We are the ever-worrying people.
Philosopher and ideologue Simon
Rawidowicz (1896– 1957) is regularly quoted in his description of the Jews as
“the ever-dying people.”
Or so we have often perceived ourselves. From
the moment the first biblical spies went to scout out the Land of Israel and
felt “as grasshoppers” in the eyes of others, to the projections of some of our
leaders following the recent Pew Research Center study, we see ourselves as the
ever-threatened, ever- dying people.
When we aren’t being existentially
threatened, we regularly worry about our own spiritual or cultural demise. But
the truth is that far more than being an ever-dying people, we are an
It’s understandable that we worry, however. Given
the enormity of issues facing the Jewish people both in Israel and throughout
the Jewish world, it is no wonder that we are concerned. If we aren’t worried
about our physical survival in Israel, we’re worried about our Jewish identity
everywhere. And when we aren’t worried about our Jewish identity, we’re worried
about our spirituality.
But perhaps we should also see all the ways in
which we are thriving, both as a start-up nation in Israel reclaiming the best
of Jewish tradition, and a thriving array of communities and institutions
throughout the wider Jewish world. If we can see all the totality of who we, the
Jewish people, are today, and what has enabled us to become who we are, we might
better understand and learn from what makes us thrive: leadership that has at
its core the desire to create ethical societies.
Regardless of the
strength of an economy, or the internal and external threats that are so real,
what has mattered most in our collective survival and thriving as a people has
been the capacity of leaders to inspire communities of meaning and, especially
in our time, to provide multiple models of a Jewish life worth living. With
excellence in leadership, while some may still need to see us as the ever-dying,
leaders with vision who know that we are the ever- thriving people will be able
to harness the resources and knowledge necessary to make it so.
to leadership experts who teach about long-range systemic change in countries,
universities and business, successful leadership depends upon the combination of
knowledge, the trust of a community of people, the capacity to leverage power
and the willingness to take risks.
Successful leaders also learn from
other leaders, from their brilliant successes and their disastrous mistakes. But
not enough has been said or taught about how Jewish leaders can succeed in
transforming organizations, communities and countries.
don’t just need to lead according to communal needs; they need to be led by the
ethical imperatives of this hour.
There are three Jewish leaders we
should study, who I think best model the rare combination of leadership capacity
motivated by ethical imperatives: (1) Moses; (2) Yohanan Ben Zakai (first
century CE); and (3) Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Each one, in different contexts,
embodied not only powerful leadership capacity, but perhaps more importantly
their leadership was guided by ethical imperatives – and they were willing to
take risks. Each one responded to a profound existential threat facing the
Jewish people and acted on the ethical imperative of his time. Similar arguments
could be made about Ben Zakai, in fleeing the siege of Jerusalem in 68 CE and
setting up the rabbinic academy of Yavne, and about Herzl in calling for the
Jewish state in 1896, expanding the Zionist movement and establishing
international alliances. Without each of these three giants of Jewish history,
we would probably still be enslaved – without Torah, rabbinic tradition and even
the possibility of political sovereignty. In other words, we wouldn’t
While the existential threats of our time are real, we live with
the blessing of Jewish sovereignty and the political leadership willing to take
risks to defend the physical existence of the Jewish people.
spiritual and communal existence in North America is – while not under
existential threat of physical destruction – much in need of more Jewish leaders
attuned to ethical imperatives of another sort. Jewish leaders today –
professional and lay, young and old – must have the capacity to fully respond to
an unprecedented reality of what some call a post-ethnic Jewish era, an age
characterized by what was unthinkable just a few decades ago. We are blessed to
live in a time of egalitarian Judaism, women rabbis, Jews of patrilineal
descent, families of intermarriages and Jews of a wide spectrum of sexual
orientations. Multicultural and multilayered identities are (generally speaking)
accepted if not embraced by the majority.
This kind of Jewish communal
reality probably demands that we rethink everything. But it also presents us
with enormous opportunity. Given such expansive affirmation of the ethical
demands of many who were previously disenfranchised, we are also likely to be
living in a time in which there ought to be greater sensitivity to the needs of
those still seeking a place or a voice within our communities and in the world
It is also likely that this diversity holds within it not
only the ethical sensitivities and the social capital to lead the
transformations necessary to become more of what Jewish tradition wants us to
be, but this diversity should also breed more leaders who have the knowledge,
capacity, power and willingness to take risks. ■ The writer is the national
director of recruitment and admissions and President’s Scholar of the Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a Shalom Hartman Institute of
North America teacher.
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