Thursday, 31 May 2012

Written by Rabbi Dr Michael Shire

The news this week that the Israeli Supreme Court finally agreed to accept a woman rabbi, Rabbi Miri Gold, as a paid civil servant with parity with her Orthodox colleagues is another step forward in redefining Jewish notions of religious leadership that have evolved over millennia. In this week’s parashah, we are introduced to the nazir; a Torah version of religious devotion who takes a personal vow to consecrate him or herself to God for a limited time period. Interestingly enough, in ancient times the nazir could be a man or woman. This specially chosen role is alternately praised and disapproved of by different rabbinic commentators. Medieval philosopher Bachya Ibn Pakuda describes the nazirites as ‘physicians for the souls of human beings’ as they practice moderation, abstention and self-discipline. Others such as the 2nd century scholar Rabbi Eleazar ben Kappar regards the nazir as a sinner for abstaining voluntarily from God’s abundant pleasures including wine. That is why, explains Ben Kappar, that the nazir must bring a sin offering at the end of her term. Generally this form of pietistic religious devotion did not become the norm in Jewish leadership primarily because it was considered separatist and removed from the community at large. At a recent Torah breakfast discussion that I attended in Virginia, the question was raised, ‘what did the nazir actually do during his or her term of being a nazirite?’ The text does not tell us beyond the offerings that must be made. Was this like going on a diet or more like going on retreat?   

The nazir is however dependent on the Priest for entering and leaving his term of service who administers and adjudicates his vow. Immediately following the description of the nazir in the parashah is the call for a Priestly blessing for all the People not just the devout few. This benediction to the People becomes our Priestly blessing used today at services, lifecycle ceremonies and in our high Holyday liturgy.  This beautiful three fold blessing  seeking God’s protection, countenance and peace echoes down the ages and across the religious divide to continue to move and inspire us. But the priestly class themselves, like the nazir, were removed from the community they served. Their attention was on the cultic practice which became more elaborate and theocratic with each new rebuilt Temple.

Management gurus Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal suggest that there are two categorisations of leadership that they call ‘wizard and warrior’. Wizards devote themselves to the mystical, symbolic aspects of tribe or organisation. They use imagination, insight and wisdom to see beneath the surface and beyond the mundane. They see possibilities others miss and use powers others lack. Many leaders who have made a difference have been wizards. Bolman and Deal formerly referred to this style of leadership category as ‘symbolic’ in their four frames of leadership capacity. Recently one of my rabbinic students visited an elderly resident of a nursing home who was most reluctant to talk or communicate with anyone. The rabbinic student sat quietly in the room waiting for an opening. As they both sat looking through the window to the garden outside, the student remarked, “This is the best view in the whole home”. At this the elderly woman perked up and said, “Yes, I love watching the life outside”. Then proceeded an hour long conversation where the resident opened up to the fact that life inside her estranged family was difficult and painful with only the recourse to ‘step outside’ to find solace. The student was able to give her the musar teachings on ‘awareness of gratitude’ and the magic of reconciliation began to work.

Warriors meanwhile exert passion and force to navigate between the vortex of opposing forces that confront them. Warriors are wedged between noble aspirations and grim realities. They exert their charisma, passion and force of will to drive forward their aspirations. They seek the cause for the common good and their sacred mission. Sometimes they fall into the gap between purpose and destructive power, other times they are relentless in their pursuit of principle. Recently I had the privilege of listening to Peter Beinhart here in Boston in debate with Rabbi Avi Weiss. Peter Beinhart, the strongest American advocate of an ethical Zionism and redefinition of a democratic and religiously pluralist Israel was engaged in a fiercely challenging and yet respectful debate with Rabbi Weiss, the most prominent ‘Open Orthodox’ (self definition) and yet hardline rightwing Zionist. Beinhart quietly expressed his commitment to a vision of a more compelling democratic and ethical Israeli state where the beauty of a Jerusalem Shabbat had to be considered in the light of hate crimes against African workers in south Tel Aviv and occupation of West Bank settlements. His humility and intelligence shone through but his steely passion of commitment to Jewish ethical principles was the coup de grace in the debate.

As we here at Hebrew College in Boston and also at Leo Baeck College prepare to ordain new sets of leadership for the Jewish People, we know that they will need to be both wizards and warriors in their connection to community and to the world at large. They are now ‘public property’ as I was fond of saying to incoming rabbinic students at Leo Baeck. They cannot remove themselves to ponder their own spiritual selves except for some limited periods of personal renewal like a modern nazir . As modern rabbis, they will have to carry out the functions of the ‘priestly’ rabbinic role and I hope that the priestly blessing that they will utter many times will be one that incorporates the wisdom and power of the wizard and the warrior in asking for God’s protection, countenance and peace for all the people whose lives they will touch.

Meanwhile Rabbi Miri Gold in her aptly named congregation ‘birkat shalom’ in Israel will demonstrate how Jewish leadership can be transformed again and again and be ever evolving to bring the priestly blessings of peace to our People and all the peoples of the region .

Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
Dean and Professor of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education
Hebrew College
June 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.