Leadership and Authority

November 1, 2006
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Yosef Kanefsky

With how much authority does a contemporary religious leader speak? On any given day, the answer can range from “absolute” to “negligible.” Interestingly enough, both these extremes present significant ethical issues with regard to how a religious leader conducts him or herself.

As I am an Orthodox congregational rabbi, my words and decisions are sometimes accepted as definitive and absolutely binding. Congregants turn to me for decisions regarding the most serious aspects of their lives — issues ranging from fertility struggles to end-of-life crises, and questions ranging from whom they are permitted to marry to when they are permitted to be intimate with their spouse. Implicit in their turning to me is their intention to accept my rabbinic authority. Most often, the people who seek my counsel are good friends, whose lives are emotionally intertwined with my own. Sometimes they are community members whose support — financial or otherwise — I depend upon. The potential for intellectual dissimulation on my part, for rationalizing, contextualizing, for not thoroughly exploring the facts, is everpresent. I am tempted to just make their lives easier, to find a way to tell them what they are hoping to hear. In the moment, it can even seem as if this is the correct response. But when I think about how they — the ones who have come to me with the question — define religious leadership, I know that the tempting path represents a terrible betrayal of what religious leadership entails. They have come to me seeking help in translating their faith commitments into real life. They want to know what God requires of them at this important juncture. They have hitched their own religious integrity to mine. Ethical religious leadership begins with fully appreciating what is at stake.

At the other end of the spectrum, where a rabbi’s voice carries significantly less authority, ethical challenges abound. The religious leader is charged with the holy responsibility of framing contemporary social and political issues in religious terms. In fact, to neglect this responsibility is to deny congregants the capacity to live engaged and dynamic religious lives. But in these social and political realms, our Western traditions of personal autonomy and the exercise of individual conscience trump all else. A rabbi’s most passionately held positions (for example on immigration, environmentalism, war and peace) may be respectfully rejected by a considerable percentage of the congregation. And while it is understandable for the religious leader to feel greater affinity with the likeminded, to feel less invested in the chronic dissenters would lead toward ethical failure.

Separating ideological disagreement from pastoral responsibility is a critical leadership challenge. The ability to discharge the responsibility of religious leadership is made possible by the power of empathy, not by affection. Given the ever-present constraints on a rabbi’s schedule, reasonable excuses for pastoral inattention are readily available. But, honest introspection would reveal the culprit to be lack of will rather than lack of time. The capacity to separate is a sine qua non of contemporary religious leadership.

Whenever rabbis gather and let their hair down, they often express frustration at the unrelenting reality of leadership and its attendant responsibilities, from which there is literally no vacation. What seems to make it all worthwhile is the recognition that it’s not ultimately about leadership and its burdens; it’s about trust, and the challenge to be worthy of it.

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Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky came to B’nai David– Judea Congregation (Los Angeles) in the summer of 1996, attracted by the synagogue’s creative engagement of Orthodox tradition. He also currently serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. Rabbi Kanefsky is married to Sari Abrams and they have three sons.

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