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Jewish Leaders Must Listen as Well as Lead

Listening provides an important check on leaders who may lose sight of where the people are
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

The recent Pew Research Center study of the habits and attitudes of American Jews revealed a surprising gap between how most view Israel and the policies of some of the major and most vocal Jewish organizations.

Eighty-nine percent of those polled expressed a willingness to criticize Israel for its actions; only 17 percent support Israel’s settlement policy.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Forward that this apparent gap doesn’t bother him.

“I don’t sit and poll my constituency,” Foxman said. “Part of Jewish leadership is leadership. We lead.”

This got us thinking. What is the ethical relationship between Jewish leaders and the people they lead? Is Abe Foxman right, that the responsibility of a leader is to do what he or she thinks is right, ostensibly on behalf of the community and with repercussions for the community? Or are leaders more beholden to the expressed ideas and interests of their populations, regardless of whether the leader thinks these are correct? Put differently, is leadership dependent on followership? This is not a new problem, nor is it foreign to classical Jewish thinking. According to one well-known Talmudic dictum, rabbis may not issue a decree upon a community unless the majority can endure its strictures. If rabbis are to legislate behavior and create communal policy, they must be sensitive to what their communities are capable of and willing to do.

We might read this cynically and understand that this is merely a good tactic to keep power; a leader who governs in a way that is inconsistent with what the people can or will do will not govern for long. But there is a more generous reading: While leaders bear a moral responsibility to govern and legislate based on what they believe to be right, they have a countervailing moral responsibility to the people whom they govern.

Leaders should not issue policy statements that are unpalatable to the people supposedly represented by and beholden to such statements.

The need to hold these instincts in tension is not just good policy; it’s an important check on leaders who may lose sight of where the people are. Leaders who stand too far in front of their people are easily blinded or deceived, incapable of seeing those who have turned away from their leadership.

This lesson becomes evident when we compare stories of two leaders from the Book of Exodus.

Moses, the most prominent leader the Jewish people has ever had, made at least one grievous mistake as he misread the people so greatly that he found himself standing atop Mount Sinai oblivious to the people worshiping the Golden Calf below.

A simple reading would just blame the people for this sin.

Perhaps this is more proof that the leader knows best, that left to their own devices, the people will worship idols.

But the rabbis of the Talmud don’t read it that way. Instead, they blame Moses for forgetting that his only reason for receiving the Torah was for the sake of the people. If this is their sin, God says to Moses, why do I need you? When leaders become so obsessed with their own idiosyncratic sense of moral responsibility – and when they do so without aligning their views to the moral vocabulary of their constituencies – they not only can ultimately fail to lead, they can lead their people astray.

In contrast, take the artisan Bezalel, one of the quieter leaders of the Torah. In parsing the qualities that Exodus 31:3 attributes to him – “wisdom, knowledge and understanding” – the commentator Rashi explains that “wisdom” refers to what a person learns from others. “Knowledge” refers to what one understands on his or her own, because of the person’s own learning. “Understanding” refers to what the leader receives from the divine spirit.

Bezalel succeeded because he didn’t try to build the Tabernacle on his own; rather, he brought to the project tremendous artistic skill, an appreciation for the gifts of the people, and the commitment to working for a divine purpose rather than his personal advancement.

This is true leadership. A leader must pay attention to his or her own learning and experiences, listen carefully to the perspectives of his or her constituency, and remain humble enough to recognize each of our dependence on the divine spirit. Reliance on one’s own vision or knowledge alone, without communal support, makes for either a lonely echo chamber or the rantings of an ignored prophet. In fact, Moses belatedly realizes the need to integrate these aspects of leadership and defends the Jewish people from the threat of divine punishment. Despite God’s offer, he refuses to be a leader without his people.

Moses’s leadership arc changes dramatically as he understands better the obligations he bears to the people.

If we learn anything from the rapidly changing dynamics of Jewish life as reported by the Pew survey, it is that leadership is going to have to be significantly more nimble and adaptive in this wide-open marketplace of American Jewish free choice. Leaders should not abandon the moral obligations to sometimes take unpopular stands, but must also respond to the voices of an American Jewish population that will not stick around to be led against its will.

This changing reality of Jewish life is not a problem to be bemoaned; rather, it is an opportunity and a challenge for leaders to demonstrate wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

The Jewish people today need inspired moral leadership, and leadership sensitive to who Jews are and who we are becoming. We suggest Jewish leaders respond with nuance – rather than anger – both to today’s most pressing Jewish challenges, and to the opinions of the Jewish people in America about them.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

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