If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. – J. K. Rowling
We are about to complete counting down the 50 days that connect our redemption from slavery in Egypt to the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The first comment on the Torah from the preeminent commentator, Rashi, asks ‘Why the Torah bothers with all this narrative rather than skip straight to the law giving portion?’ He explains that there are certain things that need to be established as a prerequisite to the giving of the laws. By the beginning of Shemot, our evolution from being a large, growing family, all sons of one man (ie. Sons of Israel), to being a nation bound together by the most influential book in the history of the world, begins with our servitude in Egypt . The lessons we are meant to learn from that servitude specifically are made abundantly clear throughout the Torah . Throughout the law giving portion of the Torah, we are given separate commandments to protect all the potential victims in society. This included widows, orphans, immigrants, slave and the poor. Each of these commandments (many of them repeated for emphasis as to their import) is highlighted with the reminder “Because you were strangers in Egypt.” The horrific slavery taught us this lesson because that care and concern for the oppressed and downtrodden was a prerequisite to receiving the Torah.
This can actually be seen in a fascinating way in the life and actions of the lawgiver himself, Moshe Rabbeinu. It is curious that when Moshe arrives on his God given mission to free the fledgling nation from slavery he is already EIGHTY years old. The paucity of information regarding his life has led to some fascinating speculation from our Sages. The text, however, itself contain ONLY these details of the life of Moshe up to his return.
- He is born at a time when it is decreed that all male infants be exterminated. In order to save him his mother puts a newborn Moshe afloat in a (hopefully properly water sealed) ark. She instructs his sister to watch of and protect him until he arrives in safe hands. He is saved by Pharoah’s very own daughter, who defies her own fathers decree, saves the infant and names him Moshe. She then raises him in Pharoah’s own court.
- Twenty years later Moshe leaves the cloistered palace to see for himself how the nation of his birth is being treated . He does not have to walk far before he is confronted with a taskmaster brutally beating a Hebrew slave. When the man does not heed his warning he kills the taskmaster in order to protect the slave. Even the adopted prince cannot escape this breach of societal hierarchy and he must flee for his life.
- We next meet a nearly 80 year old Moshe. Whatever has transpired in the past 60 years has not changed Moshes character. Upon arriving in a the land of Midian his first order of business is to confront the locals regarding their abusive treatment of the young unmarried daughters if Yitro. This time Moshes actions have a positive outcome as he is introduced to Yitro, who eventually offers one of his daughters to Moshe as a wife.
- Following his wedding, Moshe is working a shepherd when he meets God (for the very first time) at the burning bush. God’s message is clear. The crying out of the enslaved, oppressed and abused Sons of Israel have been heard. It is time for reckoning. After enlisting long lost brother Aaron’s help, Moshe heads to Egypt. Before he can even confront Pharoah, Moshe and Aaron are accosted by the supposed current leaders if this enslaved nation. They warn his against confronting Pharoah lest the slavery be made even worse. Moshe ignores their warning and confronts the evil despot to demand that he grant freedom to the entire people. This advocacy continues with increasing threats by Moshe culminating in the 10 plagues and subsequent Exodus.
The recurring theme should be clear at this point. What qualifies Moshe to be THE Giver of the Torah and THE teacher of its laws to the entire nation? The four narratives above that all share the same theme: Standing up on behalf of those who are being abused, oppressed and enslaved by those in positions of power. This resolve does not weaken even after Moshe has solidified his place as the savior and leader of the nation. Following the nations emotional outburst of fear and terror (after receiving false reports regarding their future home from the spies they sent on a a fact finding mission, God tests Moshes resolve. He offers to destroy this “rebellious nation,” and create for Moshe a new nation that would (having not lived through the horrors in Egypt ) be generally less traumatized and easier to handle. Moshe passes this test telling God that “if you will destroy them , you can kill me as well.” Having established his credentials as a leader who would stand up for and represent ALL members of the nation, Moshe legitimizes his role as one fitting to disseminate a Torah, that was unique and would change the world into a better place. Unlike previous legal codes, whose primary purpose was to protect the wealth and power or the rich and elite, the Torah was a law for the everyday life of every man, woman and child. The men who embody this principal, of a living Torah meant for ALL members of our nation, stand as our most revered and respected leaders.
