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What leadership?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-07-30

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Many of us who love our religion have a problem with religious authorities who seem to have all the wrong priorities.

Some might suggest that this simply highlights the defectiveness of our own religious standards and our inability to submit to authority. Yet my complaint is neither original nor unique. Baron Corvo in his play Hadrian VIII has the mythical English Pope complaining to the Cardinals ‘ I love the faith but I hate the faithful.’

Wherever I look I see the total and abject failure of religious leadership. I could go to town on Catholics and paedophiles. I could point out the way the two wings of the Protestants call each other names. Or the way Islam has been hijacked by its lunatic fringe. But let me just concentrate on the ones I know and care most about. Jews.

I can’t begin to list to you the number of cases where there has been an abject failure of vision. I accept human beings are fallible and goodness knows how many times I have failed both in vision and leadership so I am not getting on my high horse, just observing in a detached way.

I wrote this piece on the Fast of Av which recalls how twice before our leadership failed us and dragged us into two cataclysmic wars that ended up destroying our state and our Temple.
The millions of poor downtrodden and persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe suffered even more because so many of their religious leaders thought they’d rather have them live in agony in their pathetic hovels but be religious because there was nothing else, than freed and risk assimilation.

Some of them actually preferred supporting an anti Semitic cruel Czar rather than welcome Napoleonic liberation. Had the dominant religious leadership in Eastern Europe not thought that way too, they might have encouraged more of their followers to get out before the Nazis gave them no option. And today one hardly hears an orthodox rabbinic voice of any authority call for the establishment of a fair and humane society, respect for the law or for others outside their own communities. The preoccupation is almost exclusively with self-interest and minutiae while the larger picture is totally missed.

Symptomatically we in the UK have been reading embarrassing details of the High Court action in which one Jew was suing another for libel. But it was not just a case of one Jew against another. Rather it was one very charitable orthodox Jew against a Dayan. Now if as we know that according to Jewish Law a Jew must take his claims to as Jewish Berth Din and only if it cannot or will not then proceed to civil action, why in this case were there no religious courts that were prepared to act to prevent it all coming out in public? Neither the Beth Din of the Adath, nor the Beth Din of the United Synagogue nor the Conference of European Rabbis were able, willing or capable of dealing with this issue and preventing it from going to court.

And I happen to know that overtures were indeed made. So what are the options? They could not because they were predisposed to one side because they had received money from one of the parties? Well the Torah for thousands of years has been warning us about not having judges who are open to bribes and inducements. Haven’t we learnt yet that if we are in a position of authority it is not a good idea to be on the receiving end of cash benefits? Sadly here also I know of too many cases where Dayanim  (and I am not confining myself to one specific country) who have personally received money from plaintiffs have still tried to sit in on the case.

Another option is that they didn’t want to get involved. What, not get involved? Is that what leadership is about? To run away and hide and hang the consequences because you don’t want to get involved in something that has ramifications for the whole community and indeed the reputation of Judaism? What happened to the laws of Chillul HaShem, desecrating the name of God and Torah in public?

Where were the rabbis? Were they incapable of effecting a settlement? Most likely they washed their hands fearing to offend either one side or the other.

Don’t tell me they had no power. They didn’t want to use the power they have. What power? They can declare that the plaintiffs are rebels who refuse to come to their religious Court. They can exclude them from the community. They can refuse to give them ceremonial benefits. They can  refuse membership. They can call on the community not to deal or do business with them. All these are powers the religious authorities have but haven’t the guts to use. They don’t use them to stop Jewish men blackmailing their wives over a divorce or indeed when they refuse to grant one. They refuse to use these powers when members break the law, behave immorally or corruptly.

But on the other hand when it comes to what colour smartie you can eat,oh boy! do they get all worked up and angry and fulminate from the pulpit at the grave danger to the Jewish world, the cataclysm that will ensue from eating unsupervised candy.

Of course halacha is essential but so too is morality, leadership and authority. Why haven’t I heard one major Orthdox authority publicly fulminate against corruption, dishonesty or excessive materialism?

Why haven’t I heard anyone say that the way forward in the Middle East is by making concessions and showing ourselves to be magnanimous, bigger than the rest of the world not just as corrupt as they are?

The Talmud at the end of Sotah describes the decline in society that heralds the Messianic era. After listing the moral collapse it adds enigmatically that ‘The look of the generation is like the look of a dog.’ Of course there are endless explanations.

My favourite one is that a dog runs on ahead but it always looks back to see if its master is there.

Too many rabbis are out there nominally in leadership positions. But really they are running scared of those who bark loudest coming up behind them. They would rather offend God than offend a powerful member of the community. So let the Courts do their worst! And if it makes a monkey or a dog out of us. So be it. Sorry, but these are not the sort of leaders I think we need.