Journal Watch
Tue, 11/29/2011

Plato, in “The Republic,” famously asked, “What distinguishes a leader?” No easy answer to that one. Indeed, philosophers, historians, political scientists, religious thinkers, have long quested those traits that characterize leadership. Is it, in fact, the singular trait of the leader that makes leadership? Or are societal and other situational dynamics more important in shaping leadership?

In pondering these questions, Journal Watcher turns first to one of the truly outstanding leaders in Jewish history, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, Maimonides — the Rambam. Bar-Ilan’s historian Zvi Zohar, using Maimonides as an exemplar (“Maimonides as Inspiration and Guide for Sephardic Halakhic Leadership in Modern Times,” The Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry [October/November 2007]), parts company with the “trait theory” of leadership. Zohar views leadership in the ability of the rabbis “to apply the resources of halakha to the guidance of Jewish praxis in a manner that is conducive to the vitalization of Jewish life.” English translation: it’s all about societal needs and societal change. In response to problems posed to him by rabbis throughout the Jewish world, Maimonides formulated novel halachically sanctioned norms when precedent was insufficient, and was the leader nonpareil for many Jewish communities. To Zvi Zohar, Maimonides, by means of his halachic decisions and enactments, has for centuries empowered rabbinic leaders in their exercise of leadership. This, to Zohar, is what leadership is all about.

Journal Watcher fast-forwards eight centuries and shifts his gaze from Egypt to Canada, specifically to rabbinic leadership in Toronto. York University’s Michael Brown, in “Platform and Prophecy: The Rise and Fall of Rabbi Stuart E. Rosenberg as Foreshadowed in his Early Toronto Sermons on Leadership” (Jewish History, 2009), ponders Toronto’s Stuart Rosenberg in a fascinating case study not of the successes but of the pitfalls of leadership. Rosenberg, who served Toronto’s Jews from 1956 to 1976, was a charismatic rabbi who enjoyed a meteoric rise and suffered as precipitous a fall. Brown, in an exemplary exercise in social history, examines the sermons of the youthful Rabbi Rosenberg, and develops a photograph of hubris, wrath, indeed intolerance. But fatal to Rabbi Rosenberg’s career were not his unfortunate personal traits, but a dynamic more basic in leadership: he did not realize that, in the 1960s, “times were a’changin’,” and he could not adapt to changing circumstances and needs — the burgeoning havurah movement, social protest, an interest amongst his congregants in new modes of worship. Rabbi Rosenberg did not listen to his community; the leader could no longer lead.

Leaders who did lead, and lead with a vengeance, were the two giants of early 20th-century America — Louis Marshall and Stephen S. Wise. University of Cincinnati’s Mark A. Raider, in “The Aristocrat and the Democrat: Louis Marshall, Stephen S. Wise, and the Challenge of American Jewish Leadership” (American Jewish History, March-June 2008), wonderfully captures the essence of communal leadership as refracted through the prisms of two contemporaneous, albeit vastly different, individuals.

Louis Marshall, a product of the German-speaking late-19th century Jewish immigrant milieu, was the strategist par excellence who knew how to get things done — and, in the course of many decades of challenge and crisis, he got things done in his naturally aristocratic imperious manner. Stephen S. Wise, Hungarian-born and more democratic in outlook and practice, was a natural politician and, as the premier institution-builder in American Jewish history, was responsible for (amongst other organizations) the American Jewish Congress, the maverick organization bar none, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Not only was there an elemental clash between Marshall and Wise of personal chemistry, but, more basic, there was “a cultural divide — competing visions of American Jewish life that sprang from distinctive socioeconomic profiles and spiritual orientations.” To this Journal Watcher would add differing generational worldviews: Wise and Marshall each was faced with the challenge of transitioning from an Old World “court Jew” model of shtadlanut, or advocacy, to an ethnic Jewish politics that was quintessentially American. Louis Marshall, the natural aristocrat, was the unquestioned leader of the Central European Jewish elite whose agency, the American Jewish Committee, reacted with abhorrence to the slightest whiff of democracy. Stephen S. Wise, in contrast, was an idealistic democrat — a liberal Reform rabbi, a social activist, an interfaith champion (in an era in which the word “interfaith” had little resonance) and above all the champion of a representative American Jewish communal organizational structure. Wise mobilized a range of non-elite groups heretofore outsiders in communal decision making — Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europeans, labor groups, Zionists, women’s groups — in effect representing millions of disenfranchised Jewish men and women in creating a nationwide Jewish plenary to provide them with a voice. It was American exceptionalism and pluralism that was being played out by Wise, a vision of society that did not sit well with Marshall.

At bottom, two models of leadership: the aristocrat as leader, the democrat as leader. But what made Marshall and Wise leaders, whatever their profound differences, was “their sense of common purpose that anchored and defined their goals as communal stewards, and which bridged the gap between them;” and their singular ability “to mobilize and harness the energies of American Jewry.” They were leaders.

Finally, women — specifically, the question of women in the Orthodox rabbinate. Bar-Ilan’s Daniel Sperber (“On Women in Rabbinic Leadership Positions,” Meorot [Tishrei 5771/2010]) offers a coherent review of the varied positions surrounding this contentious issue. Sperber, who is one of the leading Orthodox figures in Israel challenging the hegemony of the current Chief Rabbinate, takes a page from the responsa literature and examines in detail the question of a women serving as a halachic decisor and answering halachic — Jewish normative — questions. Sperber’s article is a tour-de-force historical rabbinic journey, centered on a review of Maimonides’ interdiction of women in communal (including rabbinic) leadership, which the author contends jibes neither with historical realities nor with coherent halachic analysis, including that of contemporary poskim (decisors). Sperber’s conclusion: while allowing women will be an innovative step in the Orthodox world, “there is no normative [read halachic] bar to women being ordained or functioning as Jewish communal leaders.”

Somehow I failed to find the women rabbis in Jerusalem’s
Batei-Ungar’n and Mea Shearim. I must be missing something.

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and organizations. Forthcoming is “The Future of American Judaism,” a volume in the “Future of American Religion” series (Trinity/Columbia University Press).