I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a Rav in Baltimore, Maryland, involved in developing our own shul community, as well as in a range of broader communal issues and institutions. Baltimore is a unique community in several ways, but perhaps most significantly in its relative success at maintaining a sense of peaceful cooperation both within the orthodox community, as well as between the orthodox and the broader Jewish community. The following are a few reflections on effective leadership that have been learned and gleaned from our community’s senior leaders, particularly as they have contributed to its unique strength.
- Create a culture of Shalom.
And I will grant peace: You might say, “Here is food, and here is drink, but if there is no peace, there is nothing!” Scripture, therefore, states, after all this blessing, “I will grant peace in the Land.” From here we learn that peace is equal to everything else. As it similarly says [in our morning prayers,] “Blessed are You, O Lord… Who… makes peace and creates everything.” (Rashi to Vayikra 26:6)
It would be impossible to overstate the value of Shalom in personal and communal life. The sentiment that “if there is no peace, there is nothing”, would be echoed by countless families ensconced in luxurious mansions but beset by domestic strife. And it is a feeling repeatedly expressed by communal leaders and members working hard to accomplish things in their communities but finding that in-fighting and lack of communal cooperation limits their capacity and distracts them from the real work at hand. As the Rambam advised his son:
Do not sully yourself with “Machlokes” (strife) that destroys the body, the soul, and property, leaving nothing. I have seen the bright blackened, leaders diminished, families broken, princes demoted from their positions, large cities weakened, groups disbanded, pious people lost, the trustworthy erased, honored people shamed and disgraced, all as a result of strife. Prophets prophesized, wise men shared their wisdom, and philosophers explored and elaborated on the evils of strife, and they all could not truly capture the extent of it. Thus I urge you to despise it and distance yourself from it and from all those who consider themselves its friends and supporters. (Kisvei HaRambam, Mussar l’bno Rav Avraham)
A community can and should create a culture of Shalom. Tensions and rivalries will certainly exist between communal organizations and between groups on different points of the spectrum of Jewish religious life, however these tensions need not be allowed to explode. Instead the organizations and the community should adopt a posture that ranges from working together cooperatively, to “live-and-let-live”. The most basic foundation of this culture of Shalom is the very practical realization that each of us does better when we are not distracted by fighting and when we are able to help each other.
The culture of Shalom does not require the abandonment of ambition or of principle, nor does it call for slavish adherence to the status quo. It can encourage generation of new initiatives and organizations, and live the dictum of our Sages (TB Bava Basra 21a) that competition amongst scholars increases wisdom. It should not refrain from vigorous and serious debates and arguments about matters of fundamental principle. But it must do all this in a communal culture where the leadership has a tangible commitment to avoid – where at all possible – alienating or attacking others, and to manage the inevitable conflicts with the sensitivity and maturity to limit the disputes to principle, preventing them from devolving into personal and insurmountable rifts.
To create a culture of Shalom, think carefully before defining another group as being “beyond the pale” of community. Where possible and appropriate, reach across the aisle to members of the other group. Work together on issues of common concern. Teach members of your community – by how you speak about others and how you interact with them – how important it is not to isolate your community from the rest of Klal Yisrael. Stop speaking of the others as a threat, and stop strategizing about how you will work against or around them.
- Genuinely recognize the contributions of others to the general good.
People mistakenly believe that peace in the world means that everyone will share common viewpoints and think the same way. Thus when they see scholars disagreeing about an issue, it appears to be the exact opposite of peace. True peace, however, comes precisely through the proliferation of divergent views. When all of the various angles and sides of an issue are exposed, and we are able to clarify how each one has its place — that is true peace. The Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ means both ‘peace’ and ‘completeness.’ We will only attain complete knowledge when we are able to accommodate all views — even those that appear contradictory – as partial perceptions of the whole truth. Like an interlocking puzzle, together they present a complete picture. (Rav AY Kook, Olas R’Iyah)
Beyond a simple commitment to avoid the damage caused by in-fighting, we must construct a positive vision of communal peace, one that recognizes both that one size does not fit all, and that no single segment of the community can address all of the community’s varied needs. As a practical example, an orthodox community preoccupied with building institutions of religious life and education such as schools and shuls, may welcome the commitment of Federation to build agencies that provide much-needed social services. A school that wishes to provide a more intensive educational or religious environment may recognize that this will make their institution more exclusive and would therefore be supportive of others interested in providing the broader population with a more accessible Halachic alternative. This feeling should be expressed by finding ways to have leadership show interest in and be involved and supportive of the complementary venture.
