Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stay away from the cheerleaders

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I've been going through the tens of thousands of emails stored on my shul computer, trying to decide which ones are relevant to leave behind for my successor. The result is a lot of trips down memory lane, mostly fun, a couple not so fun.

The other day I came across one particular set of unpleasant memories. It was a political issue, and I remember vividly how I got caught up in the stream of events and conversations, and was מפריז על המדה, going farther than was truly wise in the situation. It turned out mostly all right, but "winning ugly" doesn't leave me with a good feeling.

In retrospect, a lot of the problem came from listening to the Cheerleaders. I find that rabbis are particularly vulnerable to that problem.

A lot of us (even non-rabbis) believe we have everyone’s best interest at heart. Further, a lot of us (even non-rabbis, again) believe we are speaking based on Torah and Divine instruction (cf derashah here). The result is that we can slip into overreaching fairly easily. And cheerleaders make it worse.

Who are the cheerleaders?

People who share our agenda, so that they egg us on (from the sidelines, naturally) into ever louder, ever more vociferous commentary ("Yeah, you tell 'em, rabbi!"), and even more risky action ("Go for it!").

And not just those with a direct stake in the outcome. Friends in whose eyes we are surely in the right, since we are their friends. Friends who might be more objective but don’t live in our communities and don’t know the players, but who are certain that we must be on the side of right. And the enemies of our enemies, people who would not ordinarily stand by our sides but who will make an exception in this case because their foes are being vanquished.

These are the cheerleaders, and they are dangerous. They allow us to talk ourselves into taking outspoken positions, into overstepping reasonable rhetorical bounds, into acting before the time is right. (No, it's not just "They," it's very much "We" for listening, but this post is about the "They" part of it.)

All of which means we need to be carefully about choosing our sounding boards, and about listening to well-intentioned counsel.

Ah, the lessons to be found in well-preserved emails...


  1. I guess that's why Abraham Lincoln filled his cabinet with a "team of rivals".

    Always a good thing when the mountains of saved emails serve to provide us with valuable lessons and insights.

  2. Ah, and don't forget to let the successor in on your team of blog commetators... ;-}

  3. Fruma-
    Those mountains of digital paper should serve some good, anyway.

    My blog is an open book...