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Rabbinic Leadership – Fifty Years Ago and Today

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic arrest of CCAR rabbis in St. Augustine, Florida, where they traveled at the request of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This talk, inspired by the moral leadership of this group, was originally presented as a sermon on Shabbat B’haalot’cha, June 6, 2014, to a Joint Board Meeting of the CCAR, URJ, HUC-JIR, along with the members of the Cincinnati Reform community who joined together for Shabbat.

Fifty years ago this month, Rabbi Israel Dresner was attending the CCAR Annual Convention when he received a telegram from his friend the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We need you down here with as many rabbis as you can bring with you!”

Sixteen rabbis, along with Al Vorspan, director of the Religious Action Center, then a newly formed joint enterprise of the UAHC (URJ) and the CCAR, proceeded to St. Augustine, Florida. Why did they respond to Dr. King’s call? In the words of our seventeen leaders[1]:

“We came because we … could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means…

Leadership at its core has a moral quality – as exemplified by these seventeen Reform Leaders.

How do we act as moral leaders? Rabbi Charles Mantenband, a rabbi little known to most, had served in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where my wife Vicki grew up (and in other communities). Active in the Civil Rights Movement, in 1964 he laid out a four step agenda for leadership with what he called an “innocent rhyming device”:   “aware, care, dare, share.” The Rabbi explained: Aware is to “be informed”; Care is to “indicate your concern”; “Dare is to “take risks”; and Share is to “give of yourself.”[2]

Aware is to be informed.

To be informed requires a lifetime commitment to ongoing education and an awareness of the world in which we live.

For our rabbis, anchored in Torah, it also means learning new leadership skills that involve strategic thinking, organizational management, financial sustainability, and community-building.

For our lay leaders, anchored in our contemporary society and business models, it also means learning Torah and the Jewish values that guide our work.

In addition, to be aware and informed requires self-awareness. In this regard, we model ourselves on Moses, as it says in this week’s Torah portion: Moses was a very humble leader, more so than any other human being on earth (Numbers 12:3). In today’s contemporary language, we would say that we as rabbis and as lay leaders must practice tzimtzum. The contraction of the self to make room for other people and for God in leadership.

Care is to indicate your concern for others.

Why, our commentators asked, is it so praiseworthy that the Torah portion emphasized in the opening verses that Aaron lit the lamps as God had commanded? Because Aaron in his new elevated, superior role retained his humility and still adhered to the customary practice of the people without deviating.

Midrash notes that Aaron was a man of the people. He did not separate from his community but stayed amongst them and with them: When there was a conflict between two people he “would not rest” until he returned them to friendship. When someone did not know how to pray, Aaron became that person’s teacher. If, according to Midrash, someone did not understand Torah, Aaron would explain it.[3]

Today as leaders we strive to model Aaron’s attention to the uniqueness of each individual as we build caring, welcoming, and inclusive communities.

And our concern is not limited to just our local community, but also to groups of people who have been cut off from the community, disenfranchised, or denied their rights. Throughout our history as a rabbinic leadership organization, the CCAR has championed the fundamental principle that every person has been created in God’s image, is entitled to dignity and equality and respect. For that reason, the CCAR this week joined as a plaintiff in a Federal lawsuit that challenges North Carolina’s law banning same-sex marriage. (That law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of individuals and congregations to freely practice our religion.)

To care is to act upon our concern.

safe_image.phpDare is to take risks.

Leading to a new future is not easy; it involves taking risks; it may involve failure as well as success. It does not always make one popular. And as we know, our people can complain. As it says in the Torah portion, the people took to complain bitterly about their transition. And discontent can spread quickly. Torah teaches that Moses quickly heard the people weeping, every clan, and at the entry of every tent (Numbers 11:1-10).

Today’s leaders must have the capacity to live with such complaints. In contemporary terminology, our leaders must learn to live with disruption, to hold it in our hands, to manage and lead through that disruption to new beginnings.[4]

Share is to give of yourself.

This weekend, leaders of the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and the URJ will have the opportunity to explore what calls each of you to leadership, what you are willing to share of yourself as you take responsibility.

We also acknowledge that shared leadership is a historic Jewish value. Moses himself cries out that he could not “carry all these people by myself.” God told him to create an advisory board of seventy elders (Numbers 11:16).

Shared leadership is not always easy. Certainly, as we look to the future, the qualities of leadership between rabbinic and professional leaders, on the one hand, and lay leadership, on the other, overlap. But each has unique roles in our organizations. In the Torah portion, Moses stations the 70 leaders around the tent; perhaps the first indication of strategically placed leadership. Each person with his or her own unique role, just as Moses and Aaron too had special roles.

But, at the same time, the Torah’s reference to Eldad and Medad, reminds us that all people have the potential for leadership. As Moses declared: “If only all God’s people were prophets; that the Eternal put the divine spirit upon all of them” (Numbers 11:29).

As we look to the future of Jewish leadership in North America and throughout the world, we hope and we pray that God will put the divine spirit upon each and every one of you, every one of us, who will lead the Reform Movement into its new future.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  

[1] The seventeen include: Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Rabbi Israel Dresner, Rabbi Daniel Fogel, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, Rabbi Joel Goor, Rabbi Joseph Herzog, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, Rabbi Leon Jick, Rabbi Richard Levy, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Rabbi Michael Robinson, Rabbi B.T. Rubenstein, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, Rabbi Allen Secher, Rabbi Clyde T. Sills, and Mr. Albert Vorspan.

[2] The full text of Rabbi Mantenband’s presentation can be found in the CCAR Yearbook, 1964.

[3] Rashi and others have observed that Torah commends Aaron for adhering to the customary practice without deviation. There is a good explanation of this, as well as the commentary of Rabbi Meir at Premishlan, in Abraham Torsky’s Living Each Week commentary on this particular Torah portion.

[4] Also, we hear a great deal today about entrepreneurship in the Jewish community and that rabbis themselves must be entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, Richard Cantillon first defined an entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk”.