The halachic tradition as we know it today began in the Mishnaic period. The two most authoritative Rabbinic figures in the Mishna are undeniably Hillel and Rabbi Akiva. This is expressed practically in the nearly unanimous acceptance of Hillel’s opinions and Rabbi Akiva being favored in any argument where he is not facing a plurality of opposition . Although there are a few opposing traditions regarding each of their personal biographies, the themes have a striking parallel to the original giver of the law.
Although Hillel (like Moshe himself) was born to a distinguished family (in Hillel’s case he is said to descend from the Davidic dynasty), he spent the many years as a laborer who was as far as one can get Rabbinic leadership. In fact when he finally decided he wanted to study he lacked the entrance fee necessary to enter the study hall and lay on the roof to overhear what he could of the Torah lessons below. And yet, through hard work and study he eventually ascended to the leadership of the Pharisees. We are told that Hillel was patient and caring with Jew and Gentile alike and was beloved by the all (specifically the poor, converts, widows and orphans.) The foundation of Hillel’s view of halacha is considering all points of view before ruling. His most important ruling involved literally overturning the biblical mandate that the Sabbatical year cancels all loans. He created this loophole for one very simple reason. To ensure that the poor would not be harmed by a rigid interpretation of the biblical law. Hillel’s humble origins surely contributed to his being a champion of those most vulnerable members of our community.
Rabbi Akiva was descended from converts himself. He was an illiterate laborer for many years according to all versions of his back round. Not only that but similar to Hillel, Akiva felt alienated and hostile towards the Rabbinic establishment. His sterling character and care for all creatures eventually led him to start his path from illiterate to Rabbinic leader whose students were the basis for the entire oral law. This character was recognizable in Akiva before he even learned the Torah. In fact it was the daughter of his wealthy boss who inspired Akiva to begin his studies at the advanced age of 40. He may have begun earlier were it not for the utter contempt he felt towards the Rabbinic establishment. These Rabbis were haughty and arrogant and involved with their studies of the law alone. They had no regard for people like Akiva, a poor illiterate man descended from converts. When Akiva eventually ascended to the leadership he made sure that this approach would not continue.
Akiva’s true nature is seen in one of the Talmuds most famous episodes. The case of the ritual status of an oven in Achnai led to a massive argument between the incomparable genius of Rabbi Eliezer, pitting him against the majority view. So convincing was the logic of Eliezer’s side that the Gemara relates the story as if he were able to conjure a series of miracles and finally a heavenly voice to prove that he was indeed correct. Unimpressed, the Rabbis told him that nevertheless “The Torah is not in the heavens.” When Eliezer refused to accept their authority, they were left with no choice but to place a herem (ban against normal social interaction) upon him. R. Akiva took it upon himself to inform R Eliezer (his main teacher) of this herem (lest he find in a harsher manner.) Akiva dressed himself in mourners clothing and visited with Eliezer. With tears in his eyes, he softly broke the news of the herem to his beloved Rebbe.
Around 60 years after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, Rabbi Akiva was now the undisputed leader of the Rabbis with thousands of students who all learned from him. Despite destroying the Temple and Jewish Commonwealth, the Romans were not finished. They continued to implement ever harsher decrees that caused starvation, pain and death to the Jews who remained in Israel and had not fled to Babylon yet. These ever harsher decrees always cause the most harm to those poor and wretched, who have no hidden food reserves or money to flee to a new life in Babylon. Akiva was unwilling to 1) keep himself and his students sequestered in the study hall learning or 2) Flee the land with his for the relative safety of the growing Torah community in Babylon. Rather he decided on the third path, one that he surely knew could end , as it tragically did, with his death as well as the death of his thousands of students (save the five who survived to preserve the Torah traditions he had taught them.)
