What Makes a Community a Community?


rabbi-eliyahu-safran1How to Lead; How to Follow

By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

“And you shall command the children of Israel…” Exodus 27:20

In the November 22nd 2013 issue Jewish Daily Forward Rabbi Gil Student asked a simple question.  He asked, “Why does such a small nation continue to split into smaller pieces of a shrinking pie?”  Why do we Jews seem intent on taking our already small number and finding ways to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groupings?   Reform broke from what would be known as the Orthodox mainstream.   The Conservative Movement came about as a reaction to Reform.  The Reconstruction Movement from Conservative.  Modern Orthodox.  On and on and on.

Gil Student suggests that these schisms and fractures are responses to modernity.  As he notes, in many ways, it is simple human nature.  The world changes, people change.  But more insightfully, he speaks to the nature of groups.  “Aside from basic human nature, there is an important political aspect to the splits. A movement remains viable only when its members care what each other think, when they are willing to listen and respond to one another’s concerns. Compromise is the masking tape of unity, clumsily but effectively keeping loose pieces from falling off. When we stop caring about how our colleagues and neighbors react, when we act unilaterally on the most contentious issues, we implicitly create new movements that are only formalized over time.”

Perhaps, I would suggest, that nothing defines a community so much as its recognition of common leadership and willingness to respect the authority of that leadership.

Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the charge to Moshe to command the community of Israel to bring all that is needed to maintain the Menorah.  He is also told to instruct the “wise hearted” to prepare the vestments for Aaron the Kohen. However, as the parasha unfolds there is an abrupt change in how God instructed Moshe. “And you shall make a Menorah.” “And you shall make a Shulchan.”  “And the Mishkan shall you make.”

Moshe is no longer told to command others. The instructions are directed at him personally, it seems incumbent upon him to build various components of the sanctuary.

Which is it?  Is Moshe to instruct and command others, or is he to do the tasks himself?  Speaking to this point, the Midrash Hagadol directs us back to the parasha‘s opening pasuk where we read, v’ata tetzaveh “and you shall command the children of Israel,” veyikchu “that they shall bring.”

From this, it is clear that Moshe’s role was to instruct, guide and command.  It was Israel’s task to fulfill, create and do.  To emphasize this point, we see that Moshe’s name is never mentioned in the parasha. This so the Torah did not create the erroneous impression that the burden of responsibility to create and maintain a sanctuary is solely placed on the shoulders of Moshe, the leader. The focus is not on Moshe.  It is on Israel to establish a House of God; a task shared by the entire community of Israel.  It is on the leader to inspire, teach and motivate. It is on the people to respond.

The balance and relationship between leader and community speaks to the heart of what it means to be a community, and what it means to thrive.  Cynics would suggest that the burden of the mikdash is to be borne by the communal religious leaders.  The truth is that the burden is to be borne by the people.  “Ah,” reply the cynics, “so the real burden is on the community.  If that is true, what is the need for leaders?  To claim the glory?”

The Torah is clear on the balance between leader and community.  Veata tetzaveh – the leader’s job, Moshe’s job, is to teach, inspire, and prompt the community. The community’s job is to respond – veyikchu – to generously cooperate, participate and share.  Only when everyone carries out their responsibility fully and honestly can a sanctuary be built.

A leader without a community is a stray voice in the wind.  A community without a leader is little more than a mob.  The relationship between a leader and community brings to mind two stories.  The first is of a poor simpleton who was befriended by a millionaire lover of music who happened to have a private orchestra.  One day, the simpleton asked to be assigned a position in the orchestra. Astonished, the rich man exclaimed, “I had no idea you could play an instrument.”

“I can’t,” the simpleton replied.  “But I see you have a man there who does nothing but wave a stick around while the others are really working hard, playing. His job I can do.”

How many of us are like that simpleton, believing that leaders do nothing more than “wave sticks around”?  How many of us believe that it is only the orchestra, the community that does the work?

The second story also concerns an orchestra.  During rehearsal, everything seemed to be going perfectly.  Gorgeous music filled the hall as 150 skilled musicians responded to the maestro’s guiding hands.  Suddenly, in midst of a fortissimo passage, the conductor rapped the music stand.  Music fell to silence.  “Where is the piccolo?” he demanded.

The piccolo player had missed his entry, and even in the exalted fullness of the orchestra’s playing, the maestro heard what was missing.

Trained, seasoned and sensitive leaders keep their eyes and ears attuned to the role and mission of every community member. Only when everyone plays together, closely watching and following the leader’s direction, is there perfect harmony.

And such a performance deserves thunderous applause!

* * *

Open Orthodoxy is an orchestra that disregards its conductor.

What is left is disharmony and discord.  I cannot help but believe that no one preaching Open Orthodoxy would ever even consider themselves part of an Orthodox orchestra if they knew that their discordant and thunderous noise would be immediately halted by a fine-eared maestro, rapping on his shtender and demanding, “Where is the piccolo?”  What community leaders would prefer to take their issues to the pages of the New York Times rather than other caring, concerned rabbis and Jewish leaders, if the maestro would demand an explanation?

