Leading From Behind

Two types of leadership

This week’s Torah reading sees Yaakov at the end of his life dispensing blessings to each of his sons. There is a comparable passage right at the end of the Torah, in which Moshe blesses the tribes soon before he dies. While these two poetic sections are quite similar, I want to focus on a difference:

A lion’s whelp is Yehudah… (BeReishit 49:9)

…Dan is a lion’s whelp… (Devarim 33:22)

Here the lion, as in other forms of literature, refers to the leader. While we would expect Yehudah, the ancestor of the kings of Israel, to be portrayed as a lion, why is Dan described in the same way?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen explains that there are two models of leadership, which he refers to as ‘head of the lion’ and ‘tail of the lion’. We might call them in modern parlance ‘leading from the front’ and ‘leading from behind’.

Yehudah’s role is to lead the Jewish people from the front, setting the spiritual pace for the nation that will follow his example. The Jewish king marches ahead of his people, constantly raising the standards of observance and morality demanded of the nation. This is an indispensable role, one that truly requires the bravery of a lion to implement.

Yet there is another, no less vital form of leadership: that of Dan, which is conducted ‘from behind’:

All of the count of the encampment of Dan came to 175,600 – they travelled last under their flag. (BeMidbar 2:31)

And the flag of the encampment of Dan travelled – those who gathered all the encampments… (ibid. 10:25)

The tribe of Dan travelled at the back of the Jewish people, gathering the stragglers and ensuring that no-one got left behind. As a result, although Dan could be described as a ‘minor’ tribe, he is accorded great status in Yaakov’s blessing:

Dan shall avenge his people like one of the [important] tribes of Israel. (BeReishit 49:16)

One may also explain that ‘like one’ means that he is compared with the unique tribe of Yehudah. (Rashi ad. loc. paraphrased)

Yehudah may strike out in front, beating the drum to which he hopes that the Jewish people will march. In both national and religious aspirations, he will, perforce, guide them to places that they don’t really want to go: his leadership must comprise a heady brew of idealism and obduracy to succeed in steering the Jewish people towards their destiny. Yet for all his management skills, there is a danger that Yehudah will glance over his shoulder and realise that the people are struggling to keep up with him; worse still, they may not be following him at all. This is where Dan appears to complement the role of the leader: he nurtures, cajoles, even carries the slackers back into the camp and helps them to follow Yehudah. And while out at the front, Yehudah may not even notice the varied needs of the nation in his charge, Dan, who lives among the people, is capable of appreciating their diverse spiritual requirements and devising appropriate means for every member of the community to take his or her rightful place behind the king. This role requires just as much bravery as that of Yehudah, for the Dan’s job is often difficult to implement and deeply counter-cultural in a world that expects identically high standards from everyone. Dan, too, is a lion.

Our communities are blessed with many Yehudah-style leaders: tremendous sages, tzadikim, and outstanding role models of inspirational religious life. The Jewish world would, quite literally, cease to function without them. Yet, at least in some places, this appears to be not quite enough: for the people are in danger of falling behind the aspirations of the leaders. Sometimes the demands made by the leadership (whether it be in life-goals, stringent application of halachah, or other areas of Jewish life), cannot be met by every member of the community; this may lead to disappointment, religious burn-out and a sense of disenfranchisement. Perhaps the Jewish world would profit from a few more ‘Dans’ to gather the strugglers and bring them home: to make them feel loved in a world whose aspirations they find hard to meet and to show them a range of ways of living a meaningful and rich Jewish life with confidence and pride. In fact, at certain times in our lives, all of us may experience the type of disillusionment that the ‘Yehudahs’ can’t quite understand: at those moments, we all need the intervention of a ‘Dan’ to keep us within the fold.

