By Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
I want to share some of my recent thinking about leadership in the Orthodox Jewish community with you. There are a number of reasons why leadership is on my mind at this particular time.
We have just begun to read the opening parshiyos of Shemos. The story of our many years of slavery in Egypt and of our redemption has begun to unfold. We have been introduced to Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam and have begun to read of the Almighty’s miraculous wonders culminating in the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. We will soon read of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
There is an important theme that runs through the entire book of Shemos. It is the theme of leadership. It is the story of a man who is a reluctant leader and who is well aware of those of his handicaps that disqualify him from that role. But the role is thrust upon him, and we begin to learn so much about the importance of leadership for human society in general, and for the Jewish people in particular.
Besides the parshiyos hashavua, which all of us are now studying, there is an important event about to occur for many of us. I am referring to the upcoming biannual Convention of the Orthodox Union. As executive vice president, emeritus of that organization, I am joining my many colleagues at the OU, the officers and lay leadership of the organization, and hundreds of delegates from synagogues all over the United States and Canada. (I invite you to learn of how you can attend portions of this program by going to www.ou.org/convention/index.)
The theme of this year’s Convention, which will be held over the weekend of January 14-16, is leadership. Three keynote addresses will be presented during Shabbos on different aspects of this important theme. It is no wonder then that the topic of leadership is on my mind just days before this historic conference.
But most particularly, my current thoughts about leadership are the results of the special position that I have held for the past year and a half at the OU. On July 1, 2009, I ended my tenure as executive vice president of the organization, along with all of the administrative responsibilities that that position entails. I assumed a different role in the OU, one that granted me a degree of distance from the day-to-day action, and which gave me a special perspective, as well as a small dose of free time, to reflect upon the requirements of leadership in the Orthodox Jewish world today.
I found that three of those requirements coincidently begin with the letter C. They are comprehensiveness, candor, and courage. Let me explain what I mean by each.
Comprehensiveness: Jewish leaders today have a tendency to focus on specific groups within the larger Jewish world. Some focus only on their own geographic communities; others, only on those whose religious beliefs and practices are close to their own. What is necessary is a much more comprehensive vision, one which takes into account Jews close and distant, rich and poor, observant and non-observant.
The recent proclamation by a group of Israeli rabbis forbidding real estate transactions with non-Jews is an example of the narrow view of Jewish needs. Whatever may be the merits or faults of their halachic analysis, they failed to take into account the implications of their ruling for Jewry worldwide. They failed to take the comprehensive approach.
Candor: Jewish leaders today tend to be more conscious of their successes than of their failures. There is a note of triumphalism in the claims of leaders of every sector of the Orthodox community. I’ve often wondered whether these leaders are even aware of the severe unsolved problems that beset them. If they are aware of them, they are certainly proficient at shoving them under the rug.
Courage: Jewish leaders today tend to shirk unpopular positions and statements that might meet with the opposition of their constituents. Adherence to political correctness is so strong that one of the lectures at the upcoming OU Convention on Shabbos will be devoted to this very topic.
I maintain that if a leader would attempt to adopt the three guiding standards of comprehensiveness, candor, and courage, he or she would discover that there are at least three major problem areas which must be made priorities.
The first of these problems is the frightening rise of anti-Semitism all over the world. Not too long ago, many of us believed that with the Holocaust, the scourge of anti-Semitism was, if not behind us, at least limited in scope and intensity. This is no longer true. Whether we now encounter a new anti-Semitism, or a global anti-Semitism, no matter. Wherever we are, we live in a dangerous environment.
If the leader would take a comprehensive approach to the problem of anti-Semitism today, he would consider its causes, the specific dangers it presents, and the fact that it affects all Jews without discrimination.
The causes of anti-Semitism have been long debated. I personally favor the theologically based theory of the Netziv of Volozhin, which is found in his essay on the subject printed together with his commentary on Shir Hashirim. It is his belief that the Hand of the Almighty is at work whenever anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, and that its recurrence is no less than a divine message calling for sincere introspection.
The comprehensive approach cautions the would-be Jewish leader to never lose sight of the fact that the anti-Semite does not limit his hatred to any one sector of the Jewish people. One can never say that the threat of anti-Semitism is only present in some faraway land, or that only those who are visibly Jewish are its targets.
Candor, the second of our leadership standards, calls for the recognition that it is sometimes our own behavior that awakens dormant hatred against us. Headlines and vivid photographs of Jews in traditional garb guilty of civil and criminal actions, sometimes of a heinous sort, compound the problem. Honesty demands that we examine our own actions and make sure that we educate our constituencies to exhibit model behaviors at all times, in all places.
Courage demands that we use whatever resources we have to combat anti-Semitism, even if it means allying with individuals and organizations that we normally shun because they do not share our particular religious views. Courageously, we must be on guard against physical attacks, and we must do what we can to ensure our safety and the security of our communities.
The second major problem that confronts all of us at this time is the economic crisis. Here, the leader who values comprehensiveness will realize that this crisis has affected every segment of our people. Taking a comprehensive view, the leader cannot ignore the real poverty that plagues a much larger percentage of our community than we typically think. True, even from a Jewish point of view, charity begins at home. But the Jewish leader cannot confine his compassion and concern for the financial plight of others to those who happen to share his particular mode of Jewish observance.
