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This was the epitome of rabbinic leadership

What makes an outstanding rabbinic leader, asks Yoni Birnbaum

    (דודי פרידמן (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

    Theodore Roosevelt once said: “People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” The truth is that the qualities of exemplary leaders have been debated since time immemorial, and rabbis are no exception to this. So, what makes an outstanding rabbinic leader? There are some rabbis who manage to provide stellar rabbinic leadership, not only to congregants or the public in general, but also to other rabbis. Yes, even rabbis need rabbis. But how can one recognise such a figure? The life story of a leading Israeli rabbi who passed away recently is, I believe, highly instructive in this regard.

    I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who passed away on Erev Chanukah aged 104, on several occasions. He was one of the senior roshei yeshivah (rabbinic heads), of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, my own alma mater. But two of these occasions in particular stand out in my mind.

    The first of these took place in a crowded function hall. Rabbi Shteinman had been given the honour of holding the baby during the brit milah. But there was a delay, so everyone stood around waiting for several minutes. I recall watching Rabbi Shteinman during those few minutes, already in his nineties, standing quietly along with everyone else, exuding calmness and simplicity. This great rabbinic leader with hundreds of thousands of followers could easily have passed as just another elderly gentleman in the crowd. There was no cadre of attendants around him, and he was happy to speak with anyone who approached him. Indeed, right to the very end of his life, Rabbi Shteinman eschewed all forms of luxury. He received visitors in his small and very basic apartment, in which his office doubled as a bedroom at night. Simplicity and humility were hallmarks of his leadership.

    The other occasion was far more dramatic. As widely reported in the Israeli press following his passing, Rabbi Shteinman was against confrontation with the Israeli government in matters of dispute between the Charedi and secular camps. Instead, he advocated finding common ground, facilitating and encouraging moderation and dialogue where possible.

    This approach was what led Israeli President Rivlin to comment after Rabbi Shteinman’s passing that, “despite his steadfast views, he knew how to pass on his message pleasantly, softly, and out of great love for every Jew”. Sadly, this also meant that he had opponents among a small but vocal, extreme element of Charedi society, who were looking for conflict and confrontation in these matters.

    During the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each year, Rabbi Shteinman would deliver a highly anticipated ethical sermon to a capacity crowd in the yeshiva’s main study hall. One year, I sat there together with a thousand other students listening to his talk. Suddenly, a young man from outside the yeshiva, evidently a member of one of these extreme groups, began shouting at the rabbi. But the interruption barely registered with Rabbi Shteinman, who calmly resumed his talk where he had left off. His face radiated a sense of calm self-composure, of knowing what he stood for, and being prepared to gladly accept any abuse that came his way as a result.

    For me, these two small anecdotes exemplify the qualities of stellar rabbinic leadership. Exemplary rabbis set an example to others. They are, first and foremost, teachers of Torah. Yes, teachers in the conventional sense. But, far more importantly, leaders who teach by example. People who can present an example of how to behave correctly under pressure, and whose humility and personal standards are honest and genuine, both in speech as well as action.

    These are tough demands and are certainly far harder to fulfil in practice than learning how to officiate at a life-cycle event. And rabbis are human too. Plenty of them get it wrong. But Rabbi Shteinman stands out as an exemplary model of rabbinic leadership, not because of his vast scholarship in Torah, but because of his constant commitment to leading by example throughout the 104 long years of his life.

    Thirty years before he passed away, Rabbi Shteinman left a will in which he stated that he needed no more than ten people at his funeral. In the event, some 200,000 people came to accompany him on his journey to his final resting place. A reminder, perhaps, of the enduring significance of rabbinic leadership, as well as the impact it can have when properly delivered.

    Yoni Birnbaum is the Rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

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