Seeking Spiritual Shepherds

Seeking Spiritual Shepherds: The Crisis in Religious Leadership
by Adir Glick

Judaism scored the lowest of all the world’s major religions in its members’ satisfaction with their leaders, according to a survey released by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. Jews also scored lowest in perceiving that their religion has a message relevant to their lives and today’s world, and were twice as likely as members of other faiths to become less religious. As the Jerusalem-based Elijah Institute pointed out in its conclusion to the survey, “Jews seem to have significant difficulties and distrust in relation to their religious leadership.”

For many Jews, this crisis in religious leadership is an unspoken reality. The American Jews I spoke with related the crisis to the new wave of independent minyanim throughout the country. An Israeli Jew said, “Our religious leaders have no vision for the future.” But many, while tacitly acknowledging the existence of a lack of religious leadership, denied that it constituted a crisis. One observant French Jew in Israel on a Jewish studies year-long program said this distrust was positive because it showed that Jews are independent and not easily swayed by charismatic leaders. “This is not a bad thing,” she said, “Jews are skeptical about everything.” Others said that our rabbis are teachers, not spiritual leaders in the mold of Catholic priests or Eastern gurus.

Conceptions of Jewish leadership as fallible rather than divine are born out in what appears to be the response from the religious community to the Elon scandal. Rabbi Mordechai ‘Motti’ Elon was one of the most respected leaders in the National Religious – Religious Zionist community in Israel. Thousands looked to him for guidance and found it. In February 2010, after accusations of sexually abusing some of his Yeshiva students, many voices in the religious community claimed that the problem was that we expected too much from him. “He is human, isn’t he?” was a common refrain.

While researching the Elon affair, I read a talk-back comment on an article entitled “Who is a Rabbi” from the Shalom Hartman Institute. The article argued against the “hysteric mourning” over the Elon affair and said that we should beware of allowing any one person’s greatness to “overshadow the individual responsibility to Torah.” The comment disagreed, saying it was right to “feel shattered and mourn a prince of Torah” and finished with, “Woe to the generation that will look upon its spiritual shepherds and leaders as nothing more than Bible and Talmud professors.”

Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds. At the 2009 Elijah Interfaith Institute conference on religious leadership, where representatives of the major world religions gathered in Israel, I saw how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.

Every religion has figures striving to live by a higher ideal, toward whom followers look for inspiration and to be shown a better way of life. In Judaism, we call Moses: Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses our rabbi. Moses was not just the imparter of the laws; he led the people in every sense – militarily, morally, spiritually, and socially. These days the State of Israel can protect Jewish national and military needs. But where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit. We learned from the Elon affair and the Elijah Institute survey not that we are putting too much faith in our leadership, but rather that we have stopped producing leaders who embody these high ideals.

Jews by the thousands look elsewhere for spiritual guidance. Jews in America are at the forefront of Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, and Self Help movements. One-fifth of all American Buddhists are estimated to be Jewish. Post-army Israelis go to India and Nepal, mostly for leisure, but in many instances also in search of the spiritual inspiration and insight they are not finding within Judaism or Israel. Those who flocked around Elon did find in him what they were seeking in a religious leader. His subsequent fall is one case which has pushed the idea of inspired spiritual leadership further afield.

Yet the discovery of his serious personal issues does not mean that we should dispose of the idea of religious leadership altogether. Religious leaders well-versed in Jewish law are needed to teach Gemara, shed light on obscure passages in the Talmud, and elucidate points of custom. But we also need those who can provide answers to life’s major questions from their own insight and experience; who will serve as examples of the viable spiritual life that we would want to lead.

Our young will stop looking elsewhere for their spiritual needs when we produce leaders who are both charismatic and also live by high moral, spiritual, and ethical standards – transforming Judaism from the religion with the least satisfaction in our leaders to a religion with a strong, vibrant vision which reflects the great miracle of our modern rebirth and return from Exile.

Adir Glick regularly contributes to the magazine and studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is involved in Jewish meditation work and interfaith dialogue.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Heroes issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.