We've been through a shocking time. Millions of ordinary people have vented their anger by voting against establishment figures who weren't paying enough attention to their predicament. Whatever our view of the candidates in the Brexit referendum, the American elections and the forthcoming elections in Europe, the wave of xenophobia and racism accompanying this rejection of the old order is disturbing. While analysts mull over the political repercussions, we would do well to learn important lessons for how we govern our Jewish communities.
Jewish discourse should focus on listening to others. We were given two ears and only one mouth said the rabbis so we would listen twice as much as we speak. That is a key to successful leadership. While the rabbis valued the study of our holy books, a wise person, they said, is someone who is prepared to learn from every human being (Avot 4: 1).
But pressured times can affect leadership styles. The Talmud tells us that with the Temple in ruins, sovereignty lost and almost a million Jews killed, our situation seemed precarious (Berachot 27b). Rabban Gamliel as head of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh felt that a strong centralised authority was essential to maintain order and unity.
His approach brooked no opposition and he clashed with those rabbis who felt that the crisis called for rule by consensus. As the rabbis struggled to work peacefully together, the divisions became more and more apparent. Eventually, they had no alternative but to depose Rabban Gamliel, removing the old ruler and replacing him with someone who would be more acceptable and more amenable to the masses.
But the crisis ran deeper. It was not just about how to lead a nation in a time of crisis, it was also about how detached the leadership was from the common people.
The best rabbis make sure they are listening to their communities
Rabban Gamliel visited Rabbi Yehoshua, whom he had hurt, to apologise for his behaviour. As Rabbi Yehoshua opened his front door, the aristocratic Rabban Gamliel peered in. He was shocked by the sight of charred walls of the house. Unable to restrain himself, he opened the conversation by highlighting his colleague's poverty. "I see from the dark walls that you are a blacksmith," he said.
The comment was insensitive and Rabbi Yehoshua took offence. But, more than that, Rabbi Yehoshua was appalled that a rabbi could hold a position of authority while totally oblivious to the struggles of the scholars to support their families.
Rabban Gamliel learned his lesson, he made a full apology and was reinstated to his position. It's beautiful to see how his renewed path of sensitivity was reflected thousands of years later by an Israeli Prime Minister.
Every two weeks, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would put aside his other duties to visit the distraught families of captured Israeli soldiers and those missing in action. The families waited anxiously for these visits in the hope that he would tell them of a diplomatic breakthrough and the imminent return of their loved ones.
Tragically, there was rarely any meaningful news to impart and Rabin's friends and advisers tried to dissuade him from making these trips, which took time out of his already pressured schedule with no practical benefit. The Prime Minister listened to their protests: "You are right," he conceded, "I have nothing new to tell these people, but they still have plenty to say to me and I must listen."
The best politicians take time to ensure they listen to their electorate; the best rabbis make sure that they are listening to their communities. For if electorates reject the politicians who seem to ignore them, congregants will do the same to their rabbis. Many years ago, my mother met a leader of the burgeoning British Reform movement. "How are you enticing so many people to abandon their Orthodox synagogues and join yours?" she asked him. "We don't do anything at all", he said. "We just wait for your communities to send them
over to us."
Our synagogues have changed since then. They are more welcoming, the rabbis are more accessible and they know how to listen.
Still turbulent times present their challenges. Our Jewish sources and recent events remind us that we must never disrespect, delegitimise or cast out those who wish to be part of our communities.
Rabbis must listen to concerned men and women even if they advocate radical change in our synagogues which flies in the face of tradition, or cannot be delivered by our tradition. Halachah is not infinitely elastic, it cannot always deliver what everyone would like, but that does not prevent us from welcoming every Jew with love, warmth and a willingness to engage in honest, intelligent, well-mannered debate.