Lead and They Will Follow

September 1, 2001
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Marcel Lindenbaum

The job description of a congregational rabbi has gone through many permutations in the past 200 years. Jewish communities and their constituencies have changed radically. This has fostered a need for rabbis to relate to new realities. The traditional emphasis on learning and education gave way to an emphasis on communicating - giving effective sermons and honing sociopsychological skills. Despite the new look, the overall goal was to remain constant - only the tools and the methodology were to be updated. As Rabbi Richard Hirsh states, “Judaism offers a challenge … to live in consciousness of the presence of God and the commitment to community.”

Rabbi Hirsh’s essay, “Rabbi As Vessel: Journeys of Holiness,” suggests that in adapting to the new methodology, many rabbis have minimized the fundamental goals of Judaism. In an attempt to remain relevant, many rabbis feel compelled to accept less and less from their congregants. Unfortunately, by demanding less, rabbis further weaken the connecting link between congregants, the community, and “the consciousness of the presence of God.” This process also negatively impacts the rabbi’s standing within the community.

We read in the Torah about the twelve scouts sent to report on the “lay of the land.” They reported seeing giants who made them feel as if they were grasshoppers. The commentators suggest that if one feels or sees oneself as a grasshopper - if one has no sense of self - one is doomed to failure. The community is in need of strong rabbinic leadership. In lieu of demanding less, rabbis are well advised to challenge their communities to learn more, incorporating more mitzvot and Jewish customs into their lives. It is important that rabbis speak the language of their community in order to achieve their goal. Nevertheless, they should never perceive themselves as, or permit themselves to be, just a degree different from the congregant. To navigate the “klei” or vessel described by Rabbi Hirsh will take a captain with wisdom, learning, and training. By leading and teaching, by increasing the community’s “consciousness of the presence of God,” the rabbi as navigator will achieve his goal and earn the respect of his congregation.

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Marcel Lindenbaum is Honorary Chairman of the Gesher Foundation and Honorary Vice President of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. He is Chairman of the Board of the MGS Corporation in New Jersey.

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