Without regard to party, it is fair to say that our national leadership leaves much to be desired—and that lack of leadership has plunged our nation into a moral and civic crisis. Both public and private standards of behavior have so eroded that it has become increasingly difficult to point to a national civic institution with pride. Rhetoric that was once considered unthinkable now passes with little notice. You can probably credibly trace a retrenchment from civic engagement and general distrust of the media, government, and large civic institutions back to the Watergate crisis. And as we devolve as a nation to trading memes and barb in place of real discourse, the next generation of American citizens is witnessing this “defining down of deviance”, to borrow a phrase from the great Senator from New York—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
It is against the backdrop of the continued erosion of trust in our institutions that I would suggest Jewish religious institutions have a unique and important role to play. But that role can only be fully realized when the leadership of those institutions offers an alternative to the destructive national discussion that is currently underway. What passes for civic discourse has now become cleverly humiliating a person in an effort to gain more followers/ likes or to attack an opponent to elicit the applauds from a virtual echo chamber.
In Misphatim, there is a frequently quoted line, “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger” and it is often understood that the stranger is a foreigner—but it seems increasingly that the person who voted differently than you in the last election or who attends a different synagogue than you is as much a stranger as the person who just arrived in this country.
Now is the time for Jewish leadership to push back against that divisive culture and join together in common purpose. Jewish history is rife with internecine battles over practice and interpretations of Halacha (Jewish law). Pick up the Mishnah Beruah Hilchos Shabbat and there is page after page of dueling commentaries and disagreements on how a Jewish person and gentile should own a bathhouse or a horse, or how a Jew should travel on a ship—so as to avoid the desecration of Shabbat. The schools of Hillel and Shamai argued across the generations on how to lead a proper Torah life. Respectful debate is a proud and wonderful part of Jewish heritage and tradition. But those conversations have unfortunately ceased.
Conservative Jews and Reform Jews live and work alongside one another but rarely have any idea about how or why things are done the way they are in their respective synagogues. The Orthodox community and the progressive communities rarely if ever actively engage one another on religious or cultural practice. Unfortunately, when these conversations do happen they are more often talking about one another rather than talking with one another. They are tinged with mistrust and often are derisive or dismissive. “That place is just too Jewish for me.” “Those people are barely even Jewish—what do they know.” Too often these comments can be heard in both public and private settings, and even worse, in front of our children.
It is easy to retreat to your respective Synagogue, Temple, or Shul and hunker down, but in doing so you risk missing an opportunity to strengthen American Jewry, to everyone’s detriment. Surely, we shouldn’t be concerned that spending some time learning, eating, or sharing a Jewish music experience with someone outside of your comfort zone will shake the foundations of your community’s beliefs or endanger your values. Nor should we be afraid that spending time better understanding how our fellow Jews see the world, will lead our children to abandon their family’s belief system. It is time that the leadership of communities pick up the phone and call one another and open the dialogue. It won’t be easy. Surely, there will be difficult parameters to negotiate and some calls might not be returned or might even be met with rejection, but so be it.
During a sermon on Yom Kippur, my Rabbi urged congregants to reach out to someone they disagreed with politically and have a cup of coffee with them to better understand who they are and how they view the world. Unfortunately, I suspect few people engaged in this exercise. It is difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable but it goes to the heart of this proposition. Taking this risk is what it means to be a leader.
Rabbi Shai Held, writing about leadership in his book, Heart of the Torah, says that leadership is “not about methods or tactics; it’s about character.” Later on, in that same essay, Rabbi Held asserts “as hard as it can be to remember in a culture obsessed with self-promotion, a degree of self-doubt is essential for authentic leadership.” The leaders of our organized religious life have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that leadership is not about retreating to your corners and defending your position, it is not about maintaining that you are the ultimate defender of the only truth, or that above all else leaders must maintain their leadership roles. Rather, leadership is about service to your community, about building bridges, about serving as role models of Derech Eretz (respectful behavior), and most of all, Jewish leadership is about ensuring all Jews have a laser focus on Jewish continuity.