This week we begin the book of Bamidbar. One theme of this book is that all of our leaders –and especially our spiritual leaders -- are very human and very much capable of tragic mistakes.
The failure of human leadership is perhaps the most dominant theme of this book.
Parashat Bamidbar begins with the counting of the children of Israel by the neseim, the princes. The neseim are elevated over the other members of their community. They are singled out for greatness. They are called keruei ha-edah, which Rashi tells us is a sign of their great importance (Rashi 1:16).
Then in parashat Nassoh we read at length about the great and special offerings made by princes as part of inauguration of the mishkan.
The implication is that the princes are being praised and elevated above all others in the community.
But then we start to see the failures of our leaders.
Behaalotchah tells us that Aaron and Miriam sinned.
Shelach tells us how other distinguished men of the tribes were chosen to spy out the land and alas they led the people astray with their horrible guidance.
Parashat Korach tells us how Korach took with him in his revolution against Moshe, 250 nesei ha-edah, princes of the community. Of course we know that this revolution was a horrible mistake.
Chukat tells us of the terrible mistake of Moshe himself and how he let everyone down and did not sanctify Hashem’s name in public and how as a result he was denied entrance into the land of Canaan.
Balak tells us of the failures of the great prophet Bilaam.
Pinchas tells us of the licentious mistake of the prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri b Salu.
In short, while the book of Bamidbar begins with a theme of emphasizing the importance and power of the princes and leaders of the people. It quickly shifts and tells us about the disastrous consequences of this failed leadership. The real story of the book of Bamidbar is the story of the sins of our leaders and the highly negative impact that this had on the Jewish people.
The message of Bamidbar is that our leaders -- whether they be spiritual or political – are very much capable of making disastrous mistakes. As a community we need to be aware of that and as a consequence we must remember to safeguard ourselves against the dangers of flawed leadership.
In our own city we have just seen a rabbi sentenced to 6.5 years in jail. It is a tragic reminder of our need to safeguard ourselves against the dangers of failed leadership.
The problem of failed religious leadership disappointing us is not just a DC problem. It is obviously not just a Jewish problem. It is a universal problem that relates to charismatic religious leadership. As humans, we yearn for inspiration. We desire a guide and a leader. And sometimes this causes us to miss the warning signs that should have clued us in earlier.
Recently I read a powerful and haunting book: a memoir by my friend, Shulem Deen, titled, All Who Go Do Not Return.
Shulem tells the story of how he came to love and live in what is known as one of the most extreme of all Hasidic communities, the Skvere Hasidim, and then of his ultimate disillusionment and exile from this community. His story is a painful one to read because of the sadness we feel for him as he loses all connection to his community and most especially to his children who he loves deeply.
Shulem says that he became a Skvere Hasid after he participated in a Hasidic tisch with the Skvere rebbe (p. 34). He was moved and inspired by this Hassidic practice of gathering around the rebbes table and singing spiritual songs and then dividing up the remnants of the rebbes food. This ecstatic event inspired him and caused him to join the Skvere community. Soon he was bringing the most important questions of his life to the rebbe. Thus, for example when he was told that as a teen-ager he should marry a girl who he didn’t know and had only spoken to once for a mere seven minutes, he went to ask the rebbe for guidance. Shulem knew in his heart that he shouldn’t marry this girl. But the rebbe told him to do it. The rebbe said: “Nothing to worry about” (21). And once the rebbe said it, it was a closed matter. Refusing the rebbe’s instructions was not an option. “It was a done deal” (22).
Shulem’s dedication and attraction to his community was in large part based upon his relationship with the rebbe. As a result when he started to question if the rebbe really truly cared about him, he questioned the entire community and he eventually left. When his attraction to the rebbe dimmed, so did his attachment to the community.
A human being, no matter how great, is very much flawed. Thus, if the center of our Judaism is a quasi deification of a spiritual figure, then our Judaism is on really shaky grounds.
This past week we came across a story in the daf yomi (Ketubot 103b) that reminds us of this lesson.
The Talmud tells us of the death of R. Yehuda Hanasi, one of the greatest rabbis in our history, who is also known simply as “Rebbe.” The Talmud says that Rebbe was so holy that, “oto hayom she-met rebbe, batlah kedushah, the same day that Rebbe died, holiness ceased from the world.”
The Talmud says that when Rebbe died everyone in the community attended the funeral. There was one person however, a laundry man, who missed the funeral. This laundry man used to visit Rebbe every day. After he missed the funeral he ran up to the roof and jumped off and killed himself.
This is a very strange story and it requires much study to understand it.
But to my mind the most literal reading of the story is that the simple laundry man had had his world shattered.
He had attached himself to the holiness of Rebbe and now that his rebbe had died, he was broken. He couldn’t even go to the funeral. And now he couldn’t live in the world any more.
It is a story of the dangers of attaching too much spiritual power to a mere human being. The laundry man committed suicide because he realized that his whole world was shattered by the death of his spiritual leader.
It is very easy to become enamored by a spiritual figure and to become so attracted by them that we turn this human into a semi-divine figure. But if we make that horrible mistake of deifying a human, then we are taking away our own humanity as well and turning ourselves into drones.
These thoughts can be said about leadership in general but since I am a rabbi I want to especially focus on the failures as they relate to spiritual leadership.
