When it comes to different interpretations of Torah, ethics, and theology and different understandings of Judaism and visions for the Jewish future, the Jewish People need a robust exchange of ideas and as many voices as possible at the table
by Rabbi Marc Baker
Two weeks ago, I attended The Covenant Foundation Project Directors’ Meeting, a gathering of educational innovators and entrepreneurs whose leadership and creative ideas are being supported and developed by Covenant. The Foundation invites its grantees and others for two days of learning, thinking, and dreaming together about their work and the future of Jewish education.
The theme of the two days was “Be Bold,” and, in that spirit, one of the guest presenters was Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, NY. Rabbi Lopatin spoke about his own and his rabbinical school’s vision of “open Orthodoxy,” but mostly reflected on some of the challenges he has faced as a leader.
Rabbi Lopatin showed some of the letters and articles that have been written about him and his institution. In past months these have included an article in The Jewish Daily Forward entitled “Asher Lopatin Gets Less-Than-Warm Welcome From Orthodox World” as well as letters and articles in Yated Ne’eman, a Haredi weekly newspaper.
Rabbi Lopatin was asked why he even tries to stay in conversation with Orthodox Jews who attack him and declare him and “open Orthodoxy” out of the bounds of Orthodox Judaism. His response struck me as a counterintuitive lesson in bold leadership. Rabbi Lopatin explained that, rather than try to defeat or reject his detractors, he is striving to create an Orthodox Judaism that makes room at the table for the very people and voices who claim there should not be a seat at the table for him. Rabbi Lopatin’s vision of both Orthodox Judaism and bold leadership means working to engage even those people with whom you most disagree and even those people who criticize you most harshly.
In our Jewish world and our American society, a world of sound bites and little patience for civil discourse, this is a different conception of bold leadership than what many people expect. We often think that to be bold is to stand firm for an opinion, stance, or worldview, to draw lines and create boundaries, to reject rather than genuinely consider competing ideas and perspectives. If this kind of leader actually listens to or engages the other, it is usually to understand the other’s viewpoints well enough to dismantle or defeat them. I sometimes worry that rabbis and political leaders feel or believe that people are looking for them to provide this kind of boldness.
However, Rabbi Lopatin suggests and models a different conception of bold leadership. To live boldly is to live in the challenging, often unresolved, space between competing values, ideas, and opinions; to have the courage to, in the words of Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” To lead boldly is, in the spirit of Harvard professor Ron Heifetz’s book Leadership without Easy Answers, to build and preserve a container, a community, in which multiple, competing voices can be heard and in which competing values can be wrestled with. To be bold is to ensure that, as we learn from our rabbis in Pirkei Avot 5:20, a makhloket l’shem shamayim – dispute for the sake of Heaven” will continue to endure, rather than be resolved. When it comes to different interpretations of Torah, ethics, and theology and different understandings of Judaism and visions for the Jewish future, the Jewish People need a robust exchange of ideas and as many voices as possible at the table. To be willing to stay in that conversation, let alone to lead it, is a vision of bold leadership.
This kind of boldness – the willingness to hold firm to one’s convictions while making space for the beliefs and world views of others who deeply disagree with and sometimes even attack you – is a core habit of mind and heart that we must develop in our high school and college students. After all, they will sustain and lead the Jewish communities and democratic societies of the future.
Rabbi Marc Baker is Head of School at Gann Academy.