Of course this posture requires a sense of confidence and security to the point where the one is not fearful that any assistance to or recognition of the other would confuse or dilute its own message. This is eminently possible, as a strong and consistent internal message is not likely to be forgotten or confused by the extension of a hand to another. In fact often the opposite is the case. When we reject others entirely without regard for their positive contributions, it confuses our constituents greatly. This idea was expressed most clearly by the late Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch:
In general, I already expressed my view that we lost a great deal by refraining from recognizing correct issues just because the irreligious and their supporters in the Mizrachi agreed to them… In my opinion, the reason our views do not resonate in the hearts of the broader community is not our firm stance against their incorrect views; rather it is because of our negative position regarding their correct views such as learning Tanach, speaking Hebrew and Eretz Yisrael. The community cannot understand our concerns. Indeed, they will understand us when we emphasize our positive attitude towards the true elements of their positions and reject only that which is false.
I must say that this attitude of ours is not a new product our life in America. We acted this way in Lithuania as well despite the fact that then, as now, we were totally zealous concerning anything that, God forbid, is not in accordance with the spirit of Torah, and never retreated because of persecution, denouncement and sometimes even suffering, sorrow and much damage to our holy Yeshiva. (Letter of Rav E.M. Bloch published in Sefer Mitzvas HaShalom 1st ed p. 607)
- Lead with humility; be humble and open about your challenges, communally and individually.
When King Shaul failed to properly prosecute the war against Amalek, he lost the kingdom. King David on the other hand did not lose his kingdom over the sin of Batsheva. This is because Shaul first denied he had sinned, then when forced to acknowledge it he shifted blame to the people, and finally when that excuse failed he asked Shmuel to nevertheless continue to publicly accord him the honor he had previously enjoyed. David on the other hand accepted responsibility for his actions immediately and unconditionally. Thus David’s humility, candor and accountability for his failings was what qualified him for leadership of the people. (Based on Sefer HaIkkarim, 4:26)
‘Leadership’ is not the best term to use; a far better term is ‘communal service’. In the words of Rabban Gamliel (TB Horiyos 10a), “Do you think I am giving you power? I am giving you servitude.” This is not just an exercise in good character; it is also the fundamental strategy of effective leadership. The path of wisdom recognizes that humbly serving and responding to the people builds strength far more than it conveys weakness.
Specifically, it is very difficult to trust someone who is not honest and open about their challenges. The people are smart, and they know that all is not perfect. They usually look to leadership not to maintain the status quo but to help the community address its challenges. Leadership builds trust by acknowledging – for example – the parent’s concern for their child’s safety or for how he will support his family, not by dismissing such concerns. One who is not willing to acknowledge challenges or past mistakes, and seems more focused on presenting the most perfect public face, will not be the most trusted leader.
- Force rarely works.
And it came to pass, when Yeravam the son of Nevat and all the congregation of Israel came, and spoke unto Rechavam, saying: ‘Thy father made our yoke grievous; now therefore make lighter the grievous service of your father and ease the heavy yoke which he put upon us, and we will serve you.’ … And King Rechavam took counsel with the older men that had stood before Shlomo his father while he yet lived… And they spoke to him, saying: ‘If you will be a servant unto this people this day, and will serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever.’ But he forsook the counsel of the older men and took counsel with the young men that had grown up with him…. And they spoke to him, saying: `Tell them: … Whereas my father did burden you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke….’ So Yeravam and all the people came to Rechavam … and the King answered the people roughly, and forsook the counsel of the older men which they had given him, and spoke to them following the counsel of the young men…. Thus Israel rebelled against the house of David, unto this day. (Melachim I Chapter 12)
It has been proven time and again that decrees handed down from communal leadership – rabbinic or lay – are ineffective, even in communities that appear most subservient to rabbinic authority. Leadership that has previously built trust can inspire, assist and guide the community, and can participate in creating the vehicles and structures for change. However it is rare that fundamental change can be legislated. As seen from the tragic story of Rechavam, even those who are in a position to impose change would be advised to use that power carefully, lest they forfeit the kingdom by a show of excessive force. As such those who wish to help guide the community to a better place must dedicate themselves first and foremost to working as communal servants, being there to provide for both individual and communal needs. Over time this builds ‘leadership capital’ that will foster greater influence. While it goes without saying that those have not built such trust will be unable to impose change, it must be noted that even known, loved and trusted figures can quickly squander their leadership capital when they try to force a specific agenda on a disinterested community. And it is most unwise to attempt to force change on another group from the outside; we can rather work with them to see how we can help them encourage what they themselves can see as necessary change. Carrots are more effective than sticks.
Of course in many situations leadership must nevertheless hold their ground and not lead by referendum. They must recognize however that the show of force comes with a price, and that it is incumbent upon them to make serious efforts to address the resultant resentment for the long-term health of the community.