Some people might point to the arrest of Rabbi Freundel and say that it is a classic case of rabbinic abuse. And of course it is. But it is more than that. It is also a cautionary tale for all of us about the dangers of becoming too enamored with a charismatic religious figure in a way that allows to overlook and to excuse their flaws.
But this is easy to say and harder to do. Often times, finding a rebbe or learning from a great teacher is a little like falling in love. We become really excited; our adrenaline gets going; we get a high. This is something that we crave, and when it is pure it can be beautiful. But there are some people who abuse this relationship and so we all need to be careful.
How do we do safeguard ourselves against such a mistake?
The Torah has a simple answer to this question. Historically, this is the day when we stood at the foot of Sinai and prepared ourselves to receive the Torah.
With the first commandment that we received on Sinai, God tells us what is the most important, fundamental message that we need to remember. Without this message, all of our teachings will become muddled.
“Anokhi Hashem, I am Hashem your God” (20:2). There is no other God. Only Hashem. Nothing else. No one else.
It sounds really simple. But it is a message we keep forgetting.
This first commandment is something we have to listen to and take very seriously. And we especially need to apply it to our spiritual leaders.
The first commandment reminds us that we must hold our spiritual and lay leaders accountable. If their behavior is off then we have to stop them and say, “Your actions are not acceptable.”
Each and every one of us has an individual responsibility to our entire community to hold our leaders accountable in the future.
We have to stop excusing the mistakes of rabbis by saying that this person does a lot of good and so we should ignore their bad actions for the sake of gleaning their good. This is actually an incredibly dangerous message. If I know a rabbi lacks integrity, then I don’t listen to their message, no matter how talented they may be.
To the extent that one does some good it makes their unacceptable behavior even more problematic. If a person didn’t do any good at all, then we could more easily dismiss their problematic behavior. But because the problematic behavior is cloaked in a message of piety and righteousness it makes their behavior more palatable to the vulnerable and thus far more problematic, and even less excusable.
Personally speaking there is some behavior that I can overlook and tolerate by a non-clergy, but when I see such behavior in a clergy –who so many people depend upon and look up to--I lose confidence in their ability to ever be a proper spiritual figure. So when a rabbi or maharat errs, sure he or she can repent. But such repentance can only be an individual repentance, between man and God. Vis a vis their leadership role in the Jewish community, they should find a different path for the future—one that doesn’t involve any leadership whatsoever.
Our community needs to be vigilant in the area of clergy abuse and bullying. But perhaps we need to be even more vigilant about the dangers of charismatic leadership.
This doesn’t mean that a rabbi or maharat shouldn’t be permitted to do his or her job. For example, I believe that the clergy should be the driving force and leaders when it comes to setting the vision of the shul and deciding matters of halakhah. For me these are areas where the clergy should not have to govern by committee. But lets not mistake the distinction between allowing a clergy to do his or her job the right way, and between acting like a bully. There is a distinction between being a forceful leader—to my mind, a good thing—and a charismatic bully and charlatan.
In this area as is in so many areas I look to my own rebbe, Rabbi Avi Weiss, as my role model. He is the most charismatic rabbi I have ever met. He has had and continues to have enormous influence on me. But ultimately I am drawn to him not because of his charisma, but because of the many ways I am constantly seeing him limit his charisma. I see the way he encourages raw and honest feedback. I see the way he carries himself to make certain that he would never abuse the enormous privileges that come with being a rabbi.
This past week I have been thinking a lot about the difference between the way Shulum interacted with his rebbe and the way I interact with my rebbe. When my rebbe gives me advice that’s all it is, advice. He never tells me to do anything. He makes suggestions, which sometimes I listen to and sometimes I don’t. And when he
makes a mistake, I call him up and tell him. And he is grateful for my call. When he lets me down I call him up and tell him. When he needs to do better I call him up and tell him. In my mind the fact that he doesn’t always want me to listen to him, and the fact that I am free to tell him his errors doesn’t diminish his attractiveness for me as a mentor, but rather it increases it.
To a certain degree I try to copy the leadership style of Rabbi Weiss. What I mean by that is I want to encourage everyone in our shul to interact with me in a healthy manner—a manner in which we share constructive criticism, and have a relationship where we can grow together. And when we fall short, I want us to tell each other that we need to improve. That to me is the sign of a healthy clergy-congregant relationship.
People laugh and even criticize some of the things I do as a rabbi like driving an old taxi car, wearing a matzah suit, not davening on the bimah, and asking people to call me by my first name. The reason why I do these things is specifically to stress the lack of pretense that a rabbi needs to assume. Of course, people should respect rabbis. But people should respect all human beings in general, and it is in that context that they should respect rabbis. I believe that a bigger problem for our larger community is not the Jewish community’s lack of respect for rabbis, but rabbis in our community assuming that they are entitled to too much respect.
I need a rabbi. Many of you need a rabbi and a maharat. But we need a rabbi—and a maharat—to be a guide, to offer us inspiration, for some to be a teacher, for others a role model—but we should never overlook or excuse their flaws. When we excuse and ignore the sins of our clergy we are desecrating our holy faith. Finding a flaw in our rebbe and telling them about it is not a sign that of disrespect but a necessary step in the service of Hashem.
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