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An urgent need for ambivalence

Time to dial down the outrage against Jewish leaders who haven't raised a battle cry

It is two weeks since perhaps the most contentious election in American history, and the surprise, confusion and shock experienced by many American Jews in response to the results has translated quickly into scattershot anger and unconcerted activism. In this noisy climate, a primary target of opprobrium has emerged: the Jewish professional and institutional leaders who exhibit any amount of tentativeness in this highly uncertain moment.

Those Jewish leaders who have failed to enlist themselves and their organizations to the ‘correct’ campaigns of indignation (or have dragged their feet in doing so), invite this disdain not because of their intrinsic power and authority but because they are the lowest-hanging piñata, which – in some ways – reinforces the very impotence that is felt, if not fully internalized, by those attacking them. Attacking those closest to you for failing to act as expeditiously as you do in responding to a set of threats much larger than you is not just opportunistic: in displacing rage from its proper target to something knowable and reachable, it is perversely self-defeating. It reinforces a divide among natural allies and shared stakeholders in communities that now more than ever need to work together to traverse those very divides.

Not all forms of tentativeness are equal. Tentativeness can manifest in moral behavior, which we might call “neutrality;” or in a cognitive state, which we might call “confusion,” or behaviorally, which we can call “ambivalence;” or emotionally, namely “paralyzed with fear.” Needless to say, while not all of these forms of tentativeness are equal, they can all be arrived at honestly – the result of a largely unexpected political outcome with an unfolding host of unexpected, unanticipated, and mostly unknown consequences. It seems though that in the eyes of our communal public, the one transgression worse than the actions of those who made this election result possible is the failure of leaders right now in this moment to know precisely what to think, how to react, and how to express the path forward in a clarion public voice with courage and conviction.

This attack on tentativeness has the potential for catastrophic consequences for leadership, and it has already seeded them. The insistence that tentativeness is an equivalent failure in all forms is part of the structural and systemic problem in our social and political order that created just this American reality in which we are living, which promotes largely the voices of ideological extremism in spite of profound counterfactual evidence about the predominantly centrist viewpoints of the electorate. We disincentivize thoughtful and temperate leadership then in three ways: by elevating only the loudest (and often the shrillest) public voices; by displacing the inherently tentative/ambivalent work of education (or pragmatic thought-leadership) in favor of political action as though the latter could ever function without the former; and by annihilating the leaders along the way who may need more from us and of us to reach the conclusions and strategies that we have already settled on as the one true way.

More and more of our leaders and prospective leaders – good, moral, upstanding people – are deciding that this climate makes them fearful to lead, precisely at the time when we need them most. I know a good number of senior rabbis who long nostalgically for when they could just be assistants with less accountability, and a whole network of rising star professionals who look askance now at the corner office and the way in which the positions they once coveted are merely death traps of public politicking and demoralizing divisiveness. Donniel Hartman likes to say that synagogues – and I’ll extend it to Jewish organizations more broadly – can suffer from a kind of institutional autoimmune disease, attacking and killing off the very leaders they actually need. Some colleagues have told me privately that this moment is a test: lead right, right now, or get out of the way. I think that imagining moments like this as inflection points is tempting, and ultimately wrong.

This issue transcends the stylistics of our public conversation. Moral clarity is important, and I know we like to think – in general, but especially now – that there is no time for neutrality. By and large I agree. But when moral clarity is juxtaposed to clairvoyance both about the authoritative meaning of a cloudy and confusing recent past, and towards understanding precisely how the future will play itself out, moral clarity can translate into false prophesy and explosive messianism. Such clairvoyant moralism will divide us, blending morality, politics, partisanship, and dissidence into a cocktail that in the long run will be as ineffective as it will be lonely. The loudest leadership is not always the best or most urgently needed, and tentativeness – even ambivalence – can translate into moral clarity with the added benefit of deliberation, planning, strategy and subtlety.

I think there are three better paths forward for our community. One is to incentivize the good leadership that we want by amplifying the voices of the good and courageous, rather than maligning and lamenting those we think are falling short. A few of our leaders have managed to balance brilliantly between urgency and thoughtfulness with practical approaches to the imminent challenges. Telling those stories and supporting those leaders right now is critical.

Second, now is the time to invest in leadership development – and in particular, as a response to autocracy and a rebellion against our broken political culture, we must invest in developing the particular characteristics in our leaders of humility, temperance, and discretion. These skills – and yes, they can be cultivated as skills – tend to be underemphasized in the world of leadership development. The wisdom of the rabbinic tradition, with its indictment of the failings of prophecy and its nuanced, if sometimes tragic, understanding of the “long game” in the work of social change, can help.

Finally, we need to make the case for precision in the subtle distinctions between moral, political, and partisan forms of leadership. Part of what makes leadership right now so difficult is that these forms of leadership are being unhelpfully conflated in ways that serve those with partisan agendas, and ultimately exonerate those who can avoid moral responsibility by pleading their inability to traffic in the political. There is a difference between advocating for universal and obligating moral principles, and insisting on singular political strategies. I believe there is a way for Jewish leaders to advocate for transparently moral and inherently Jewish causes: the mistreatment in rhetoric and policy of minorities, the concern for the weak and the vulnerable, and the formulation of public policy that transcends self-interest. But it will only be in helping leaders refine this particular voice, and in refining the climate in which leaders are meant to lead, that they will be able to speak in a way that people can hear. 

As we balance a sober awareness of the challenges ahead of us as a society with an awareness of history, such rigor will help us develop leaders who understand the relationship between the urgent and the tentative. Let’s support even those stumbling out of the gate, and help them formulate the voices we will need for the work ahead. In challenging moments, we need great leadership: cannibalizing our camp right now will be an unendurable loss.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Fellow of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis, 2012).
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