This blog represents only the opinion of its writers

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yochanan ben Zakai as a model for innovative Jewish leadership

Leadership is the ability to cope with change, when past solutions are not useful anymore.1 Leaders have followers, people that make a conscious decision to follow them. Judaism is both a religion and an ethnic group; a connection between an ethnic group and religion occurs also in the Greek culture, where Greeks are also followers of the Greek Orthodox church. Jewish leaders are members of the Jewish community that cope with change, and their leadership is based on the framework of Judaism. Innovative leadership could be defined as the introduction of new or different ways to cope with change. Yochanan ben Zakai could be considered an innovative Jewish leader. He was a student of Hillel, and one of the most influential Jewish leaders before and after the destruction of the second temple. Ben Zakai's source of authority was based on his knowledge of Jewish tradition and his connection to powerful figures, although he was not part of the second temple aristocracy.

Ben Zakai's moment of leadership and innovation came after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, when he needed to create a framework that made it possible to continue Jewish life without a physical center-- The Temple in Jerusalem. Ben Zakai was not the first Jewish leader to cope with this kind of change. In 586 BCE, Jewish leaders had to cope with the destruction of the first temple, but the second temple was built only 70 years later. During the Babylonian exile the Jewish people still felt the presence God, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah affirmed God's connection to the Jewish people.2 It is possible to assume that Ben Zakai did not think that the physical center of Jewish worship's absence would become a permanent fact. Although more than nineteen hundred years have passed, there is still no sign of the construction of the third Temple.

Ben Zakai's leadership is embodied in his long term thinking, political skills, and the influence of his jurisdiction and innovation. Ben Zakai's long term vision was to legislate laws that would prepare the Jewish people to keep on practicing the Jewish religion in a reality without a physical center, while they waited for the construction of the third Temple. In 70 CE, Yochanan ben Zakai was a religious authority figure among the Jewish people that were soon to be defeated by the Roman Empire. Ben Zakai was not in a position to negotiate with Vespasian, the conqueror of Judea, because of the asymmetry between the Roman Empire's might and the Jewish people's weakness. He needed political skills in order to convince Vespasian to spare Yavneh and its sages. Ben Zakai expanded Yavneh's influence as Rabbinical Judaism became Judaism's dominant form in the land of Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

An example of Ben Zakai's leadership and innovation is in allowing the use of the shofar during the Rosh Hashanah Sabbath in every beit din, not only in Jerusalem's temple. During the Second Temple period, the use of the shofar during the Rosh Hashanah Sabbath symbolizes the connection between the Jewish people and God.3 Ben Zakai's innovative act came to show that despite the destruction of the temple, the Jewish people were still connected to God. Ben Zakai's leadership was innovative, for he came to renew Judaism in a way that could cope with the destruction of the Temple. His innovation later helped the Jewish people survive two thousand years of exile from the Jewish homeland. Ben Zakai played a crucial role in the process of natural selection that made Rabbinical Judaism the common practice of the Jewish faith, overcoming other Jewish schools of thought like the Essenes and Sadducees.

Reference list:

1. Kotter, John P. What Leaders Really Do. Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 1999. Print.

2. Levine, Lee l. Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (538 BCE-70 CE) . Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002. Print.

3. Lau, Binyamin. From Yavne to the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. Vol. 2. Tel-Aviv: Miskal, 2007. 3 vols. Print.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Judaism, Peoplehood, and Morality

I've been thinking a lot lately about peoplehood and morality. While writing a recent paper for grad school, I was surprised to find out how relatively new the term "peoplehood" is. It didn't emerge till the seventies during the era of identity politics.

Peoplehood implies a certain allegiance. In NYC this past summer, I encountered more ultra-orthodox Jews than I have in my previous 25 years combined. To be honest, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable around them. Their traditional dress, Yiddish, and many children seemed foreign and strange. At points, it bothered me that as a fellow Jew, I should feel connected and related to them.

