The Har Horev synagogue in Jerusalem recently held a very modest ceremony to honor the highly respected Rabbi Aryeh Stern, Jerusalem’s new chief ashkenazi rabbi.
No Knesset members or ministers attended the ceremony. Nor were there any tycoons or even many other rabbis. The truth is, at first I felt insulted on behalf of Rabbi Stern. It’s not every day that a chief rabbi of the capital of the Jewish world is appointed – a place I consider the capital of the spiritual world. I was expecting a more “lavish” ceremony.
I went home feeling like something was amiss.
The next morning, though, I began thinking about the event in a different light. I thought about the fact that the newly appointed rabbi is an incredibly modest person, about humility as a virtue. In this day and age, the sullied connections between wealth and government in Israel are finally being exposed. As I recalled the disgusting discussions between one of our country’s leaders and his personal assistant, the modesty of the ceremony I had recently attended made me feel like maybe there is still hope for us as a society.
I am not pining to return to the days of yesteryear, when I was a child in Jerusalem and every Friday we would all meet up at the Machaneh Yehuda market and not at the duty-free shops.
Back then there would be rich people and poor people talking together, important professors mingling with people who had been educated at the University of Life.
This was a time when people felt good about their modesty. I am very happy that the standard of living is higher now. I admit that I like shopping in air-conditioned stores in the summer and not being pummeled by the wind and rain in the winter. And yet it is essential that we retain a modicum of humility.
It was in this context that this morning I recalled the response by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania, who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple, to the Caesar’s daughter, who had teased him about his physical ugliness, saying, “How could such great wisdom be housed inside such an ugly body?” In response, the rabbi asked her, “In what type of container does your father, the Roman Caesar, store his best wine?” Her answer was: in ceramic containers, since gold or silver containers would have made the wine go bad.
Why is humility a prerequisite (albeit not sufficient on its own) for wisdom? Apparently humility leaves the human ego outside of the cognitive picture. The ego perceives wisdom as a means and not as the objective. Wisdom then becomes a tool of the ego, and bends in order to satisfy a person’s greedy needs.
Originality is a great attribute. But sometimes original and innovative ideas are really just the reiteration of something that was said in the past. Therefore, if the “new and innovative” idea was intended to bring attention to the person who is currently espousing it, while at the same time discounting his predecessor who said something similar in the past, then this can have a damaging outcome.
Humility is also necessary in order to stick to a goal that is truly important. Once, a director at the Feuerstein Institute decided that the furniture needed to be replaced. It was obvious to all that the furniture really was old, although it was still usable. My late father, Professor Reuven Feuerstein, the founder and president of the institute, called the director into his office and berated him.
“You have enough money to buy new furniture? If that is so, give me the money and I will use it to save a few more children who we haven’t been able to help,” he said.
Being modest enables us to be more focused and precise in our actions. It helps us set our priorities and strive to reach our goals.
Humility is the only tool I know of that allows us to look deeply into the psyche of human beings. There’s a famous Talmudic story about Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon returning home from learning with his teacher, full of ideas.
On his way, he passes by a very ugly man who greets the rabbi politely and respectfully, saying, “May peace be with you, my rabbi and teacher.”
Rabbi Elazar does not return the greeting, but says instead, as if to himself, but loudly enough for the other man to hear, “How ugly this empty man is.”
Rabbi Elazar realizes straight afterwards that he has done something bad, and this causes him great sorrow and embarrassment. He had let the man’s physical appearance cloud his judgment, and had completely ignored his inner qualities.
Unfortunately, the lack of modesty in our community has led us to neglect the weaker members of our society: the old, people with disabilities and the disabled. An immodest society is at risk of turning into an immoral, unjust society.
So, in afterthought, the modest old-Jerusalem- style ceremony in which a community welcomed its long-time, venerated rabbi in such a personal, emotional and warm way now seems charming.
This is the type of rabbinate I believe in.
There are two types of rabbis. The first type are individuals who have distinct personalities, and prefer to remain distant from their communities.
This is very common in synagogues outside of Israel where the rabbi sits on the bimah, a raised platform, looking out over his congregation, as if he were inspecting his congregants and able to see their inner secrets. The rabbi, of course, dresses differently from the congregation, who often times refer to him in the third person and stand for him when he enters a room. He may be a charismatic, powerful leader, but he is not a member of the community. He is a type of mediator between the people and God.
The other type of rabbi is someone who is part of the community. He dresses like everyone else, and comports himself like everyone else.
His power derives from his character traits. He does not rely on outward differences to help prove his leadership. His charisma, wisdom, values and spirituality are what make him a true leader.
The first type is the more common. This pattern formed throughout the many years the Jewish people lived in exile. This type of rabbi offered the “people without a land” a spiritual anchor, a strong Jewish leader they so needed.
Jewish Diaspora communities needed a strong, authoritative leader, someone who stood a bit apart from the people, who could offer them security and stability, a connection with God, through all the difficult times our people suffered. The entire community would unite around this authoritative figure.
But now that we’ve come back home, to the Land of Israel, a number of dramatic changes have taken place. We’re once again a people with a state of our own. We have our own military and a natural feeling that we belong here.
Another change that began already two centuries ago is the phenomenon of secularization. It started mainly in Europe, and this separation of communities created a type of “distant peace” between the groups. But now that we’re back in our homeland, we can no longer live with this distant peace, unless you build separate communities, as the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) have.
The status and role of the rabbi in this new reality have changed.
Rabbis must now be active also among Israeli Jews who do not consider themselves religious.
Rabbis must love them and create a meaningful dialogue with them. These people expect their city’s officially appointed rabbi to listen to them and not just tell them what to do.
The people who are turning to rabbis now are more confident than their grandfathers were in Krakow or Warsaw. They are Jews living very proudly in a country of their own. They are critical and have a democratic way of thinking.
They have an opinion about everything and so they would like their rabbi to be respected for his wisdom, learnedness, knowledge, comportment and most importantly his humility and simplicity.
The newly appointed Jerusalem chief rabbi, Aryeh Stern, is not just a great Torah scholar, a learned man who has headed a respected religious institution for decades. Rabbi Stern is modest, simple and easy to talk to. He knows how to listen just as well as he knows how to speak. He stands out as an impressive individual due to his wonderful character traits and not his social status. Jerusalem’s new chief rabbi is the true fulfillment of the dream of Eretz Yisrael.
The author is a rabbi, president of the Feuerstein Institute and the chairman of the Zohar Institute.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.