Friday, November 17, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - Torah Leadership

Throughout our experience as a people, Torah leadership has been crucial to our spiritual well-being. Torah leaders inspire and give us direction. They transmit the teachings they received from their great teachers and apply them to new questions and situations. They are our link to the past and together with those whom they inspire and lead, they are guarantors that are our exalted heritage will be transmitted to new generations. They are, in short, indispensable, an irreplaceable resource which if deficient results in a diminution of what our community can accomplish. Because of their vital role, their learning and their elevated personal qualities, we are obligated to respect those who are recognized as Torah leaders.

In the lines that follow, I discuss certain aspects of Torah leadership in the present period in this country. While I shall touch on problem areas, my fervent hope is that I shall not deviate from the obligation to honor and respect those whom we accept as our leaders. We have been witness to their important achievements.

It is not possible to prove what might have happened had events not proceeded as they did. Yet, it is clear that American Orthodoxy would be a lot different today had our community not been molded and led in the post-Holocaust period by a remarkable group of Gedolei Torah, men of genius, spiritual nobility and wisdom. We all know their names. All were born in pre-Holocaust Europe and many were refugees who had escaped the destruction of European Jewry. They planted the seeds for the exciting development of religious life on this continent.

The Holocaust also foretold the unveiling of a bleak development. The customary channels of transmission of Torah leadership were destroyed. The outstanding people who came here gave us a multitude of blessings. What they could not do is quickly repair the process of Mesorah that has been an essential element throughout all of Jewish history. The point was made by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the eminent Rosh Yeshivah of Chaim Berlin, who suggested that it ordinarily takes ten generations for greatness in Torah to take root and fully blossom in a new place of religious Jewish settlement. Even as we were enveloped in the sanctity and glory of truly remarkable leaders, we knew that there would be a day when the sun would set. Although we continue to be nurtured by the example and teachings of these men and their memory remains a presence in our lives, in a communal sense we are orphaned.

In all corners of American Orthodoxy there is a deficit in Torah leadership. In the yeshiva world which is central to the lives of many who will read what is written here, there is presently no towering leader. At most, there is a collegial arrangement involving a small number of men of much virtue and learning. That they are not equal to their predecessors should not be material because there is the fundamental hashkafic principle of "Shmuel b'doro." What is material is how our present leaders interpret and fulfill their roles.

There is nothing that the Roshei Yeshiva who are our key leaders can do to reverse history. They can, however, attempt to prepare for what lies ahead by providing guidance to the next generation or two of Torah leaders through processes of shimush or apprenticeship, such as they experienced in their relationship with the great Torah leaders of the previous generation. Unfortunately, scant - if any - attention is now being paid to this responsibility.

While our Torah leaders cannot alter the widespread and understandable, albeit at times lamentable, practice of relying on the authority of eminent Gedolei Torah in Israel, they can provide leadership regarding certain developments within the yeshiva world that are clearly within their zone of authority. A primary example is the tragic and costly decline of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day School, the one organization that inherently Roshei Yeshiva have responsibility for. The Torah leaders of the previous two generations rightly regarded Torah Umesorah and the day school movement as the primary instrumentalities of kiruv, as the centerpiece for the building of Torah in North America. Torah Umesorah's decline has taken a huge toll, as is evident in the frightening enrollment decline in kiruv and immigrant schools.

We see in this development how costly it is when a Torah leadership arrangement predicated on collegiality breaks down because there is no single leader who is accepted as transcendent and the participants in the collegial arrangement too often do not agree on how best to proceed.

As important as are these and related developments, what may be most costly is the absence of what may be termed management skills among our senior Roshei Yeshiva. They are all over the place, sending out letters for individuals in crisis, at times without having sufficient details, speaking too often and traveling too much, attending too many events and, in an important sense, being too available and too easy to reach. Advances in communication allow for quick access, while the automobile is regarded as an adequate answer when Roshei Yeshiva plead that they cannot attend this or that event or occasion.

As a result, they are more likely to be reactive than proactive, which is to say that they are more likely to be led than to lead others. They forfeit control over their primary resources of time and space. Although in an immediate sense their formal responsibilities are limited because generally their yeshivas are small, these men are always super-busy.

What is at work is the outgrowth of an immense reservoir of goodness among Torah leaders. They have an insufficient capacity to say "no" and they certainly have difficulty turning down any opportunity to accomplish some good. There is what may be referred to as a yeshiva-world culture which dictates that our Torah leaders must nearly always be available, this despite the practice of certain Roshei Yeshiva in the previous generation to carefully control their time and space. Unless Torah leaders overcome, at least in a significant way, this cultural imperative, their leadership capabilities will remain limited.

The culture of the yeshiva world can be contrasted with the very different culture of the Chassidic world, which is the other part of charedi life. Chassidic Rebbes are responsible for a community that may have thousands of adherents and for a network of institutions that serve this membership. Their burden in terms of their immediate responsibilities is far more extensive than that of Roshei Yeshiva. Almost inherently, they understand that unless they control and limit how their time is spent and where they are at, they will not be able to provide the necessary quotient of leadership.

Hence they travel little, severely limit the events they attend, give few speeches, rarely send out letters to solicit for other causes or make public pronouncements. They also know how to delegate responsibility to officials in their communities and to condition their followers to have interaction with these officials. In short, they are focused on their four cubits, at times perhaps too focused. Even on crucial issues, their voice is often heard via a son or dayan or some other subordinate figure. They have, as well, a small army of eager assistants. This contributes to the luxury of being able to decide what they will do and where they will be.

This inward-looking view of their responsibilities may appear to limit their role in religious life outside of their communities. In fact, the reverse is true, for the major Chassidic Rebbes clearly have an impact on religious life beyond the walls of their group.

By attempting to accommodate nearly everyone and to be jacks of all religious trades, American Roshei Yeshiva compromise their capacity to plan and to lead. I cannot think of a single major Orthodox initiative in the past twenty years that has their fingerprints on it. Creative and inspiring chesed activities or recent developments in chinuch invariably are grass root achievements. In the meantime, Torah Umesorah is in crisis, while enrollment in day schools with a kiruv orientation has declined sharply. The tuition crisis that causes hardship in our schools and homes is an issue that the Roshei Yeshiva are aware of and yet these is scant evidence that they are prepared to provide the leadership that is necessary to ameliorate this crisis.

The pity is that should Roshei Yeshiva exert leadership their efforts would be rewarded because they are respected and their messages to us receive attention. Should they urge the religious masses to action, there would be productive consequences. There would also be the beneficial byproduct of involving in fruitful activity younger Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis from whose ranks ultimately would emerge the Torah leaders of the next generation.

This requires a determination to lead. How do we get our message across to Roshei Yeshiva that we want them to lead?