Thus effective leaders are keenly and humbly aware of their limitations. Instead of seeing themselves as rulers who tell the community exactly how high to jump, they function as guides to help the community make the right choices. In that framework they are keenly aware of their limitations, of the community’s interests and inclinations, and of the level of trust they have gained within the community. In this framework they carefully help the community move itself forward.
- Change is a gradual process and is not initiated by broad consensus; build initiatives rather than demolish what exists.
Patience is critical in accomplishing lasting change. Given the difficulty and inadvisability of legislating change, we must work instead to change attitudes. Especially in communities this is not an instantaneous event, but a very gradual process. As dire as a situation may appear, we must resist the urge to feel that it must be fixed – even overhauled – immediately. In promoting change, the more time given for the process to unfold gradually, the better the ultimate result.
Similarly, change is usually not accomplished by consensus. Many important ideas die on “Haskama Row”, waiting for a local Vaad or for a national Moetzes to line up behind them. Indeed precisely because of the broad constituency represented by a Vaad or even by a single Gadol, such bodies or individuals are necessarily conservative, restrained from spearheading efforts at sweeping change that part of their broad constituency may be unready to embrace. If on the other hand a modest project is initiated by a responsible individual – after confirming with others greater than he that his plan is not actually destructive – his small success can ultimately generate wider interest and duplication. If the model is worthy, “build it and they will come”.
An excellent example of such an approach is the plethora of projects and organizations developed in Israel over the past decade to assist Charedim wishing to enter the workforce. Due to the nature of the community and the strongly held opinions on various sides, the recognized Gedolim felt they could not openly and actively endorse such a model of change, as too many of their constituents were not ready to embrace it. So instead of proposing sweeping change, they not only allowed but in many cases encouraged capable individuals to create programs that would be there to address the needs of those who sought them. They knew that as the programs began to succeed in helping those who had completed their productive years in the Bais HaMedrash transition to successful careers, these successes would breed more success and slowly – perhaps painfully slowly – the necessary changes would be embraced by the community.
This is a classic example of what some would consider a failure of leadership. After all, the issue of Charedi poverty is large and urgent, and – in the view of some – true leaders would confront the situation more immediately, openly and directly. On the other hand, it may instead be the case that true leaders understand their limitations and know that an attempt at sweeping and quick change would result in upheaval and opposition that could threaten the entire effort. Thus they chose to encourage more gradual and organic change, a model that requires infinitely more patience but one that is more likely to produce effective results.
This model of change does not use a sledge hammer; it uses quiet and determined creativity. If I may again quote Harav Kook in a letter he wrote to a rabbinic colleague in the leadership of Mizrachi:
It has come to my attention that in a speech which you gave … you spoke very negatively about the holy institution Shaarei Torah and you disparaged its Torah scholars and its students. I literally trembled when I heard this, and if not for the fact that I heard it from someone who is completely trustworthy, I would never have believed such a thing about someone as great as yourself.
My friend, this is not the way – to tear down with your hands our holy institutions, our treasure houses of life. It is possible [as you have suggested] that our times require us to create schools that teach secular subjects, so that our generation will be drawn to attend them, provided of course that they are imbued with the spirit of the Torah. However, how terrible it would be if because of this we would attack our existing institutions – our living and enduring holy treasure houses. I myself have on more than one occasion assessed the students of Shaarei Torah and I will testify that [it will help us] establish a generation of G-d fearing Torah scholars, filled with a love of Torah and fear of Heaven…. And this is specifically because this holy institution has followed the paths laid by the Torah giants of previous generations. … Only through the ancient Beit HaMedrash and those who study there can Torah and light come to Bnei Yisrael. …
Please strengthen yourself in the following idea, that we must only build up and never tear down, to add and never to take away. (Letters, #570)
To summarize: Effective leadership is built on a commitment to Shalom that does not preclude disagreement or demand uniformity, but that places significant value on communal unity. Beyond the avoidance of outright hostility, leaders are best advised to recognize and appreciate the partnership and roles of others in the bigger picture. This posture of humility should extend not only to other branches of the community, but also to those one is charged to lead, as imposed, authoritarian leadership rarely succeeds in the long term. In this framework, change is undertaken as a process rather than as an event, as a result of gradually building communal confidence and influencing attitudes. Rather than breaking down existing structures, accomplish change by introducing modest but replicable models of change.
The results of this approach are not exciting. But they are consistent and healthy, and are able to be accomplished in a pervasive spirit of Shalom. And while the notions expressed appear naively idealistic given the unfortunate fractious nature in our communities, in another sense they present the most realistic path for leadership to accomplish real change.
