by Ezra S. Shanken
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” How can we relate to those historical figures who hold a place in our Jewish life, having been braver for five minutes longer? Are they a tool to be used by our teachers, or reminders of our own ability reach farther, do more, and make a real difference in the world? We turn to three young rabbis from different streams of Judaism for their thoughts.
Rabbi Ethan Tucker (Independent) is Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar and Chair in Jewish Law. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and earned a Ph.D in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was a founder of New York’s Kehilat Hadar.
Rabbi Ari Weiss (Modern Orthodox) is Founding Director of Uri L’Tzedek. He received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in June 2007, and is completing a Master’s degree in Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University. He is a recipient of the Joshua Venture Group Fellowship for Jewish social entrepreneurs.
Rabbi Mitchell Delcau (Reform) is the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, C.O. He earned a Master of Arts and Hebrew Letters and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Delcau also worked as a hydraulic river engineer and completed a graduate degree in this area.
Does Judaism value heroes and why?
Not really. The Greeks did, but Jews don’t valorize people that much; we more often expose them as human and flawed. Even Moses is portrayed at times as angry and impatient, and a number of medieval Bible commentators point out ways in which other Biblical characters are flawed. Anyone who reads the Talmud knows that rabbinic figures are often exposed for folly, shame, and other blunders. But those are our heroes: real people like us who nonetheless attain heights of dedication and achievement that we can realistically aim for. Lionizing heroes as perfect turns them into distant exemplars and prevents them from being role models.
I think Judaism does value heroes. We value the concept of ancestry. Our central prayer, the Amidah or Tefillah, teaches us that it was our ancestors who engaged the higher power we call God. They had distinctive qualities which we as Jews, thousands of years later, still study and find ways to integrate into our lives.
The Prophets challenged the powerful in societynd confronted corrupt systems; as a result, they suffered personally, which makes their gestures heroic. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel captured this thought when he wrote that a rabbi’s role “is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” even though the confrontation with established power structures and self-interest can lead to hardship and sacrifice. In doing so, they set the vision for the highest Jewish ideal: speaking a moral truth and taking up the cause of the other.
Who is your favorite Jewish hero and why?
I have always found Abraham to be a powerful figure. He is at once a spiritual itinerant, a military commander, a gentle father, and a shrewd diplomat. He offers the possibility of playing multiple roles in life and pursuing a range of goals. My other heroes are the original Zionist pioneers, people who traveled across the world into trying circumstances in order to pursue a very practical dream that they felt would change the Jewish world. And it did.
On December 11, 1995, the Malden Mills factory was destroyed in a large fire. Aaron Feuerstein, owner and CEO of Malden Mills and an Orthodox Jew, decided to keep his 3,000 workers on payroll with benefits even though they now had nothing to do, costing over $25 million. Feuerstein explained, “I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar. I have an equal responsibility to the community. It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets” (Parade Magazine, 1996). Feuerstein exemplified the heroic gesture in Judaism: Others come before myself.
My favorite Jewish hero is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), whose dedication to being a Jewish scholar is so impressive. By day he owned a vineyard, and by night he studied and wrote commentary on both the Torah and the entire Talmud. It is due to his scholarship that we say while studying Gemara, “One finger on the Rashi and one on the Gemara.” He was a pioneer in developing Jewish thought, showing the outside world that it was possible to study and develop a personal thought process on the teachings of our people.
How can we use Jewish heroes to help educate young leaders?
I think we best educate young leaders by teaching them that no single hero or messianic figure brings redemption on his or her own. It is our timeless commitment to values and ideals that ultimately defines a Jewish community and which ensures that it will leave its mark. Young leaders should see themselves as putting Jewish values into practice in a consistent and passionate way.
At its core, leadership is about creating a vision of how we ought to live and providing a plan on how we can arrive there. To educate the next generation of Jewish leaders, we need to look at our rich tradition and identify who our Jewish heroes are, what their vision of a just and good world was, who was successful in implementing their vision, and who failed. We need to show them that heroes have always dreamed and give our young leaders the opportunity to create a vision of a vibrant Jewish tomorrow. At the same time, we need to be explicit about the sacrifices that are needed to make their vision a reality.
Many of our young people today find it difficult to invest (not merely money but time and energy) in the Jewish community. Perhaps this is because the core notion of the Jewish people has become somewhat lost. Our goal is to build a relationship with a higher power we call God and to make the world a better place towards this end. When young Jewish leaders find a person, a mentor, a “hero” from the Jewish tradition to look up to, perhaps they can find the strength to continue the work of our people.
Give an example of a lesson a Jewish hero teaches which our generation should take to heart.
The Zionist pioneers teach a critical lesson for our time: You accomplish more by being an anonymous member of a committed group than you do as a famous individual. Those who shape the future are usually those who gather a group of committed peers to their side, rather than those who command a bright spotlight and a large stage. Understanding this is the key to changing the world.
During the First Temple, a simple herdsman named Amos was called to prophesize against the elites of Israel who lived lives of conspicuous consumption by “oppressing the poor and crushing the needy” (Amos 4:1). When Amos called their moral complacency into question, they would not listen. But he didn’t give up. He imagined a world in which “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In our time, we live a life of plenty which is supported on the backs of millions of slaves and on abuse and exploitation worldwide. We need heroes like Amos to name moral and religious hypocrisy and to create ways to live ethical Jewish lives in a globalized era.
I would choose Moses. When confronted with a voice from a bush (which happened to be burning) which asked him to take a lead in the Jewish community, he stated, “Heyn lo ya’aminu li: The people won’t believe in me” (Exodus 4:1). We hear this all the time from the young Jews in the community. Why would anyone listen to what I have to say? No one will find my involvement meaningful. Why would I want to come to a program if all they want is my money and I am not sure what I will get out of the program? It is impossible to improve the Jewish community if one is not willing to take the leap of faith Moses took when he went to ask an Egyptian Pharaoh to release his entire slave workforce. Sometimes it takes the utmost courage to walk into a Jewish program for the first time. But, hey… what Moses did was easy?
What characteristics of our generation are also exemplified by Jewish heroes?
This generation likes to get its hands dirty and to make a difference. That kind of commitment to practical results in the real world is the great value of all great Jewish leaders. The Jewish discourse of halakhah – often rendered as Jewish law, but in fact better rendered as “the path” – emphasizes that all theoretical commitments must have practical, daily corollaries. Also, to the extent that Jewish heroes of the past have been transparent figures, whose flaws are often there for all to see, this is a generation that very much values honesty and transparency in our communal discussions and decisions.
Today, Jews donate billions of dollars, travel across the world to perform service for others, and perform actions that create justice around the world. By giving of ourselves for the other, our current generation is living the Jewish paradigm of heroism.
The notion of a strong-willed Jew could not be better exemplified than by our generation. Those who are involved in the Jewish community all have “the” plan for making it better. Those who don’t like the establishments start other programs and nonprofits. Did the rabbis do it? Yes. Did the Zionists do it? Yes. Likewise, we certainly have those who seek to pave the way for the “new” Jewish community.
Ezra Shanken is the Senior Manager of the Young Adult Department at the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado and a third generation Jewish communal worker.