Finally, we are told in an obscure Midrash (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), that the ultimate form of Jewish leadership must combine the attributes of Yehudah with those of Dan:

Mashiach hails from two tribes: his father is from Yehudah and his mother is from Dan. This is why Yehudah and Dan are both called ‘a lion’s whelp’, for the Mashiach will emerge from both of them.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence

A View from London

Growing up in middle-class not-so-frum Jewish London, I noticed that families with more than three children were very rare. In my childhood I knew only two families with four children – they were treated with awe – and none at all with more. Although this is just my own observation, this situation has changed little among the mainstream of British Jewry: indeed a number of parents of four children have told me their peers regard them as odd.

I was interested in a recent study published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Jewish women in Israel give birth, on average, to 2.8 children. This compares favourably with the average of 1.5 children per women in Europe and points to steady Jewish growth into the next generation. But these figures must be heavily skewed by the high birth rate among the burgeoning religious section of the populace, in which families of 10 or more children are common. Studies suggest that the birth-rate among the less religious is low: while the overall trend may be upwards, the constituency of the population is gradually becoming more religious.

These statistics brought to mind a discussion I had a year ago with a leader of a non-Orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK. He told me that an expert in population statistics from the USA had visited his synagogue and explained to the congregants the inevitable consequences of low birth rate for their community in: their eventual disappearance. While, apparently, no-one could refute his argument, they rejected his suggestion that survival was contingent on having more children!

It is apparent that all sections of the Jewish world from the moderately Orthodox leftwards are in danger of extinction, which is attributable, at least in part, to a low birth-rate. Let’s suppose that the average family in those parts of the Jewish world has 1.8 children, slightly above the overall European figure. While this is my own conjecture, it seems reasonable based on studies of similar communities in the USA and the decline in numbers recorded by the research of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people in just one generation. An average birth-rate of two would still lead to a net loss as sadly there will always be those who do not survive or do not reproduce themselves.

When combined with other factors, however, the reality is much grimmer. With intermarriage on the increase to an alarming degree and many not marrying at all, it is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

An important point must be interjected: many members of the community would dearly love to play a part in building the Jewish future, but are unable to find a marriage partner or are incapable of having children (or as many children as they would like). They must be treated with great sensitivity; any criticism levelled here is certainly not directed at them.

I have a hunch that even three children per family may be too few to secure a strong Jewish community into the future. Many segments of the community in the UK are under-reproducing themselves out of existence. As I discussed with my non-Orthodox friend, we can forget issues of theology, commitment to Torah values, etc., as indicators of the Jewish future, since all but the Orthodox are going to disappear anyway due to lack of numbers.

This problem besets the middle-ground of the Jewish world, even though in the UK, most such people are affiliated with the Orthodox world. ‘Mainstream’ Orthodox organisations like the United Synagogue (for which I work) are struggling to maintain their numbers. The bulk of our members follow the same patterns of reproduction as the rest of the populace, where late marriage, high intermarriage rate and small families are common.

Only the Orthodox part of the UK community is dedicated to building the Jewish future in this way. They alone as a group are committed to reproducing sufficiently to actually increase the numbers of the Jewish people. They recognise that the rewards of raising a large family outweigh the practical difficulties involved and are prepared to dedicate many years to child-raising, ignoring the limitations on personal autonomy in order to play a responsible role in populating the next generation. And while far from zero, the rate of intermarriage in those communities is very low indeed.

Many outside the Orthodox world do not want to hear this message: every Jewish family must attempt to raise at least three children, preferably more. I implore each couple I marry to have one more child than they had originally planned for the sake of the Jewish people. Those who do not take family-building seriously are an endangered species. This is a message that the observant community understands and must somehow sell to the rest of the Jewish people. If we can do this, whether by teaching or by example, we will yet make the greatest possible contribution to Jewish survival.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

A First Response To The Tsunami Disaster

Responding to catastrophe

The unfolding cataclysm in Asia brought to mind a very brief Biblical quote – the words of sheer despair uttered by Judah to his disguised brother, Joseph. ‘What can we say?’

What indeed can we say about a tragedy of such unprecedented span? What words of philosophy or theology could even scratch the surface of the issues raised by such large-scale devastation and human suffering? Is this not disappointing? Would we not expect there to be an immediate and succinct Jewish explanation of the recent phenomenon?

