Friday, March 25, 2011

A new leader for Reform Judaism should blend innovation and humility

The Torah portion of the Week: Parashat Shmini- Leviticus.
When one is promoted to a greater position of responsibility in a job or volunteer position, how should we behave? When the call comes and they say we want you to join the congregation’s board or to become the president of the congregation, what is the proper response? Maybe it depends upon who we are as well as who is doing the inviting. These are all part of the emotional, political and even theological variables that come into play when a new leader takes the reins of responsibility. What we find is that one has to balance that sense of awe of the responsibility with the confidence, passion and authority that percolate inside a new leader. It is not easy. Many have failed at establishing that blend of humility with confidence.  The reform movement is about to see these dynamics take shape in the arena of our national organizational life.
The Torah portion this morning, parashat shmini, leads us into the psychological mindset of a new leader’s initial challenge to balance these forces. We see the final public installation service of clergy, in this case, the high priest Aaron and his sons. In the 9th chapter of Leviticus, Moses says to Aaron, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and your burnt offering and making expiation for them as the Lord has commanded.”(9:7) What we see here is not only the ritual involved in the public role to play as the high priest but also the priest’s private moral integrity. Public and private sides of the priest underlie his credibility. Aaron is a role model but not better than the people. He must confront his own transgressions first before he can lead the people in expiating their own sins before God.
Can this parasha give us insight on what are the spiritual challenges of not only being a religious leader in biblical times but for all times and especially for our new President of the Union of Reform Judaism?
The rabbis picked up on the idea of Aaron’s rise to high office and saw in it lessons about how people balance these emotions.  They taught about the idea of bushah or humility that the more power and authority conferred upon a person the more careful one has to be in assuming the mantle of leadership.
We see this dynamic happening today within the Reform movement. The world now knows that a new President of the Union of Reform Judaism has been appointed today. Rabbi Richard Jacobs of Westchester Reform congregation in New York, now becomes the President designate until the current head of the Reform congregational arm, Rabbi Eric Yoffee, completes his term of service in 2012. The next year for Rabbi Jacobs will be a preparation process, just like Aaron, the High Priest, experienced not only for the job but for the personal spiritual and moral challenges of the position.
The reform movement has its hopes tied to Rabbi Jacob’s success. He is known as an innovator and change agent not only in his congregation’s success story but for the organizations he has worked with over the years. He will have to balance the financial concerns of maintaining the national URJ’s organizational appetite and then embody in his own persona a hopefully infectious spirit with inspiring new ideas that will return Reform Judaism to a much healthier place spiritually.
At the same time that we applaud a person for being innovative (with his acclaimed green synagogue and noted solar powered ner tamid) and dynamic, my hope is that we will see in him an embracing of people with humility for the great responsibility of setting the tone for the entire reform movement. Our rabbis of blessed memory commented on the verse “Moses said to Aaron,”Go to the altar.”  Aaron supposedly hesitated to approach the tent of meeting so Moses said to him. “Why are you hesitant?” “It is for this that you were chosen.” Moses said to his brother,” It is just because you hesitate and are modest that you were chosen.”(Rashi as interpreted by degel mahanah Ephraim).
There is a caution here which is that part of the success of the high priest or any national religious leader is based upon those who surround him or her. For Aaron he brought his sons to the sacrificial rites before the people. Their credibility stemmed from his own standing before the people. Yet in the next chapter of Leviticus, chapter 10, we read the story of two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Abbihu, who disregarded the proper and divinely ordained ritual process for sacrificial offerings and did their own thing. The tragic result was God sending forth a fire that consumed the sons and took them to their death. Aaron’s response to the horror of the events was “Vayidom Aaron,” And Aaron was silent.”
 This is an extreme situation and an obvious personal setback for Aaron just as he has assumed the position of High Priest of a brand new Israelite religion. Yet he faces it all with deep humility. That tells me a lot about the quality of the man. It seems to me that we need to have a sense of the quality of the new leader Rabbi Jacobs. Position can raise the person to a new level of insight and sometimes the person can redefine the position. The point is that moving forward towards a new future requires the leaders to set a new tone. Yet, it is not only about the ideas themselves. It is also about the integrity of the person who represents the system that serves the people. We should not forget that the cadre of holy vessels that surround the leader also will determine the credibility of the leaders and the mission. It is all tied together. If they can exemplify the same moral tone as their leader then we have synergy which provides the most solid kind of leadership for any organization.
Finally, the reform movement is in desperate need of a broad vision and a new tone. Rabbi Jacobs has been quoted as speaking about stretching a wide inclusive tent over American Jews and the reform movement in particular. Rabbi Jacobs should have the support of all of us at the start of his journey. He will face multiple challenges and competing priorities. The URJ board has called upon him to ascend upon the altar of our movement. He will implement the rituals and give us more than his ideas and more than allocating resources in various new program thrusts. He must first give us himself, the person who is as a leader and, hopefully, demonstrate that his strength and confidence is balanced by an equally powerful sense of humility.
His learning and worship practices are critical to his credibility and, so too, of course, is his ability to reflect and lead us all on a journey of introspection about how we can be wiser and better as a movement. That starts with Rabbi Jacobs which is why this is an awesome moment in Reform Judaism’s history.
Shabbat Shalom

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