everyone should want to be aided by his friend so that both can achieve the good together. This is the friend (Hillel) teaches us to acquire: the love of these two friends is like the love of a teacher for a student and a student for a teacher.” (Maimonides, Commentary on Mishnah Avot 1:6. 1160 CE)


Without following these commentaries literally, we can apply some of their insights to moral leadership:


a) Moral leadership is simultaneously pedagogic and relational. The moral leader functions as learner, teacher, and friend who draws upon and shares concrete life-experience with others in order to learn, discover, and articulate purpose.  Relational learning is inherently personal, and so involves the whole person, learning and communicating with mind and heart.


b)  Because relational learning is personal, it assumes an initial willingness and confidence to trust, and demands the further cultivation of trust.  Implicit in the assumption and cultivation of trust is the challenge to struggle with uncertainty and risk.


c)  The havruta relationship as a shared quest for the good, points beyond each person in isolation and suggests possibilities for self-transcendence and overarching transcendent purpose that can connect individuals and communities. In this way, moral deliberation can be enriched and create expanded possibilities for action beyond the frames of utilitarian and Kantian discourse.


2) Havruta is oral and dialogical.

Breaking into pairs, students read aloud and discuss texts. Active speech in response both to the “voices” within the text and the voice of a learning partner in living conversation is a vital element of havruta.  Learners pay close attention to the words and structure of the text, listen carefully to each other and are invited to draw from their life-experience to exemplify its themes and to spell out its implications. Because this quality of “dialogical” conversation involves active speaking and active listening, it engages the whole person, mind and heart with reference to the concrete situation of their actual lives.  Havruta learning thereby becomes a powerful medium of self and mutual discovery, articulation of purpose, and motivation of action. For through havruta dialogue individuals can tap into moral sources within themselves and draw on energy from others, which can inspire.


3) The text serves as the forum for dialogue.

In the classical rabbinic tradition textual interpretation replaced theological consistency as the shared framework for communal authority and meaning. Political and ethical philosopher Moshe Halberthal writes that the text became “an object with depth, something to be discovered….studying moves beyond reminding and reciting; and becomes inquiring, investigating, contemplating”.  Active searching, probing, and questioning in the quest for purpose became the primary medium of collective meaning. 


It is in this sense of active interpretation, questioning, reflection and discovery that we can utilize text in havruta as pedagogic method and practice in moral leadership. Several themes of classical text study are relevant: 


a) Truth is dialectic

A famous talmudic dictum, “These and these are the words of the living God” expresses the view that opposing views may both be true. Practical decision making in light of this dialectic cannot depend on epistemological or moral certainty.


b) Multiplicity of interpretation is not simply permitted, it is necessary.

For the meanings of the text are discovered on several planes—denotative, connotative, metaphoric, and symbolic, and within each plane many possibilities remain open. Among other things these possibilities reflect the legitimacy of minority views in the Jewish legal corpus, respect for the inherent uniqueness of every person, recognition of the relevance and range of temporal and geographic context. 


c)Text interpretation concerns both theory and practice

A defining feature of classical text study is the dialectic between theory and practice.  A central question is asked in the talmud: “What is greater?  Learning or practice?”  On the one hand, theory is considered an intrinsic value because the very experience of learning ‘for its own sake” –the intellectual, emotional, spiritual joy in the search for meaning, is considered the equivalent to an encounter with God.  On the other hand, practice is considered a paramount value because the individual, community, and world can only be redeemed when humans act in the world in accordance with God’s moral imperatives.  Actions, not beliefs, are the ultimate criterion of serving God. 


Moral leadership, like text interpretation, concerns the dialectic interaction between reflection and practice; a necessary tension between open-ended search and the urgency to decide and act.


IV.  Normative Texts: Nomos and Narrative


In the classical Jewish tradition, there are two broadly defined genres of textual interpretation:  halacha and aggada, roughly translated law (nomos) and narrative respectively. Although law and narrative each has its own distinctive hermeneutical method, both are normative, and together they are mutually reinforcing.  Both articulate the collective purpose and values of the community. While the law concretizes the values of the community in binding actions; the narrative dramatizes the larger vision and purpose thereby endowing those values and actions with vital meaning. While the law “objectifies” values in external behavior obligating everyone alike, the narrative “subjectifies”, by animating purpose and values in the mind and heart of each unique individual, inspiring agency and motivating action.


In this course, we will focus on narrative texts, both religious and secular in origin and discourse. As narratives they each deal with conflict, the struggle for resolution, and the challenge of decision.  They are further unified by protagonists who in exploring questions of self and while engaging others, discover capacities for hope, make difficult choices, and act courageously in spite of their failures, fears, and uncertainties.


(For more on narrative, see “What is Public Narrative?” by Marshall Ganz).