In the weeks following the Royal Commission hearing into the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne, our community remains deeply shattered. While several independent initiatives are afoot to address some of the issues arising, they seem to be either stalled or punctuated by internal bickering. For some, it is convenient to sit back and blame overzealous advocacy or complain of disproportionate attention to our community (and some of that is true). However, what has really happened is that the Commission process has ripped a band-aid off a long-festering sore, and revealed for all to see what has been rotting beneath the surface. For those in the community, it is our sore, and it is very painful.
How can we heal?
To heal any illness, we must understand truly what is wrong and repair at the source rather than put on another band-aid. I was directed to the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading Orthodox Jewish thinker of the nineteenth century. His Collected Writings includes an outstanding essay – Basic conditions for the preservation of Jewish communal life (hat tip MH) – which to me read like a prophecy of what our community is experiencing, and goes to the heart of what ails us.
The chasm between the community and its leadership only continues to widen. There is a lack of trust, and particularly a lack of confidence that disputes, as and when they do occur (and they always will occur), will be resolved through a fair and transparent process.
Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that it is the community itself, rather than its leadership, that is the focal point of all Jewish community life. What follows is that “the office and the functions of the board of trustees have meaning only to the extent that they represent the community and carry out its will”. His first basic prerequisite for Jewish communal life is therefore the “participation of all the members of the community in the selection of their representatives and teachers”.
The notion of democracy within a Jewish community is nothing new, and does not conflict with halacha and observance: “Over the centuries … the Jewish community has always cherished its right to elect independently the men to whom it can safely entrust its heritage”.
The Chabad community in Melbourne was built, back in the 1950s, through the agency of a small number of dedicated individuals. Over time, some of those pioneers stepped back and a leadership structure developed that was autocratic, with power concentrated in the hands of the few. The autocracy has since been replaced by a structure where, in Rabbi Hirsch’s words “the concerns of the community is entrusted to a small, self-perpetuating group, because there were no others deemed suitable for such tasks. However, such a group represent everything but the convictions and attitudes of the community at large”. The community has grown and evolved, and the issue of whether that leadership structure was right for our community then is academic. We know it is not what is right for us today
The more that is taken on by the leadership, the more the individual is deprived of their right to activate the best of his strength and insight for the religious concerns of the whole. Thus widens the rift between the leadership and the community. When this happens, Rabbi Hirsch continues, “the community is headed to disintegration, and the whole will atrophy due to the passive indifference of its parts”.
Atrophy. Passive indifference. Apathy. While many remain with these feelings, for others, the frustration led to activism through the only channels that were available. In the contemporary world, that meant using a willing and sensationalist media, and the toxic online world, to vent their concerns. But rather than healing, this only brought the existing rifts in an already divided and disconnected community to the surface.
The sore continues to fester and we are riddled with machloket. The community continues to function, but meanders along with a sense of morbidity.
Is it that bad? Perhaps not.
How can we restore the vibrancy of Jewish communal life? A vibrant community is not one where members believe that for the sake of peace and quiet, they cannot or should not ‘meddle’ in the affairs of those in charge. As Rabbi Hirsch says most poignantly, “things are also peaceful in the graveyard and quiet in the mortuary”. Our community has been like that for too long – repressed and disempowered. But as a result of the Royal Commission, more and more voices within the community have been awakened from their slumber.
A vibrant community is one where there is a regular give-and-take struggle of views and opinions, where there is public debate on issues of importance. The problem is that said debate is vacuous because those engaged in it are powerless to make a difference. They can debate until the cows come home, but whatever consensus they may reach cannot be enacted because of the disconnect between them and the leadership.
Rabbi Hirsch’s essay has told us that what we are suffering all stems from a dysfunctional and disconnected leadership. “New power” has been used to disrupt, but hasn’t shown an ability to rebuild, and rebuilding is what we need. What modern leadership theory tells us is that what is broken at the top can only be fixed from the top. That means the same legal means that created a closed and self-perpetuating leadership structure can be restructured to re-engage disenfranchised members. From the top, down.
What we have now is a community ready to be healed, begging to be reconnected and re-engaged and for leaders with a genuine mandate to emerge. The structures are there to start this process. All it takes is for those with the legal power – the existing members – to realize that they do not serve at the pleasure of their predecessors. Rather, that “their position has meaning only to the extent that they represent the community and carry out its will”. The will of the community is being expressed. They must listen and start the restoration of a proud Jewish community.
This is a story about Melbourne, Australia. But we know the Jewish world is looking at us and how we will respond to our crisis. There are many other communities around the world with festering sores that need healing. We can show the way.