As a millennial, it is difficult to understand those who would purposely reject our society and culture. Yet throughout history, all Jews were the same to those who persecuted them. My friend reminded me that the issue is not the ultra orthodox. They are free in this country to live however they please. Rather, it is the pervasive anti-semitism and ignorance that clumps all Jews together in mainly negative ways. He says the best thing one can do is to fight the latter, not reject the former. I agree. But I still can't help feeling uncomfortable.

The idea of Jewish peoplehood became particularly relevant following the Madoff debacle, in two ways. First, antisemitism dictates that one corrupt Jew means all Jews are corrupt. Second, Madoff’s betrayal of his own people made his crime that much more abhorrent.

There are bad people of all backgrounds and religions. But Jews recently have really seemed to have gone out of their way to be front and center. You are not supposed to wear a kippah when in a non-kosher restaurant because of what it might imply. What does a criminal dressed in religious garb carted off by the cops for money laundering signal both to Jews and the outside world??

Judaism has always baffled me with its emphasis on traditions and practice over belief. Some Jews act holier than thou in the name of religion, but disregard the moral tenets underlying the traditions. Article in the Jewish Week Mark Charendoff of Jewish Funders Network wrote on being good jews and bad people:

I would love to hear all of your thoughts on this...


Friday, March 12, 2010

Taking Jewish history out from the class room

Jewish historical figures and texts are rich in leadership lessons and can provide guidance in practicing and teaching Jewish morals and ethics. As a leadership case study, Jewish history and text have both depth and breadth that is wasteful to restrict their use to the board room dvar Torah. Jewish morals and ethics can serve as a resource for leaders and their followers on a regular basis. As King David may have thought the Commandment, “Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife,” is a lip service for the board his time, the elders of Zion gatherings. The prophet Nathan guided King David to understand his sin in the Biblical story of Batsheba and thus, sets an example for the Jewish people that even the king of Israel is not above God's law. And with this moral landscape revealed to the reader, it become clear that Jewish leaders have a legacy in which they are obligated to practice what they preach.

Jewish texts, in particular the Torah, influenced large human populations. Biblical figures, like Moses, are well known among Muslims, Jews and Christians. Jewish text has many famous characters in which they must deal with change, and in doing so, modern-day readers are given nuanced leadership lessons. It is highly probable, that case studies of contemporary leadership are going to be forgotten in a couple of centuries, while Jewish texts and historical figures will keep inspiring people's leadership. With the ability to cross borders of time and culture, Jewish texts will continuously influence the general public, and especially Jewish professionals, in their understanding of leadership. Jewish professional leaders routinely cope with change that effect the Jewish community and can use biblical case studies as tools for decision making in both religious and secular issues. Jewish texts offer multiple types of leadership scenarios: King David sets an example for courage when he confronts and accepts Goliath's challenge, and in contrast, Joshua performs a different type of leadership as he starts the process of transforming the Israelites from nomad tribes into a settled nation.

The establishment of a Jewish entity in the land of Israel, with a solid Jewish majority for the first time since the Bar Kokhba revolt, brings the question of the role of Jewish texts in time of Jewish statehood to the forefront. Yehoshafat Harkabi presents a way for Jewish texts to serve contemporary Jewish leaders, in Israel and the Jewish diaspora, as leadership case studies in political and religious affairs. Any Jewish leader that wishes for Israel to compromise on Judea and Samaria needs read Yehoshafat Harkabi’s analysis of the Bar Kokhba revolt(1). Harkabi's thesis’ main achievement is that it offers a realistic explanation why Israel needs to compromise. Harkabi utilizes an historical event more than eighteen years old and transforms it into a leadership case study. His work highlights realism in military operation goal setting, along with the necessity to transcend victory in the battle field into political victory. He also differentiates between the need for communities in exile to use the myth of Bar Kokhba's bravery, and the fact Israel's complex situation does not allow for careless decision making, as seen in the Bar kokhba revolt.

Reference list:
1. Harkabi, Yehoshafat . The Bar Kokhba syndrome: risk and realism in international politics . Chappaqua, NY: Rossel Books, 1983. Print.