So beloved was he by the masses, despite an utter lack of political experience, that it was to R Akiva that the nation turned in their hour of despair. His initial decision was to have his thousands of students set aside their learning to join an army dedicated to re established an independent Jewish Commonwealth (free of their Roman overlords) and rebuild the Temple once again. This was surely the morally correct view. An obligation on every able bodied man to protect those who could not protect themselves surely took precedence at this moment over their personal study of Torah. What moral authority could the Torah claim, if it’s study ignored the plight of the oppressed? It was the second decision that doomed this nascent 3rd Commonwealth before it even rose for 2 1/2 short years. That fateful decision was the anointing of Shimon ben Koziba as the potential redeemer of the nation. Akiva even gave him the new name Bar Kochba (based on a Torah verse), thereby giving Shimon his personal endorsement as the potential Messiah (redeemer) from our latest subjugation.
My Rabbi, Shaanan Gelman, once lent me a sefer that lists no less than 27 Rabbinic opinions stating unequivocally that in choosing Shimon, Akiva made a grave error. Perhaps his care and goodness didn’t allow for him to be overly critical when judging his fellow man. Rabbi Binyamin Lau proves in his masterful series “The Sages,” that the old guard of leaders (now second to Akiva in the hearts and minds of the nation,) tried to warn him of Shimon’s moral shortcomings. The Torah clearly posits Moshe as the paradigm of a Jewish redeemer (i.e. Messiah lit. savior.) Our entire original thesis was that the caring and protection of the less fortunate was the only prerequisite that Moshe is shown to have possessed at that time. The Rabbis told Akiva that Shimon was a boor of a man who lacked any spiritual sensitivity whatsoever. For all his vast military skill, in the end the Jewish nation (kind and merciful at our core), was doomed in this endeavor if led by such a man. This lesson has become historically intertwined with the Sefirat Haomer period as we mourn at this time for the loss of the many scholars of Rabbi Akiva in the doomed rebellion (Talmudic aversion to glorifying military endeavor as noble notwithstanding.)
The last 2000 years of Jewish History have contained great achievements in the growth and continued development of a living breathing Torah. Alongside these great achievement was a never ending series of exiles massacres and trauma for almost every Jew. Those great men of scholarship who are as beloved, respected, and studied lived through these traumas along with their success and renown . Their actions in these tragic times, will stand as a true accounting of their worth as leaders.
Don Isaac Abravanel was the last of the great “Court Jews” at the literal end of the medieval era. In addition to leading the Jewish community in Spain, and serving as the Court Treasurer to the infamous King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, he also found time to pen his massively large and singularly unique commentary on the Tanach. Dividing each Sedra into a few sections he begins by asking 10-15 overarching questions (many touching on issues that seem of a later more academic approach. He then answers all of these questions in the court of a running commentary on that section.) When Ferdinand and Isabella decided to expel the entire Jewish community, excluding those that they concluded (through Inquisition) to have genuinely converted to the Christian faith. Their offered Abravanel an exception, as they prized his skill in their service. Abravanel refused and chose exile. Although he had already spent vast sums of his personal fortune attempting to overturn the decree, due to his many years of service, they magnanimously granted the Jews TWO additional days. This expulsion ended hundreds of years of relative peace and prosperity for the Jews in Spain, known as the “Golden Era.” Abravanel left Spain with significantly less money and no position. Most of the Jews went to neighboring Portugal. This was not an option to Abravanel as the events he endured in Spain mirrored those that brought his to Spain from his native Portugal 10 years earlier. Twice this pillar chose to leave his position as in the Royal Court having spent much of his wealth (once inherited and then painstakingly rebuilt) to attempt to save the physical and spiritual lives of others. Blessed with wealth, skill, and powerful positions he repeatedly chose to help those who did not have his abilities or capabilities. Once again at a time of great national tragedy, our leaders showed us that our values and beliefs would survive.
