General Topics

Modern Leadership


In the Jewish world leadership is discredited. And Chanukah is good time to discuss it. Recent exchanges on my blog have questioned my definition of “leadership”. So let me clarify what I mean. All significant creative and innovative movements in religious Judaism, after Moses, have come from outside the established leadership. The prophets of Israel, the Maccabee uprising, Talmudic Judaism, medieval Kabalah, Chasidism, and Musar have all challenged, been challenged, changed, and then themselves become stratified establishments.

Over time, most human organizations and movements atrophy, grow stale, and need either injections of new vitality or replacement. Very rarely does the person at the top have the capacity to bring about change or adaptability on his own. Sometimes challenge modifies the established order, but more often it does not. And often external circumstances do what internal leadership cannot. It is “the hour that maketh the man” rather than the reverse.

But how does one define leadership? If you live in the USA, where they love to produce lists of “the most influential”, you will know that they bear little or no relevance to reality. Leadership seems synonymous with publicity and self-promotion, not with the actual numbers of people who follow, listen to, or obey. America’s Rabbi, like America’s Best or America’s Sweetheart, are just publicity slogans.

Leadership of organizations or political parties is rarely a reflection on the power and influence of the individuals who occupy the senior positions, even when the organization itself might be numerically very significant. Sometimes the self-selected appear to wield influence. But in reality it is only their money that does.

The exception to the rule was post-destruction rabbinic Judaism, first under Ezra and then two thousand years ago, when it responded to the cataclysm with a whole raft of innovative ideas and laws. This is precisely why I tend to refer back to Talmudic authority with such devotion and admiration. Some might want to point to later attempts to reform Judaism, but I only see those as trying to adapt Judaism to other cultures.

True leadership is when someone with a vision and guts goes for it regardless, like Mattityahu and Yehudah. The Lubavitcher rebbe might be an example although his greatness lay in the creation of a dynamic missionary movement, not in a radical paradigm shift in Jewish religious thinking or halachic innovation. As for those scholars who left Eastern Europe under duress and at the last moment and helped establish new centers of learning and Torah in the USA and Israel, they were forced by circumstances rather than innovative intent. Indeed, none of the topflight Eastern European rabbinic leaders had the wisdom, foresight, or vision to encourage migration either to Israel or the West when it was still possible.

The reluctance of intense Orthodox leadership to be innovative stems from the defining characteristics of post-Enlightenment Orthodoxy as defined by the Chatam Sofer, who insisted that one retreat behind the safe walls of established tradition and reject innovation (that in itself is the exception to my rule and an example of a visionary volte-face). Or perhaps it is a visceral response both to the Holocaust and excessive modern self-indulgence.

Leadership could be defined as commanding large numbers of followers. Although Stalin’s rhetorical question “How many divisions has the Pope” shows how he defined leadership. Like the Pope, the major heads of the Lithuanian and Chasidic movements, the great Sephardi rabbis command inestimably more loyalty following and commitment than any “western rabbis” or community leaders. That gives them power. But are they using that power and authority to lead or to conserve? At least the Pope is ready to think again about condoms! Besides for all these leaders’ apparent power, most followers ignore their rulings when it suits them, in private at least. Religious leaders become superstitious salves for guilty consciences. And our version of Peter’s Pence is a charitable donation to a man who, too often, looks the part but we would not want to emulate.

My blog commenter suggested Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz as an example of a great leader. But, as great as his contribution is through his commentaries on the Talmud, he has not been a leader; that is, I am not aware that he has championed causes or entered the lists (other than a brief, and ill-advised sortie into an attempt to recreate the Sanhedrin).

I can, with hindsight, see the impact of the Hippy Revolution in the USA, which led to the Chavura movement, Shlomo Carlebach, and various New Age rabbis. But all of them functioned independently of established organizations, and the actual lifestyle example they set has been left behind. I think of the rise of Jewish education, which (outside of the ultra-Orthodox world) is overwhelmingly due to the failure of state educational systems. And the largest single factor in the rise of Charedi Judaism has been the social welfare system that, more than anything else, has enabled so many thousands of families to live a life of study and subsist without other means of support.

Philanthropic funds have done a great deal, but these too are sui generis creations and vehicles of individuals, not vehicles of leadership. Whether one thinks of Zionist organizations, federations, unions of synagogues, lay representative bodies–they all, by nature and record, tend to preserve the status quo and discourage innovation and creativity.

The exciting contributions I can think of, whether in the realms of adult education or the evangelical movements from within Orthodoxy–such as Ohr Somayach, Aish Hatorah, the new alternative minyanim and egalitarian communities in the USA and Israel–they were started by individual initiative, rather than organizational fiat and they are independent. Even so, they are on the periphery of Judaism. The established rabbinates of all colors have done nothing I can think of that is creative or innovative to grapple with the challenges of our times.

