Friday, June 8, 2012

Rabbinic Leadership

I first put this on paper five years ago, when I was in the shul rabbinate. I still believe it.

To me, the guts of rabbinic leadership is in Moshe’s challenge to G-d in Parshas B’haaloscha. Moshe asks: Did I conceive this nation, or did I birth it, that You tell me, ‘Carry him in your bosom, like a nurse carries a nursling, to the land I swore to give his ancestors’?

That’s rabbinic leadership in a nutshell, as Moshe understood it. Although Moshe wasn’t happy about it in Parshas Behaaloscha (and I imagine he couldn’t have been much happier in Sh’lach to hear that his tour of duty was extended from eighteen months to forty years!), he knew this was his task.

Curious Jew’s quote from Rav Soloveitchik, who was himself citing Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, says it all: “However, the main role of the rabbi is to help the needy, protect the persecuted, defend the widows, and sustain orphans. In a word, it is acts of loving-kindness [gemilat hasadim]. (The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 193)”

This is not meant to infantilize the congregant; rather, it is meant to maternalize the rabbi.

This type of care is leadership, because it enables the rabbi to lead. Per Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people,” the rabbi who shows people that he cares about them is the rabbi who will be able to lead them and help them grow.

This, then, is the rabbi’s job description: To care for each individual, and thereby lead the community. Examples:

In many communities, there are people who can give deeper or clearer shiurim than the rabbi - but will they give those shiurim daily? And will they offer more shiurim when people need more? And will they offer shiurim in varied topics, as people need? And will they arrange chavrusas for people? And will they go after people who are not learning, to find ways to match them up with learning opportunities?

In many communities, there are social workers and counselors who can take care of social services and counsel those in need - but will they seek out the welfare of every individual in the community, the sick, those with sick relatives, the needy, those with needy relatives, the bereaved, the depressed, and so on? Will they dedicate time from their schedules to call people and check in and make sure everything is all right?

In many communities, there are gabbaim and askanim who will make sure davening runs smoothly and distribute leining responsibilities - but will they go out of their way to convince people to come to minyan, not for the sake of the minyan but for the sake of those people’s personal development? Will they dedicate time to teaching new baalei tefillah and new baalei keriah? Will they sit down with people to explain how to put on tefillin, and perhaps encourage them to acquire tefillin in the first place?

And so on and so forth. The rabbi’s job is to help a woman get her husband’s pension. The rabbi’s job is to convince people to “go kosher” and to kasher their kitchen himself. The rabbi’s job is to encourage people to come learn parshah for an hour a week. The rabbi’s job is to arrange a loan so that someone can cover his son’s bail.

Why is this the rabbi’s job? Because, as Moshe explained, his job is to carry the nation as though each individual was his own son or daughter.

Again: This is not meant to infantilize the congregant; rather, it is meant to maternalize the rabbi. A particular congregant may not need anything at all - but the rabbi had better continue to look after that congregant, in case the day comes when the congregant does have a need.


  1. What then, have you left for the zekeinim to do? G-d's response to Moshe was not "too bad. You need to be more maternal." It was to give Moshe a solution outside of himself.

  2. Anonymous-
    I think you and I understand Moshe's speech in different ways. As I see it, Moshe didn't need to learn anything; Moshe knew it, and did it, beforehand, and here he declared himself unable to keep it up. To this Hashem replied that He would give Moshe assistance in the task.

  3. you really get it. It's a shame (for the people) that you've left the rabbinate for now; hopefully you're thinking about more things and will get back into it, better than before.