Who we follow and what we are willing to learn from our leadership say a lot about the kind of people we envision ourselves becoming. Judaism’s leaders have always been its teachers; we see ourselves as a people always learning, ever open to new insights, new ways of thinking, deeper modes of relating to God and to each other. In focusing on leadership, we are really holding up a mirror to ourselves, to explore Jewish identity. If Jews are to be perpetual students, then our teachers are our leaders.
In what way do teachers lead?
Generally, we think of leadership as a characteristic—either you have it or you don’t. Leadership, then, must be something you possess: a personality trait, like charisma, or a skill, like public speaking, or access to a pool of knowledge or information. When a politician is said to be a natural leader, we mean that he or she is able to steer legislation through the legislature, to negotiate treaties to the nation’s advantage, to mobilize the military to assert the national interest. In politics, leadership is the possession of competence and charisma.
In science or academics, by contrast, leadership is an ability to master a large body of knowledge and to use it in creative and fruitful ways. Thus, Einstein was a leading physicist, not because he was competent and charismatic, but because he took the same data that everyone else was looking at and, filtering it through his own remarkable creativity, was able to configure it in ways that no one else had yet dreamed. In science and scholarship, leadership is the possession of information and creativity.
Makings of a Jewish Leader
Competence and charisma, information and creativity, may well be the hallmarks of leadership in other areas, but the makings of a Jewish leader are somewhat different and worth recalling. Educator, rabbi, cantor, chaplain or youth advisor, we are all teachers, leading through the example we set, by our lives as they are lived, rather than by any skill, discipline or force of personality.
To lead in the Jewish world, to bring others to a fuller participation in Judaism and to our brit with God, a Jewish teacher must offer nothing less than access to the very depths of his or her own neshama. A teacher is one who, through a willingness to share a spiritual journey, to reveal the eddies and shoals of the soul, provides a model and a guide for others to follow. Leadership, for the Jew who would teach, is primarily a gift of spirit, a gift of shleimut, of wholeness.
A Jewish teacher is a script in search of actors.
A Jewish teacher can, indeed, make good use of skills and charisma, and certainly needs knowledge and creativity. But a teacher is distinguished from other Jews not so much in these specific areas as by an orientation of personality. A teacher is willing to have an open soul, permeated by the teachings and values of our sacred traditions, and permeable to the community of Jews who would be instructed by example. A Jewish teacher is a script in search of actors.
A teacher is an open neshama, made and molded by the sacred writings and deeds of Judaism. Our legitimacy, our ability to stand before our students with integrity, requires that we travel on the road we offer to our fellow Jews. Not as accomplished examples of perfection, but as flawed seekers of improvement, we dare to instruct and act as agents of God. We are always in the process of transforming God’s Torah (Torato) into our own (Torateinu). Only because we are first and always teaching ourselves, because before we ask how we can teach something, we must inquire, “What does this teach me?” Only then can we muster the temerity to demand that our students, congregants, and community also seek to absorb and to be absorbed by the age-old flow of Jewish striving.
For too long, we followed a model of the teacher as one who led by already having mastered, a model more properly located in the world of Zen Buddhism, or perhaps in some medieval guild. Jewish teachers are not masters, nor should they be. We are not so much ba’alei teshuva, masters of repentance, as we are rodfei teshuva, seeking always old-new paths of return. In fact, one who claims to have mastered the tradition demonstrates effrontery, an unwillingness to be mastered by the tradition. One who claims to be the ideal Jew is disqualified from the start; only if you think you lack the merit to be a lamedvavnik (one of the 36 totally righteous people) might you actually be one.
How We Do It
How then does a teacher show leadership?
Each morning we thank God for making us in the Divine image. The truth is, God gives us the tools, but we are the ones who must do the sacred work, each of us with our own neshamot. We are given the clay; the machzor affirms, “Haguf shelakh, the body is yours.” But God’s image is not what we start with; it is what we seek. Asymptotically, always closer but never actually arriving, we wrap ourselves in the shawl of our tradition, making for ourselves a context in which to live, to breathe, to learn and to act. By committing ourselves to a regimen of lifelong learning, the wisdom of our Sages becomes the companion of our minds. We bind ourselves with the straps of the mitzvot, disciplining our deeds to reflect our love and awe for our God, to dance God’s will with our hands and our every move. By filling our days with the commandments, we live as though we were wise and spiritual, and in the process, we seek to make ourselves wise and spiritual. We immerse ourselves in a liturgy of good deeds, davening kindness, dignity and involvement through our care for our fellow creatures and for all of Creation.
When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, he insisted he was “praying with his feet.” Only after we are so well launched, as we ourselves are engaged with learning, mitzvot and deeds, can we then present ourselves to our communities and claim that we have something to teach. Were we not first willing to remake ourselves in the image of the Divine, we would offer only tinsel-information to satisfy curiosity, memories to quench the pangs of nostalgia, posturing to allay the guilt of abandoning a beautiful and sacred way.
The Midrash teaches that God was unwilling to split the Red Sea for the slaves fleeing Mitzrayim until they themselves took the first step. Insistent on the passion for freedom and for godliness, our ancestors walked up to their necks in the waters, singing “Mi khamokha ba’elim A-do-nai? Who is like You among those who are worshipped, A-do-nai?” Still the waters did not part. They continued walking until the waters engulfed their nostrils, forced now to sing “Mi kamokha ne’edar bakodesh? Who is like You, in majestic holiness?” Only then, following their lead, did God split the waters, allowing them to complete their course.
Walking In Before the Waters Part
Leadership, then as now, means going first. It means walking into the waters before they have parted, making them split by our courage, our determination that they must indeed part.
For those of us who teach—rabbis, cantors, camp counselors, faculty of day and supplementary schools—we can only teach if we are willing first to lead. To begin our own journeys of Jewish faithfulness and Jewish growth, of learning and deeds, of prayer and passion, before we attempt to impose it on our students.
B ‘orkha nir’eh or, in your light, others will see light. That is leadership Jewish-style.
That is teaching.