Such a maestro as our orchestra needs would demand to know, “Is this what you learned from my decades of preaching and teaching? Is this what I left you with?  So soon after leaving you, you destroy what I built, and you still parade as my talmidim, with no shame?”

That maestro, of course, could be none other than Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z’l, the Rav.   I have no doubt that were the Rav alive today, Open Orthodoxy would not be so much as a bad dream.  Not one of its leaders and spokesmen, senior or junior, would risk being escorted into the Rav’s  apartment – where every guest arrived with chil u’reada, with fear and trembling – in the Yeshiva University dorm to explain the catalog of their trespasses; from ordaining women and then having them serve as rabbinic staff at Orthodox synagogues, changing gender roles in synagogues services (including having women lead Kabbalt Shabbat, lain or serve as Makriah for Shofar blowing), promoting gay marriage and gay practice and changing conversion standards.

And if owning up to this list of trespasses to the community’s norms was not enough, would Open Orthodoxy/YCT mentors have the audacity to explain to the Rav the reasoning behind their denial of Ikkarei Emunah including OO rabbis denying the historicity of the Torah, denying the existence of the Avot, denying the Exodus, the existence of prophecy, the Messiah? Would they have the chutzpah to rationalize to the Rav their policies regarding interfaith and interdenominational issues, including their conducting interfaith programs in their synagogues?

Would they have?

They would not have dared!  It is inconceivable that anyone involved in the Open Orthodoxy movement would have dared challenge the conductor who brilliantly led the Modern Orthodox orchestra until his passing two decades ago.

Then, there was a leader.  Then, there was a community defined by its norms and its willingness – desire, even – to follow the authority of the leader.

As Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer bemoans in his CrossCurrent.com essay, “The horse is out of the barn.  There are no rules anymore.  Everything goes.  Making it up as you go along.”

This is not music.  This is not harmony.  This is not the power of a beautiful orchestra, filling a concert hall with a sound worthy of the music of the spheres, holy, ethereal, sanctified.  Instead, it opens the door to a future none of us can imagine.  “No one knows where this all will lead or what the next innovation may be, but we are witnessing the emergence of a new denomination before our very eyes. It is truly frightening.”

Frightening, the word does not even come close to expressing what that future might be.  Tetzaveh!  Where is our leader?  Where is the community who will take heed?  How will our sanctuary be built?

They have introduced dissonance to our beautiful symphony.

How dare they!

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. The reform, conservative and all other non-Torah movements serve only to facilitate the divide of the soul and the maiming of the Temple in Israel.

    This is a complete pagan heresy and the restitution of Israel is not ever going to be possible without true assessment of honor and dignity in a way of honor’s last sleep.

    Ultimately, the jewish people need especially good leaders, but out own uncommon denominator of true freedom is an everlasting expression of good pleasure for Torah and Torah Activity.

    Torah will always be the deciding factor in all ways and even though there may be fragmented culture, our real way of Life in Torah is constructed in the Heavens and those who leave Torah ways behind to activate a new reality of unsolved dreams will ultimately All be Judged by a higher authority.

    It may never be perfectually designed for all of our homes to enjoy eachothers company in this current world, but the trust in Hashem transcends to the heavens.

    We will all have Torah in Heaven and there will be no reform, no conservative, no reconstruction and dare we ever even discuss that there will be no common hateful problem of the open orthodoxy which serves only to merit its own transferred limitation of human undressing of common threads of challenge and respite fortune.

    Torah continues in All of its True Missions.

  2. Actually I also made a typo..the correct website name is:
    (not CrossCurrent.com and not CrossCurrents.com)

  3. The answer is obvious. Achdus!!!
    without achdus among the ENTIRE klal yisroel. How can we expect mashiach to come? When the bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of the lack of achdus I.e. Sinas Chinam baseless hatred.

    May all of us come together and do teshuva so mashiach can come already

  4. A comment about what a blogger wrote in that rag the Forward?

    Who cares is the appropriate response. There is no reason to even be ???? it.

  5. i don’t understand.All the rabbis from the RCA that are writing articles against avi weiss and women putting on tefilin,if they practice what they preach why don’t they all get together and tell the RCA either you kick out these members or else we are going to leave.Matzav has done a great job of putting the letters on the site but no action has been taken by the RCA.How can respected rabbonim belong to an organization,and more how can an organization that upholds halacha allow members who go against halacha to remain member.

  6. Thank you for your words regarding “Open Orthodoxy”. Now lets see if others will wake up and stop recognizing this group as Orthodox.

  7. Your perspective is American, where you enjoy the luxury of separation of church and state and Judaism is nothing more than a. Religion. Sicnve emancipation, this model has repeatedly failed everywhere, to varying degree of tragedy, precisely because it permits the luxury of self division until all critical mass is lost. Judaism is not a religion, it is a nation state. Once one is obliged to build a. Nation and deal with other groups or die, all sorts of scales fall from the eyes. The penultimate battle with the charedim today is not over military service or taxes, but their insistence of living in Lithuania in this day and age, in the middle of Israel.