An ever-thriving people: Courageous leadership for our time

Far more than being an ever-dying people, we are an ever-thriving people.

November 2, 2013 02:28
4 minute read.
Women of the Wall, October 4, 2013.

Women on the Wall 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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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.”

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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 ever-thriving people.

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.

According 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.

Jewish leaders 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 exist.

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.

But Jewish 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 altogether.

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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