Moving into the modern era I would like to focus on two great deciders of Halacha, who were known above all for their work on behalf of Agonot. In an era without instant global communication, mandatory Jewish army conscription for near constant wars, the proliferation of Jewish women who were left “chained” to a husband whose fate was unknown, was a far too common occurrence. In the last 50 years nearly every case of an aguna is due to a spiteful husband looking to twist the halacha to financially and/or mentally torment his wife. In contrast, Rav Yitckok Elchonon Specter (The Kovno Rav) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein were asked to help resolve cases that were more a product of a different era. Although the Kovno Rav was widely regarded as the greatest posek (decider of halacha) of his generation, he was loved and adored by the masses as the “Mattir Agunot.” He marshaled innovative and creative solutions that to others were perhaps too novel or radical. However, the widow is one of the oppressed we are commanded to pay special attention to. The true leader understands that she does not have a husband to advocate on her behalf (an absolute necessity at that time.)
The function of a community leader to protect the vulnerable was brought to the new world by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein when he moved the Lower East Side of New York in 1937. Sadly the events of the Holocaust a few years later, caused a destruction of and devastation heretofore never seen. Many of the survivors eventually made their way to North America, not knowing which other family members had survived and how to ascertain this. The fact that that generation managed to rebuild their lives and many times begin new families is something that is difficult to even imagine. Rav Moshe was for many critical to this being a possibility. Many Rabbis when confronted with the challenge of such large questions (e.g. what evidence was sufficient to determine that a previous spouse had perished and they were permitted to remarry) felt the question too large to answer. Rav Moshe’s 8 volumes of responsa are titled “Letters of Moshe” as they are comprised of responses to questions from Rabbis the world over who relied on his greatness. Rav Moshe was willing to dismiss almost all precedent and rely on his understanding of the Talmudic source, when he felt it was necessary. Stories and word of mouth abound (much of it perhaps exaggerated or apocryphal) regarding the personal kindness and care that Rav Moshe showed towards the widows and orphans among these refugees. Truthfully the proof is better found in his writings.
Perhaps among the masses Rav Moshe is most famous for permitted cows milk and its products, even though the milking had not been overseen by a Jew. Although many Rabbis decided that the nutritional needs of war refugees living in sometimes remote communities in a new country, still did not allow for this innovation. The remote chance that the milk of a non kosher animal had been used (a concern Rav Moshe deemed to be negligible in America due to FDA standards) , was enough to mandate that people pay an exorbitant premium for Chalav Yisrael (ie. Jewish milk) or forgo eating dairy where that could not be obtained. Rav Moshe in his rulings showed similar concern for practical and material concerns of regular Jews. To him this was more important than imposing overly stringent standards, that would make life even more challenging than it already was. A smaller but at the time almost universal area of concern was addressed in the very first respona in Rav Moshes Sefer. That was allowing men to forgo wearing a head covering at work, when doing so could cause financial loss. While a layman might be shocked by this (falsely believing the wearing of a Kippa to be an essential component of Judaism), Rav Moshe explained how and when this custom became adopted and what circumstances (i.e. financial loss) would allow such a custom to be set aside. My own father, working as a salesman, was able to maintain his identity as an observant Jew, knowing that no less an authority than Rav Moshe gave him permission to work bareheaded.
The last 60 years in America have afforded Jews unprecedented opportunities for material and spiritual growth. Only a complete lack of understanding of history would leave any doubt regarding this basic fact. The vitality and growth that we have managed to rebuilt in the ashes of the Holocaust should be a cause for much thanks to God and America. We do face many challenges due to these overall positive conditions. Comfort, complacency, and lack of appreciation for our humble beginnings and history are some of the causes for what has infected most of our leadership. Those meant to lead us seem to have forgotten who they are meant to serve (the people) and worship (God alone), and have allowed their followers to serve and worship them. That this has affected all of the many sectarian forms of Judaism (itself another sign that we have lost our focus on the Torahs core mission,) is at this point a fact that can be even be found in the largest newspapers in the world.
