Reflections on leadership

Last week I received the sad news that a cousin in Jerusalem had died of Coronavirus. Our parents were first cousins and unsurprisingly we had a similar upbringing; Modern Orthodox homes, educated in venerable selective British schools, he in Sunderland, I in London, both gaining places at Cambridge University but taking a gap year off first to study in yeshiva (rabbinical college) in Israel.

But there the similarities ended. I came out of yeshiva after a year with more questions than answers  Eric, however took to yeshiva like a duck to water. My last meeting with him was about fifty years ago. He had just decided to turn down his place at Cambridge. I did not get the impression that this was a difficult decision. Secular education had no value and the secular world no attraction for him. He carried on studying in the yeshivah attaining great distinction and finally marrying the boss’s daughter and succeeding to the post of rosh yeshiva – head of the academy. From Eric Cohen, he morphed into Harav (and eventually Hagaon) Yecheskel Koren Kornstadt. Always a funny and modest person, he joked that he won out over the other candidates because he had Latin and Greek A levels.

Life was not all smooth, however, and in his early 30s, he developed testicular cancer. He was recommended treatment in Israel which would have made him sterile — at the time he had two children. There was however an alternative treatment on offer in England which would not have had that effect. The question facing him was a difficult one.

In view of the fact that were it not for modern medicine no one would have even known what testicular cancer was, you would think that this was a decision for doctors to take. You would be wrong however. On a matter of this importance, Eric or rather Yechezkel consulted a well known rosh yeshiva, a great expert in Talmud. To the rabbi’s credit, he in turn consulted doctors (one of whom was my brother-in-law, and therefore a relative of the patient) and advised on the treatment in England. Yechezkel recovered and lived on for at least 35 years and went on to father another 11 children.

A success you might say. But why should rabbis be giving advice on a matter completely unconnected with the Torah or any Jewish learning? The answer given by their followers is that by immersing themselves in Torah they acquire insights into all human knowledge. The midrash tells that  God consulted the Torah before He created the world. The strong form of this theory is that rabbis who have really studied the Torah know everything there is to know about anything. This is problematic. There is no evidence that rabbis either today or in the past were any more knowledgeable than their contemporaries and plenty that they were less. Maimonides, for instance, possibly the greatest medieval sage, believed that the sun went round the earth. The Vilna Gaon, possibly the greatest modern sage, had not heard of the work of Newton or his own contemporary Lavoisier. The rabbis of the Talmud, in so far as their thoughts on this topic can deciphered, believed that the world was flat. Maybe, however, the heads of these modern yeshivot can claim to have found something in the Torah and rabbinic literature that their distinguished predecessors missed.

The reductio ad absurdum of this argument occurred during the pandemic. Some non Hassidic Haredim asked their leader whether the yeshivot should close. The leader following his own dictates did not have internet, and therefore did not know, even that there was a pandemic. You would have thought, naively, that he would be the last person to consult. Not so. Nor did his ignorance hold him back from giving advice; clearly timidity and excessive modesty are not among his vices. His immediate response was that they should not close since by their learning the students in yeshivot are protecting, not just themselves, not just the Jewish people, but the whole world, which was really only created for the sake of the Torah which they study.  Besides the Torah ‘magna umatzla’ protects and saves.

The error of his ways was brought home to the rabbi about three weeks later, after there had been a surge of infections in the community. This resulted in a U-turn on his part. But now there has been another U-turn and parts of the Haredi community are in revolt against the renewed measures even though these are designed for their own protection. We have seen scenes of mask burning and mass threats of non-compliance both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Not all elements of the Haredi community are in denial. Some of them are cooperating with the authorities. But they all have in common a lack of respect for science and an innate sense of victimhood. Here in the UK  measures taken by the government to protect children in their schools and to give them something approaching a proper education — which, after all, one of their basic rights under the UN Declaration of Human Rights — are seen as harmful, even anti-Semitic. The fault lies with their leaders and their deprecation of science and secular education. These leaders rarely have any  education themselves, most not even having completed high school. By their propagation of the idea that the graduates of their schools are properly prepared for life, even though they have no training for earning a livelihood, are sometimes functionally illiterate in the language of the country ,in which they live and have no knowledge of the basics of facts of the world around them, the leaders  all share responsibility for the resistance their community shows both in Israel and in the diaspora to the essential measures needed to protect them.

Early on in the pandemic there were voices saying that the leadership of the Haredi community would be discredited by their failure to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic. Alas this proved incorrect. Their authority remains intact. There are none as blind as those who won’t see.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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