Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

The Emperor Has No Clothes: Reflections on Authority, Leadership and Meaning in the American Jewish Community

November 15, 1825 shall be remembered forever as a watershed moment in American Jewish history. As Dr. Jonathan Sarna describes in his book, American Judaism:

Given the spirit of the age and the fortunate availability of funding, it comes as no surprise that the young people plunged ahead, boldly announcing ‘their intention to erect a new Synagogue in this city’ that would follow the ‘German and Polish minhag [rite]’ and be located ‘in a more convenient situation for those residing uptown.’ On November 15 the new congregation applied for incorporation as B’nai Jeshurun, New York’s first Ashkenazic congregation” (56-57).

The only other synagogue in New York City prior to the formation of B’nai Jeshurun was Congregation Shearith Israel, which had been established in 1654. The divisions between the more well established Spanish-Portuguese Jews and the newer Central and Eastern European Jewish immigrants had been slowly growing for a while before the declaration of a new synagogue and finally, in 1825, it reached a tipping point and, from that time on, New York City would no longer only have one synagogue.

The notion that one could form an entirely separate synagogue community in the same city was quite controversial. The Torah in Deuteronomy 14:1 declares that “you shall not cut yourself (lo titgodedu)” in reference to mourning rituals that the Torah prohibits. However, the rabbis take this language of “you shall not cut yourself” to mean something entirely different. Maimonides in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 12:14 writes:

This commandment also comes against there being two religious courts which follow different customs in a single city, since this can cause tremendous disagreement. The prohibition of cutting ourselves comes to mean: ‘Do not separate into various different groupings.'”

The rabbinic responsa literature, both medieval and modern, contain a great many inquiries as to the contours and nature of this prohibition. Does it apply to different liturgical rites (i.e., Ashkenazic and Sephardic)? Does it apply to different customs of tefillin during the intermediate days of a holiday? Does it apply to different philosophical or theological approaches? Do questions of sociological difference matter? What is one to do if your version of kaddish is different than the one said in the synagogue that you find yourself and you have been asked to lead services or you are saying kaddish for a loved one?

All of those questions and more have had many pages dedicated to them of rabbinic thought and the questions continue to this day. Yet, despite all of that, it was rare indeed for new synagogues to be created in the midst of the same city, prior to the formation of B’nai Jeshurun in 1825. In fact, the founders of B’nai Jeshurun understood the new path they were forging when they explicitly acknowledged the unique circumstances of the American context on their decision:

“… the wise and republican laws of this country are based upon universal toleration giving to every citizen and sojourner the right to worship according to the dictate of his conscience” (American Judaism, 57).

In other words, we are living in a new world. A world lacking coercive rabbinic authority. There is no religious court that can summon you against your will and force you to pay a fine or suffer communal exclusion (unlike the Va’ad Arba Artzot of Poland in the 16th century, for example). Any rabbinic authority that exists is entirely because the community assigns that authority to the rabbis. The world order had been completely changed. Indeed, the story of B’nai Jeshurun would repeat itself in cities and towns throughout the United States, from Charleston to Cleveland to Los Angeles. The splits and break aways would be instigated by people all over the ideological map, both to the “right” and to the “left”. No American Jewish sub-community can claim innocence from creating division. Everyone has done it and continues to do it. The nature of the Jewish community has never be the same again.

All of this history comes to mind as a reflection upon the moment that the American Jewish community finds itself in now. The liberal streams of Judaism struggle with the emergence of independent communities that choose not to affiliate with a denominational body and synagogues that were previously denominationally affiliated declining to renew their affiliation. The Orthodox community struggles with who gets to decide communal practices and who gets to be part of the table of leadership with the conversation almost entirely resting on gender and the place of women.

It would seem that it is no coincidence that back in 1825 when B’nai Jeshurun was formed, it was the young people that led the charge. It was the young people who fundamentally internalized the paradigm shift of communal belonging that the American experience represented. As I look out at the lives of my friends and colleagues throughout the Jewish map, it is once again the young people who have internalized our zeitgeist and fully understand that the emperor has no clothes. There is no coercive rabbinic or communal authority ordering conformity. We conform as individuals when there is a compelling and authentic reason to do so.

Whether in the liberal communities or the Orthodox communities there are those who bemoan the power of the movement heads or the roshei yeshiva. They chafe under their perceived authority and out-of-touch with reality perspectives. This, however, is not the challenge of the generation of those in their 20s and 30s. The question for the young is not who gets to decide but where is the meaning, relevancy and genuineness? It is not about looking over the right or left shoulders but looking forward to forge communities of purpose and value where we feel inspired to raise our small children and instill them with the values that are being taught and preached.

When the elders of our communities dedicate conferences and lectures to the struggle for power and authority, the young in the audience look down at their cellphones and disengage. This young generation of American Jews understands more deeply than perhaps any other generation that the power to create intentional communities of purpose and meaning does not rest in the hands of any authoritarian communal leaders but it rests within all of us. If we seek to create a community modeled on a set of values and on a vision, then just do it. Those that will join will be those who have values and a vision that align and those that do not will gather in different communities and make their own.

This represents a real challenge to those holding the keys of synagogues, denominational bodies and communal institutions. If you seek for your place to be relevant in the next generation, worry less about questions of authority and more about questions of relevance and meaning. It would be deeply powerful if symposiums, conferences and panels were held on Jewish philosophy, theology and practice as it relates to people’s lived experiences and not on questions of communal boundaries, exclusion/inclusion or authority. Authority is earned through communal respect and not given by virtue of lineage or title. Therefore, it matters little who is authoritative and which body of authority has which people sitting on it because people will choose leadership that represents them regardless.

In the American Jewish experience the emperor has no clothes and actually there is no emperor at all.

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software developer in Tel Aviv. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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