Of the 3 overwhelming dominant Hasidic sects we have : 1) Habad, who worship their dead Rabbi and center all of their manifold works around his imminent rise from the dead as the Messiah. If that sounds eerily familiar, it’s not because you read about that belief in our Torah or the Talmud. 2) Satmar , who have engaged for years in a bitter and oftentimes publicly violent battle for ascension between two brothers. 3) Gur, who are just this week receiving more publicity after the police in Israel were once again called to break up street violence between the warring sects of the two cousins vying for leadership.
Lest we think that street violence and hooliganism is purely a Hasidic phenomenon, the Yeshivish sects spent the years following the death of Rav Shach (and later Rav Eliashiv) fighting two different battles. 1) The battle for control of Rav Shach’s Bnei Brak Yeshiva (the largest such institution in Israel,) between the followers of two Rabbis. The Israeli police have been called numerous times to break up fistfights regarding important religious matters, such as, who gets to “control” various yeshiva classrooms and sides of the lunchroom. Sadly this sounds more like a prison yard than what was the preeminent Yeshiva in Israel following the Holocaust. 2) Jerusalem was the sight of the other battle for Rabbinic authority between the followers of Rav Shmuel Aurbach and Rav Aharon Lieb Steinman . This bitter and violent battle was low lighted by the young zealots not only fighting each other in the street but physically assaulting the nearly 100 year old Steinman outside his own home.
The apologetic arguments that abound regarding all of the fighting above is that the young zealots are violently fighting these rabbinic power struggles … against the wishes of those whom they fight for. This argument could be deflected by the most simple resident of Chelm, if one would ask, why decades have passed with nary a word to diffuse the tension from any of the figures, who words are so revered and respected by their violent minions. The irony of all of this is of course that the Hasidic Movement was allegedly founded on behalf of the simple masses who were turned off by the intellectual elitism of the Talmudists. When they quickly devolved into a cult of personality for their dynastic sects they were literally excommunicated by the Mitnagdim (lit. opponents) who allegedly favored a meritocracy. We have now come full circle as the Rebbe worship that they were so critical of is a hallmark of the Yeshivish spiritual descendants of the Mitnagdim.
That the major institutions of Rabbinic leadership (those overseeing community kashrut as well as Rabbinic courts) are viewed with little respect by most of the communities that they claim to serve, should come as no surprise. When I took my first adult job as a Mashgiach Kashrut (while on a brief hiatus from kollel prior to my wedding,) I was horrified. The head of the local Kashrut Organization, who was my boss allowed every violation that I reported (e.g. sneaking in of not kosher ingredients) to go virtually unpunished. When I called my Rabbi in Israel to ask what I should do in the face of this corruption, his response is one that has always stayed with me. “It’s good that you took this position now and you can see that being is the kosher industry is NOT a place for a ‘nice Jewish boy’.” Over the past twenty years I have observed this institution as a Rabbi, community member, and (sadly) as an employee for around 5 more years. As far as the halacha that they claim is their sole focus, in almost every area and every city they fail time and again even in that area. The irony of course is that the whole notion of a Rabbinic Kashrut Industry only began as a response to rampant corruption among those involved in the slaughter and sale of kosher meat. That both Los Angeles and Monsey discovered that large kosher butcher had been selling their customers non kosher meat, right under the noses of their supervisors is a terrible tragedy. That both cases were found to have been perpetrated for many years prior to being discovered, is an indictment of the supervision . That a Jewish owner would go to such lengths for profit is sad, but not unexpected. On the contrary, that the business owner lacks trust (due to his financial interest) is the basic for this Industry that has created even higher prices for those who can ill afford to pay them. Kosher meat has always been expensive. But the in the last 20 years these Rabbis have found a way to make many vegetables prohibitively expensive. How did they manage this? By telling the community that the microscopic bugs (only that seen with the naked eye can be forbidden) that may have been occasionally ingested over the years, could now be found by soaking vegetable multiple times in soap and then inspected it under a special light (one could ask whether this is any better than a magnifying glass, which they still agree can’t be used.) For an industry that is vociferously opposed to innovation and change due to the incontestable authority of previous generations, they have managed to create many expensive and challenging new stringency’s to make live MORE difficult for those they are meant to be helping. Another issue that finds the many people find hard to swallow is the seemingly yearly propensity for finding new items to ban for Passover as Kitniot, despite the many challenges already given to those trying to make a kosher Passover. That these are out of line with thousands of years of our tradition was outlined in this recent amazing article.