Thinking, creative Orthodoxy exists today in two areas–academia and grassroots. If I am scornful of “leadership”, I am full of admiration for what I see as the survival and growth of thinking Orthodoxy, even if it lacks powerful leaders. I do not for one moment deny the value and need for organizations, for structures and agencies and representation. But their role is largely preservative. It is the spirit of individual Jews that I find so impressive and which gives me cause for tremendous optimism. We refer to Moses not as “Moses our Leader” but rather “Moses our Teacher”. And therein lays the secret of survival.

Happy Chanuka.

10 thoughts on “Modern Leadership

  1. Dear Jeremy

    What are you complaining about? That things were better 2,000 years ago? That now we have no Ezras and don't seem to be producing any Mattisyahus? Or is it that there isn't any drama? No head-chopping, axe-wielding, hammer-waiving Judiths and Judahs.

    Steinsaltz's efforts are truly epic, regardless of whether he has followers or is on any list. Isn't it just the kind of thing we might read about being done in Vilna or Tzfat, by someone eminent and long since dead which would only feed a proclivity to bewail the lack of modern day ability? 'Der melech iz obgeshtorben,/ Die malke iz gevorn fardorben' (and, the vineyard is blighted, the branch breaks, the nest falls and the bird flies away, according to a Yiddish lullaby). Couldn't we have less b'yamim ha'heym and more b'yamim hazeh?

    Isn't it also the case that 'in hindsight' any one of the individual Jews you find impressive, might turn out to be a leader you'd recognise?

    What I think you really want is a super turbo charged leader to rise up from within establishment Jewry and revolutionise it, to instantaneous, world-wide acclaim, armed with only a soap-box and loud-hailer while standing outside Golders Green tube station! Even if such people existed 2,000 years ago (and anyone at the time noticed), can you think of a single example from outside Judaism of such an individual in modern times? It isn't unique to Judaism that there aren't charismatic and worthwhile leaders drawn from institutional organisations. The Tory Party doesn't produce people like Che Guevara, we get Cameron instead. But at least Cameron was (sort of) democratically elected; who elects rabbis? The vox populi?

    I have accidentally just come across a potential candidate you might like. Damdin Sukhbaatar, a later day Genghis Khan who was a military leader in the Mongolian 1921 revolution and whose name means "Axe hero".

    Best wishes.

  2. First of all DK, thank you for starting this with you earlier comments.

    But this time you make my point precisely!

    We can manage perfectly well without "great leadership", a very Catholic concept! On the contrary, most "leaders" are either self-appointed, hereditary, or selected by committees.
    I also addressed the subject because people often lament the absence of leadership, as for example in so-called Modern Orthodoxy (though I'm not sure what that means) where there are no universally acknowledged great leaders, but it's thriving nevertheless as I suggested. Many synagogues, minyanim, congregations are nowadays managing things with their own lay members and have no need of clergy.

    I think the greatness of Judaism is that we are ALL invited to do our bit as a "Kingdom of Priests". Which I think is very appropriate for an era of individuality. We can manage perfectly well without a Pope, a Sanhedrin, or anyone else.

  3. Dear Jeremy,

    You wrote of your regret that traditional Judaism lacks effective leadership. I answered. Now you say, you didn't mean it. You meant something else, notwithstanding that you wrote two blog posts on the paucity of leadership rather than on "the spirit of individual Jews".

    À bientôt.

  4. DK:

    I said that Judaism has very poor leadership and I said I thought we could mange perfectly well without it. And I reiterate both sentiments.


  5. Good, glad that's been sorted out. I'll leave it to your 600+ other readers to pick up from here.


  6. dk:

    Where did Jeremy say he regretted the lack of leadership? I think he said he regretted that those who should be leaders fell so far short. It is a separate sentiment to say that nevertheless we can get along fine without them.


  7. Hi ss, nice to hear from you.

    I think these statements below indicate nostalgia for past leadership and criticism of current leadership. If the two together don't amount to regret at a lack of leadership, then what was the point of writing about this topic?

    The idea that we can get along just fine without them (as if we have any choice) appeared at the end of the current blog post.

    "Nowadays we have no effective priesthood, no prophets, and no real leadership–just clerics, dynastic rebbes, and rabbis who are only concerned with furthering their own personal agendas and keeping the rest out. No wonder it's a mess." (November 11, 2010.)

    "In the Jewish world leadership is discredited."

    "True leadership is when someone with a vision and guts goes for it regardless, like Mattityahu and Yehudah."

    "Indeed, none of the topflight Eastern European rabbinic leaders had the wisdom, foresight, or vision to encourage migration either to Israel or the West when it was still possible."

    "The exception to the rule was post-destruction rabbinic Judaism, first under Ezra and then two thousand years ago, when it responded to the cataclysm with a whole raft of innovative ideas and laws."

    "The established rabbinates of all colors have done nothing I can think of that is creative or innovative to grapple with the challenges of our times."

  8. oh, there's leadership all right – but in the wrong direction. it's "leadership" that thinks its acceptable to issue rulings that it is forbidden to rent to arabs.

    if this is religious judaism, you can keep it. i am very depressed about the whole thing right now.



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