TRADITION TODAY: Humility in religious leadership

We should not have to wait for others to remind us of what a religious leader should be .

Pope Francis521 (photo credit: STEFANO RALLANDINI / REUTERS)
Pope Francis521
One of the things for which I am always thankful is that Judaism does not have a pope. We have never been organized in such a way that there was one person who stood at the head of our religion and whose word was unquestioned, one person who could determine what we had to believe. Even in the days following the destruction of the Second Temple, when there was a nasi at the head of the new Sanhedrin, he was never the unquestioned authority and could even be – and indeed was – deposed. In more recent times, the hassidic rebbe was an unquestioned authority, but only for his particular followers, not for all Jews, and the same is true today of other rabbinical leaders with loyal followers.
The institution of the Chief Rabbinate, either in Israel or in any other country, certainly bears no resemblance to the papal regime. In the first place, it is an institution of one particular country and has no authority over world Jewry. Secondly it is an artificial construct, originating in the Diaspora as a way of representing Jews to the non-Jewish government and never carried unquestioned religious authority among Jews.
One need only recall the political intrigues in the recent election of chief rabbis here to realize that this is nothing other than a political office, deriving its power from the state, elected by an unrepresentative political body and unrecognized by the majority even of religious Israelis as having supreme religious authority. It is a body that should be removed from the auspices of the state and become a private NGO representing those who are interested in it and willing to support it. That would go a long way toward solving Israel’s budget crises.
Having said that, I must admit that with the election of the current pope, I have been filled with admiration for the way in which he has conducted himself. As far as Jews are concerned, it is beneficial to have that office occupied by someone who has such a clear history of friendship with the Jewish people. When in Argentina, he was – and still remains – a dear friend of a respected Conservative rabbi, Rabbi A. Skorka, even authoring a book with him.
Aside from that, he has made a tremendous impression on the world because of his humility and modesty. When he answered, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, he astonished everyone. That, of course, is an internal matter for the church. But his humility and non-judgmental attitude are things that religious leaders of all faiths, Judaism included, could imitate to good effect. The way in which rabbis besmirched other rabbis during the elections for chief rabbi is indication enough of the problem we face in that regard. A humble attitude and a lack of pretentiousness could benefit our religious leadership and spread some light where today there is darkness.
However, we do not have to rely on the actions of the pope to see what proper humility is for rabbinic leaders. Hillel taught that lesson in the first century BCE, before Christianity even existed, when he said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them closer to the Torah” (Avot 1:2). The Sages explained that Aaron went out of his way to make peace between people when they quarreled, including between man and wife, and that he would treat everyone with respect, even sinners, going out of his way to greet them, hoping thus to influence them to change their ways, humbling himself for the sake of peace and the ways of the Torah. He did not hold himself aloof, but went down to the people to teach and to help.
This is the model of rabbinic conduct that has been Judaism’s pattern for 2,000 years. Unfortunately it is too often forgotten and ignored by those who should know it the best. We should not have to wait for others to remind us of what a religious leader should be and to show us the meaning of humility and modesty for those who hold important positions of religious leadership.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).