The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?
This quote, from this article by Rav Adin Steinsaltz reminded me of a conversation I was involved with a few years ago at a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association.
An internationally known, media savvy Rabbi spent a 1/2 hour telling a group of 20 or so communal Rabbis that focusing our attention on communal needs (visiting the sick, kashrut, Torah classes, counseling etc.) was not the best use of our time. Really what we should be focusing on is how we could be impacting the general community. If only we could show the world that Judaism had a universal message, we would be successful.
While Rav Steinsaltz’s article is more far reaching, there is a connection between his search for a “head” and the role of community Rabbis.
Rabbi Steinsaltz relates this touching episode in his article.
My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.
Local Rabbis are the ones who know about the personal challenges of community members. Community Rabbis understand family dynamics and relationships precisely because of the time spent locally as opposed to on the road. Community Rabbis are the ones who can sincerely cry with their members.
This is one of the challenges of a centralized Rabbinate/Rabbinic authority. Local Rabbis are best suited to establish local halachik practice. All too often communities look for what “other communities” are doing, without considering that what they do may not be best for their community. Lay leaders should encourage Rabbis to lead locally by first and foremost focusing on what is really needed for religious growth within their community.
While this approach may not help identifying “The” head – that Rav Steinsaltz is looking for, it does remind us that if we are to have any hope of meaningful rabbinic leadership that Rabbis and community members should focus on local needs. Neither Rabbis or community members should judge success by how they “play” in the media, but by how well they address local religious and pastoral needs.