In the area of divorce the record is hardly better. In contrast to the path laid out by their predecessors, concern for the status of the agunah, became a seemingly MORE difficult one to find resolutions to. As with many issues involving equitable treatment towards those suffering, solutions and institutional change happened only after the outcry in public protest and the press became too large to ignore. The modern orthodox world in the last 15 years have adopted a creative solution proposed by Rabbi Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University that creates a pre-nuptial agreement, (in line with halacha) that attempts to prevent further agunot. That this solution was proposed 50 years earlier and dismissed due to denominational politics has always bothered me. The argument is laid out in great detail here.
The above article is well worth the read as it contains an amazing interview with the revered Rosh Yeshiva of YU, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, in which he excoriates the Monetary Batei Dinim today as corrupt and against contrary to basic Torah principles. The judges being paid for and chosen by the litigants are both contrary to the very principles the Torah lays out for judgment. A “judge” who arrives in court prepared to argue with another “judge” (who is arguing for the other side, leaves one confused as to the use of the term judge for either of them. The Torah’s list of qualities one must possess to be a judge (e.g. men of means and renown,) are important because these qualities instil send a message regarding who is chosen for this important position. That is, that through these qualities, he instils a confidence in the litigants who will come before him, that he will be guided by the principles of the Torah, not by any motive of personal gain. Many people ascend to leadership imbued with a desire to serve the public. Without a humble nature and a genuine care for others, they will find it difficult to keep these ideals one they have a position of power.
While some of these courts now feel that they have brought some equity to the wife’s side of the divorce proceedings, new and remaining issues continue to plague these divorce proceedings. While their efforts to somewhat alleviate the agunah issue should be applauded, the courts now go to an extreme to avoid the appearance of such misogynistic tendencies. For example, they rush the divorce through, even where counseling might still be called for. Additionally, they will only deal with the giving of the get, but even will not deal with any financial or custody issues. It is difficult to understand how the same courts that say it is forbidden to pursue financial cases in secular court demand that the financial aspects here can only be dealt with in that setting.
Perhaps the group most mistreated by our courts are the very example of those we are told to treat kindly, the convert. While protecting our community from those who would seek to join under false pretense, can be defended, the question remains of how to do this without causing undue harm to those who are genuine in their desire, and we should desire as assets to our community. Each individual journey of conversion has it’s own path. The process may depend on the individuals commitment to the process. Why the courts feel that it is important to never give a timeline for how long this process will take is not clear. Without any timeframe, this process can sometimes drag on for years. I have guided a few through this process, and it can cause anguish and despair even in those genuine in their desires. The courts will also demand that those referred by more modern Rabbi’s (who plan on living in those communities) must adopt haredi standards of practice or they will not be allowed to convert. I have seen all of these standards relaxed when the potential convert came from a wealthy or prominent home (or was interested in marrying into such a family.)
