Serving the Jewish Community: A New Way to Understand “Leadership” in Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Gabe Goldman

Every Jewish Federation and national Jewish organization in America identifies leadership development as a goal. There are leadership development programs for Jewish college students, teens, lay leaders, professional staff, volunteers, etc. Unfortunately, the leadership model upon which the overwhelming majority of these programs is based premises that a leader is an individual who is “in charge,” with authority to direct others; the most powerful person in the group; and “above” the rest of the community.

In fact, such a perspective of leadership is diametrically opposed to the perspective of leadership which Jewish tradition actually espouses. Even a cursory look at traditional sources shows us that the rabbis of the Talmud deeply distrusted the corrupting influence of power. Thus, many of Talmud’s recommendations to Jewish leaders urge them to resist the temptation to abuse power and instead to be humble, compassionate, delegate power, etc.

In place of a “top to bottom” model of leadership, the rabbis offered their own model of leadership. This “Jewish” way to conceptualize leadership, I believe, is one that can provide a framework within which to assess the quality of our present-day Jewish communal leaders as well as guide us in developing our future leaders. The key to understanding the ideal of Jewish leadership is found in Talmud, Hoayot 10a: “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community.” Jewish leaders “lead” by serving their Jewish communities.

One way to understand the nature of this service is by examining how Moses serves the Israelites. What we find is that Moses serves as a statesman, as a visionary, as a healer and as a teacher.

The four roles Moses assumes in leading the Israelites are:

  1. Moses as Statesman – In showing us how Moses enables his people to carry out the greatest social revolution in human history, the Torah provides the opportunity for us to identify Moses’ skills in strategic planning, problem solving, delegating power, confronting challenges to his policies, and training his successor. (Traditional leadership models based on Moses only consider his role as statesman.)
  2. Moses as Visionary – Moses provides a vision that had been lacking amongst the community of Israelites – a vision of freedom, a vision of leaving Egypt for a “good land flowing with milk and honey.” He inspires his community to make the vision its own – and to believe in his commitment to achieving it.
  3. Moses as Healer – Often overlooked is the life-saving role Moses plays as a healer of the Israelites. Two of the more dramatic examples of his intervention with G-d are found in Numbers. In Numbers 12:1-15, Moses intervenes when the Israelites are plagued by venomous snakes. In Numbers 21:6-9, Miriam is struck with leprosy and Moses intervenes with G-d to heal her.
  4. Teacher – Perhaps above all, Moses serves as a teacher to his community. In fact, the preponderance of Torah’s descriptions of Moses’ interactions with the Israelites relate to his teaching Torah. He performs this service from the time he receives the tablets at Mt. Sinai until the time of his death. Significantly, Jewish tradition refers to Moses as Moses Rabbenu -“Our Teacher”).

(While other ancient tribal cultures share this view of leadership – it was not uncommon in Native American clans and tribes for the shaman (healer) to also be the leader – I would argue that what distinguishes the Jewish view is its emphasis on the importance of being a teacher. Throughout a good part of Jewish history, rabbis (teachers) were their communities’ leaders or shared significantly in that leadership role. I would note, also, that this emphasis on teaching is a common thread that weaves through Jewish life. For example, Torah conceptualizes parents not as protectors or caregivers but exclusively as teachers. The only instruction Torah provides to parents is “to teach your children.” Even the word for parent in Hebrew, horim, means “teachers” and derives from the same root as the word Torah.)

Applying the Four-fold Model Today

When I have shared this model of Jewish leadership at conferences and in adult education programs, participants politely listen up to a point. Then, someone finally challenges me, usually insisting that what I am describing is the role of a rabbi in a congregation, not of a Jewish communal leader. I love when this moment happens because it almost always leads to a breakthrough understanding. “Yes,” I respond, “That is exactly correct. I am describing how rabbis serve their congregations. You are making my point for me!” I then go on to explain that I am also talking about the holistic role parents must play with their children, coaches with their athletes and yes, community leaders with their communities.

Take parenting, for example. Parents serve as “statesmen” in multiple ways – managing budgets and logistics, enforcing rules, serving as disciplinarians, etc. Parents also provide their children with vision – about what the children can achieve in their lives or the importance of being Jewish. Parents frequently serve as healers – kissing “boo boos,” giving hugs, or simply listening to their children express their feelings. And, most importantly, parents are their children’s teachers – when they are at home or away, sitting down or rising up – at all times.

We expect people performing in all of these other leadership roles to demonstrate a balance among the four personae of statesmen, visionary, healer, and teacher. We expect parents to demonstrate love and not just to enforce discipline. We expect our children’s coaches to demonstrate good sportsmanship and treat our children with respect – not just to win games. We expect our congregational rabbis to provide comfort in times of loss and teach us how to bring the values of Judaism into our lives – not just to balance a bottom line. Should we expect anything less from our Jewish communal leaders? My answer is no.

Certainly there are, and always have been, American Jewish leaders who view themselves as “servants” of their communities. They are actively engaged in making the hard decisions of leaders; healing the aches and pains of their communities; reminding people of what they are striving to achieve; and teaching people in formal (or more likely informal) ways how they can achieve their goals – personal, professional, cultural, religious, etc. However – largely because of how Jewish communal life is structured today and because of what is currently expected of Jewish communal leaders – such individuals are the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps the only way this structure and these expectations will change is by training the next generation of Jewish leaders how to be servants of their communities.

Dr. Gabe Goldman is  a Director, Outdoor Jewish Classroom and consultant for Jewish Early Childhood Education.