Hillel’s Questions: A Call for Leadership

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January 1, 2007
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Marshall Ganz

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?

What can struggling to answer Hillel’s questions teach us about congregational leadership, community, and work in the world?

I began my journey as the son of a rabbi and teacher in Bakersfield, California, found myself called to public work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, discovered a vocation for organizing, and, in the fall of 1965, joined Cesar Chavez for 16 years in his effort to unionize farm workers. After 28 years “in the field,” I returned to Harvard where I now teach a rising generation of students how to turn our shared values into the power to repair ourselves, our community, and our world; this is the work of organizing.

Only as I began to do the work did I learn how central this calling is to our tradition. It may have begun with Moses — an insider outsider, a Jew who was an Egyptian, a man of the oppressed, raised in the house of the oppressor, a man who knew the world’s pain but who, at God’s insistence, found he could lead others on a journey of redemption. And only as I began to look for words to teach this craft — developing leadership, building community, and taking public action — did I really hear the questions Hillel asked 2000 years ago.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? We are created in God’s image — each of infinite moral worth, capable of choice, and utterly unique — but our days are finite, our reach is limited, and we have more to learn than we can ever know.   We begin as the children of our parents, their learning, and their community. As we embrace them and struggle with them, we begin authoring who we are in relation to them. As “works in progress,” we grow as siblings, friends, lovers, students, workers, colleagues, congregants, and citizens, and many of us become parents ourselves. In facing challenges, making choices, and living with consequences,   in both sorrow and joy, we learn to love what we love, know what we know, and do what we do.   To be “for myself” is to honor the sources of my worth, my strengths, and my limitations.

To find the courage, commitment, and hopefulness to face the challenges of our times, why would we turn to marketing mavens, management gurus, and niche strategists when our real sources of strength are in learning who we are, where we come from, and where we are going?

When I am for myself alone, what am I? The implication is powerful. When I think only of myself, I lose my humanity. No longer a “who,” I have become a “what.” To be a “self” is to be in relationship with “others” and with God. It is not an option, but woven into the very fabric of our lives.

Who can better understand this than a people whose collective “self,” whose identity, is formed in covenant, whose worship is in community, and whose relationship with God is intertwined in relationship with one another?

To be in relationship is about justice, not charity. Relationship requires recognition of the “other” as a “self” equally created in God’s image, unique, and capable of choice. It is to do “with” the other, not “to” the other. Entering into relationship with requires speaking and listening; exploring values, interests, and resources; discerning commonalities and differences; committing to a shared project. Understood in this way relationship is demanding because it requires giving of ourselves, not only of our goods. But this is also why it is so powerful.

To find sources of renewal, we begin by revitalizing old relationships and creating new ones, through which we can question what we have not before questioned, learn what we have not yet learned, identify common purposes, turn differences into collaboration, and create shared capacity.

Although we begin within our congregations, this is only a beginning. Doesn’t Hillel want us to understand that only by reaching out to others, we can fully realize the capacity that lies within ourselves? This is as true for congregations, communities, and nations as it is for individuals. Our instruction to be a “blessing to the nations” does not mean “giving charity to”; it means “entering into relationship with.”

If not now, when? Does this mean that the only things worth doing are what we can do right now? Hillel’s question implies that unless reflection and relationship result in action — in world-changing work — it is self-indulgence. Action requires the commitment of time, money, and energy. Committing resources requires making choices. And making choices shapes who we are. By taking action we not only change the world around us, we also change ourselves. But creative action is challenging — risky, uncertain, and ambiguous. We can never learn to do it if we remain in the Garden, where all is given to us. Because it is challenging, we are easily caught in what Tolstoy called “the snare of preparation” — a little more study, a little more planning, a little more certainty. So Hillel’s question teaches us that changing ourselves and our world depends on creative action, the capacity that flows not from our status as “knowers,” experts who have all the answers, but from our courage as “learners” — questioners with the faith that we can learn to create a new world only by creating it.

To find the strength to renew ourselves   — as individuals, congregations, or communities — where do we turn? Hillel guides us to the insight that the challenges of leadership, community, and work in the world — particularly the work of justice — do not each stand on their own, but are linked to each other. And our power to do the work of justice grows out of the relationships we build with one another. The motivation to build relationships with one another grows out of the recognition that we can only become complete selves by doing so. It is not complicated — just hard. We must commit our time, imagination, and hearts. We must engage with each other in newly challenging ways. And we must find the courage to risk creative action. The job of leadership is to make this happen; this craft — rooted in the work of Moses — is what organizing is all about.

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Marshall Ganz entered Harvard College in 1960 but left before completing his studies to volunteer in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. In 1991 he returned to Harvard after a 28-year “leave of absence,” completed his undergraduate degree in 1992, earned an MPA in June 1993, and began to teach organizing at the Kennedy School of Government. He joined the faculty in 2000 upon completing his PhD in sociology. Along with teaching, his research and practice focus on constituency-based social change organizations including civic associations, unions, and faith communities. He has published in The American Prospect, American Journal of Sociology, American Political Science Review, Social Science and History Journal and elsewhere. His new book, Why David Sometimes Wins, will be available from Oxford University Press in spring 2007.

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