Candor will help the leader evaluate the pattern of philanthropic expenditures. Candor will encourage him to re-examine the financial priorities of the community, and courage will equip him to reform the order of those priorities. Candor will permit him to acknowledge that much of what we spend money on is unnecessary, and that we all invest in charitable projects that are of questionable effectiveness and often of trivial importance.
Courage will allow him to speak publicly in favor of the genuine priorities of the Jewish community, especially primary day-school education, and with courage he will be able to call upon the community to recognize its responsibility to fund Jewish education rather than leave the burden on parents alone.
The leader who is blessed with candor will be equipped to recognize the luxury lifestyles upon which so many of us waste money, and often money we do not have. Blessed with courage, he will be equipped to speak out against extravagance and emphasize that in doing so, he is following the pattern of previous Jewish leaders who condemned showiness, realizing that Jews exhibiting their riches were arguably one source of anti-Semitism.
A third problem that confronts our people is a very broad and complex category I call the problem of community mental health. In this category, I include dysfunctional families, domestic violence, sexual abuse, the alarming divorce rates, alcohol and other substance addictions, the difficulties many come across in finding and making shidduchim, and numerous other social and psychological ills.
Taking the comprehensive view, the leader will readily be convinced that these ills are not restricted to some subclass of outcasts, but rather pervade our communities, from left to right, from FFB to BT, from chassid to Modern Orthodox. In my role as rabbinic liaison to the network of Jewish mental health professionals known as NEFESH, I have a constant opportunity to be in touch with psychotherapists, educators, and social workers who see these problems first hand and who confess to me that they’ve become overwhelmed by the scope and intensity of their caseloads.
The candid leader will not resort to denial. When these problems are brought to his attention, he will admit that they exist, and he will do everything in his power to combat them. With courage, he will speak out against perpetrators of abuse and defend the dignity of victims and uphold their rights. With courage, he will admit his inadequacies and open himself to education and training so that he can learn the skills and identify outside resources that can help address the problems of his community.
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To this point, we have identified the three C’s that are the standards of genuine leadership: comprehensiveness, candor, and courage. We have also briefly described three problem areas to which the standards of leadership must be applied: anti-Semitism, the economic crisis, and community mental health.
I would like to now suggest that there are three spiritual factors that lie beneath the surface of these problems. I further suggest that we consider three D’s as the first letters of these spiritual factors: discord, despair, and disdain.
Discord: From the very beginnings of our history, we have not been able to get along with each other. We must never forget that what brought us down to Egypt was that we sold our brother into slavery and did not heed his cries when he appealed to us. Machlokes (internal schism) has been with us throughout our history and persists until this very moment. We pray every day in so many ways for shalom, for peace, yet we are not at peace with ourselves. The pettiest of differences can cause tragic consequences between brothers, within congregations, and between man and wife.
Attempts to achieve harmony, just within the Orthodox sector of Judaism, are viewed as naïve and futile. Indeed, they are sometimes seen as illegitimate compromises on the part of those who try to be inclusive and forgiving. It should not require an article in The Jewish Press to point out the age-old lesson of the prophets that only with unity and togetherness can we achieve true redemption.
Despair: The Jewish people have survived because of their ability to remain full of hope under the direst of circumstances. Israel is the only nation whose anthem not only carries the theme of hope but is entitled “Hope” – Hatikvah. Yet it is my observation that in Jewish history, our generation is unique in the lack of leaders who preach the message of hope, who point out the very many positives in our current conditions. Rather, we suffer from a pervasive despair, a contagious depression. I will always remember being taught by the Lithuanian misnagdic rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik, the slogan of the most chassidic of chassidic masters, Reb Nachman of Breslav: “Yidden, yidden, zeit zich nisht miya’esh” – “Jews, Jews, do not yield to despair.”
Disdain: The third negative spiritual force that undermines us is cynicism, or disdain. Instead of admiring the accomplishments of others, we put them down condescendingly. We rain on their parade.
I will never forget how that wise leader of a previous generation, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, described the power of Amalek, of whom we read in the weekly portion of Beshalach. Rav Hutner pointed out that our sages applied the term “laitz” to Amalek. Whereas the traditional translation of “laitz” is one who mocks others, or one who is a clown, Rav Hutner insisted that the precise translation of the term “laitz” is “cynic.”
A cynic, he would explain, is one who sees the enthusiasm of another and asks, “So what?” The cynic sees the achievements of another and exclaims, “Big deal!” So, too, the people of Amalek. They witnessed the Jewish people crossing the Red Sea, exalted and inspired and compared to a “seething cauldron.” Amalek cooled off that cauldron. This is the power of Amalek, and we carry it inside ourselves every time we cynically dismiss the accomplishments of another, every time we treat someone different from us with disdain.
Today’s leaders have their work cut out for them. The problems are many, and the three that I briefly outlined are only a sample of them all. What I have tried to do here is present three prerequisites for competent leadership, the three C’s that I enumerated above. And I have also attempted to indicate the three spiritual faults that are undermining us, the three D’s, which we must strive to undo.
We must substitute unity for discord, replace despair with hope, and begin to recognize, accept, and extol the virtues of those whose accomplishments we have heretofore cynically disdained.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.