Once the conversion process is complete one would hope that such a person would at least then be given all the love and care that the Torah demands. I know of one case, where a Rabbi who had been a member of a court for conversions, was fired from his shul under very dubious circumstances. The court then decided to send letters (not even the courtesy of a phone call) to all of the converts who this man had a part in converting. They stated that due to his current behaviour all of his past conversions must be called into question. Although they would not definitively nullify the conversions, they demanded that all of these people undergo another conversion “just to be safe.” We are talking about people who had children and grandchildren being told that they may not have had a valid conversion, and may have been living as gentiles, for all these years. Was this re-conversion actually necessary? To begin, one would have to believe that this Rabbis behaviour all these years later was not only present but disqualifying all those years ago. Even if that were somehow true, the callous manner in which they went about “rectifying” this unlikely error, was cruel and callous.
I will bring but one more example of what Rabbinic leadership should look like. My second son Moshe was named after three of our greatest leaders. The two mentioned above as well as the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. A few details of his life will illustrate how a true leader must comport himself.
As a young married scholar the Rambam was able to focus exclusively on his studies due to the full and eager support of his wealthy merchant brother. When his brother tragically died at sea, the Rambam’s life was turned upside down. In addition to taking his brothers orphans into his home, he needed to find a new means of support. Following the law as he would record it in his Mishna Torah, he refused to seek any employment or financial gain from teaching Torah or serving as a Rabbi. Instead he relied on his knowledge of medicine and began to practice as a doctor. He was very successful in this writing many books on the subject (well regarded in their time) and eventually serving as a physician in the royal court. The Rambam writes that he was so so tired after serving all day in Fustat (the royal seat,) that he could not stay awake on his horse on the ride home and would fall off on his arrival home. Upon his arrival home he would serve the medical and Rabbinic needs of the local community without pause. The Shabbat being his one break from medicine he would spend all day learning with all in the community who wished to join him. How he found time to write the foundational work of Jewish Law is beyond belief. At every stage of his writing he sought out the needs of ALL who might learn from him. He tells a student of his (who bemoans his lack of hebrew literacy) in a letter, that he would not revert to writing in Arabic (as in earlier writings.) The Mishna Torah he reveals was written in a way to teach the hebrew itself, while being learnt. He only reverted to Arabic in his final work the “Guide to the Perplexed.” He wrote this book specifically for those beset with doubts of the Torah due to their philosophical beliefs. Rather than brand them as heretics, the Rambam wrote this book to show them that their philosophical beliefs could indeed be reconciled with a belief in the Torah. The Rambam was not satisfied to record his brilliant thoughts of his unparalleled intelect. He was more concerned with making sure that his writings could be learned and of benefit to all scholar, layman, and sceptic alike.
As a community we all desire leaders that we can respect, revere and be proud to follow. The models that I have highlighted show us the path for those hoping to be such leaders. Like must be humble. This was the defining characteristic of the law giver himself. They must lead the entire community, showing favoritism to none and love for all. If anyone deserves special treatment, it is those who are most vulnerable.
I don’t want to leave the impression that we are totally bereft of leadership today. Despite the many issues I pointed out above, there are many who remain in the path set by those great examples outlined above. A few come to mind from my own life. Growing up in New York City, our Rabbi, Allen Schwartz would repeat the same appeal as every cold winter began. He would ask the congregation to each buy ten pairs of gloves and keep a few extra in their pockets to hand out to the local homeless. Here in Chicago (where I currently reside) our most revered scholar, Rabbi Shmuel Feurst, leads an amazing organization, The Chicago Chesed Fund. They look to help those most in need in a myriad of way (e.g. food, clothing, furniture and social services.) That a scholar of such stature has created such a wonderful community resource, is a shining example to others on true leadership. My own Rabbi, Shaanan Gelman, is another shining example. The care and concern that he shows towards those who many others literally are not interested in helping is an inspiration.
When Rabbi Yisrael Salanter founded the Mussar movement around 150 years ago, he did not believe that he was introducing new principals of Ethics that did not previously exist. Rather it was a movement to refocus on the ethical pillars that have always help up the law. The very first principal in his movement was “For yourself focus on your spiritual needs, for others focus on their material needs.” This idea itself would begin the type of spiritual revolution that we need to return to the Torah as it practiced by Moshe Rabbeinu and those who followed him model of leadership.