Afterword: Dreaming of Shalom Ba’Aretz
At this time all of us who share a concern for the Jewish future are focused on the incredibly intense tensions that have developed in Israel, both within the orthodox community as well as between the orthodox and the broader community, a state of divisiveness unprecedented in recent memory. While this journal as a rule deals with issues on the American scene, it is hard to refrain from a few final thoughts, considering how the approaches described above would impact those tensions. So with appropriate apologies for daring to wade into the challenges of the Israeli community, here are a few naïve observations and suggestions:
- Imagine Charedim, instead of complaining about the cuts in government funding, taking time to recognize the incredible amount of funding they have received, and expressing appreciation internally and externally for the opportunities provided for them by the secular state.
- Imagine Charedim taking a trip to a military cemetery to pray at the graves of those who fell in battle to protect them.
- Imagine secular Israelis expressing appreciation internally and externally for the contributions of the religious community to the character of Israeli life by virtue of their volunteerism, their spirit of idealism and their commitment to the history and destiny of our people.
- Imagine secular Israelis helping others recognize that whatever government subsidies Charedim have received pale in comparison to their own investment and self-sacrifice in raising their large families as an expression of their profound commitment to the future of the Jewish People.
- Imagine personalities within the Charedi leadership openly acknowledging some of the social and economic challenges currently facing their community, and working to bridge the understandable divide with a secular society that cannot readily appreciate how their Torah study constitutes “sharing the burden”.
- Imagine non-Charedi leaders – empowered by their electoral success to impose change or burdens on others – choosing instead to put aside that power to impose and to instead find out what they can do to help others foster change.
It would seem clear that steps like these would build harmony and understanding within our People, while strengthening the leadership on all sides.
- There are those who would say that peaceful Baltimore nevertheless does suffer from a dearth of personal ambition and represents a less intense – and hence more compromised – brand of orthodoxy. I understand that this may be the case, and in the view of some may not be worth the price. My mentors did not share that view.↑
- It must be noted that there may be situations where a movement is actually beyond the pale (Jews for J for example), and should not be included in the community. Even less dramatic deviations may be seen as actively undermining the strength or fundamental direction of the community that could call for a more dramatic and stark response. In this regard an important distinction is to be made – as explained by the Rambam in Hilchos Mamrim 3:1-3 – between developing and established movements. One may wish to oppose and stand firm against the development of a movement diverting people from the path of Torah, but may be more helpful to an existing constituency that is already established on a different path. For example, including the founders of a new “partnership minyan” is not in the same category as working with the leadership of an existing, non-orthodox community school. Drawing these precise lines requires great wisdom and nuance and is beyond the scope of what can be presented here. ↑
- Two illustrations come to mind of how this principle looked in real life. When I was installed as rabbi of our shul, my Rebbe HaRav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l came to the celebratory banquet. As was the custom, the banquet began with the American and Israeli national anthems. Rav Weinberg was a profound lover of Eretz Yisrael but he was not a Zionist, and would not of his own sing the secular anthem of Medinat Yisrael. Nevertheless he stood next to me and sang along in full voice, recognizing that as Medinat Yisrael was a focal point of Jewish identity and activity for many in the assembled group, it was a value he should recognize and uphold for them. He was confident that his students who were privileged to learn from him daily would not misunderstand his singing of Hatikvah as a philosophical shift on his part, but would see it instead as an expression of his respect for Klal Yisrael.Likewise when a day school opened in Baltimore to the left of the existing mainstream yeshivos, Rabbi Naftali Neuberger zt”l worked to help them in various ways. I remember sitting with him at the dedication of their new campus, and him remarking how important it was for us to be in attendance. He too was not concerned that his assistance and presence would confuse his constituency or materially weaken the institutions that he had invested great effort to build. Instead he felt it more critical that this developing institution feel a measure of connection to and respect from his community. ↑
- In 1948, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav of Yerushalayim, wrote a letter to the Chiefs of Staff of the Army requesting an exemption for Yeshiva students from Army service. The letter consists essentially of two main paragraphs. The first paragraph writes admiringly and appreciatively of the selfless dedication of those who have volunteered to serve the nascent state, fighting with zealousness and bravery for the survival of the Jewish people against its sworn enemies. It goes on to lament the tragic losses of many of these brave souls in the bloody battles for independence. The second paragraph makes the familiar argument that the yeshiva students should be allowed and encouraged to continue their holy work, as they play a critical role in the defense of the country, with their spiritual efforts supporting and upholding the battlefield heroics. ↑
This article was originally featured in the Summer 2013 edition of Klal Perspectives.