Not at all. Actually, our inability or unwillingness to offer a response is, perhaps, the most Jewish response of all. Any justification would be trite, foolish and an affront to the victims. While the suffering goes on, we cannot and will not offer an explanation. As we would expect, the Jewish sages tackled this reality millennia ago. The great Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar warned us not to comfort the bereaved when ‘his dead lies yet before him,’ meaning that while the calamity is still in progress, consolation and explanations are inappropriate. That’s not to say that Judaism does not have profound answers to the greatest existential questions; it’s just that they are reserved for the dispassionate arena of philosophy, one far-removed from real tragedy.

Psalm 124 adopts the metaphor of ‘raging waters’ to describe an enemy attack. ‘If it were not for God when Man rose against us,’ sings King David, then ‘the water would have swamped us.’ The bitter irony of the tsunami disaster is that if it were not for Man when God rose against us, many thousands more would have died. The relief effort, while too late for uncountable numbers, is saving thousands who would otherwise have certainly perished. In this lies the beginning of a Jewish response to current events, in which ‘explanation’ is set aside in favour of the two classic alternatives of action and introspection.

Upheaval on any scale, from personal difficulty to global catastrophe, is greeted by the Jew as an opportunity for self-examination. It is important to realise that this does not make a judgement about the cause of the tragedy – it simply insists that a correct response will include introspection. We may never know the ‘reason’ such events occur within God’s plan for humanity, but can always identify much wrong with ourselves and our planet and then attempt to rectify it. At one end of the scale, it may be failures in our interpersonal relationships, at the other, the appalling imbalance between the haves and the have-nots of our world. Judaism expects us, at the very least, to be jolted from our complacency by events around the globe, to take notice and to recognise that all is not well with our lives and our society.

There is another aspect to this introspection, however. Very often we forget how incredibly fortunate many of us are. Whether in terms of health, security, wealth or opportunity, most in the West are living lives of comfort and affluence undreamt of just a few years ago. That much is obvious. But how many of us realise that the tsunami could just have easily struck the United States? Scientists are carefully watching the volcanic activity on La Palma in the Canary Islands. They believe that at some time in the next few thousand years (it could happen next week, although this is extremely unlikely), a section of the island, weighing 450 thousand million tons, will fall into the Atlantic ocean. This would trigger a mega-tsunami that would engulf the whole Eastern coast of the USA within a few hours. But it didn’t happen in the West – we were mercifully spared. The words of the important thinker Rabbi Yitzhak Arama are apposite. ‘The nature of water is to cover the land, and it remains in place only by God’s instruction.’ It may be a cliché, but events in Asia should be challenging us to value each moment of our comfortable lives. Together with our sympathy for the victims and our disbelief at their plight, we should experience a profound sense of gratitude for our own circumstances.

The natural consequence of these feelings and the flip side of Rabbi Shimon’s exhortation is that action and action alone is the correct response. For most of us, there is little we can do directly, yet we can contribute generously to the relief agencies trying desperately to help the survivors and the families of the victims. We should applaud their efforts and encourage others to help to the best of their abilities. This is a proper Jewish response. The signs in this direction are encouraging – many nations have pledged vast aid packages. And cooperation is in evidence, transcending political divisions and religious prejudices. Even the BBC reported Israel’s offer of a field hospital to Sri Lanka with guarded favour!

And we need to think and act before the pop-stars return from their holidays and the sportsmen resume their vulgar antics – for when they do, they will inevitably supplant the tsunami tragedy from the front pages of the newspapers and from the minds of their readers. If we do, perhaps a small ray of light will emerge from a horrendous calamity.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 1st January 2005, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

A One Night Sit

The Anglo-Jewish Shiva

It can't have escaped anyone's attention, but the Anglo-Jewish Shiva is dying. The full-week observance has become less common, replaced with a briefer period of one or two days. While not long ago, a shorter 'Shiva' (this is odd – the word means ‘seven’) was frowned upon - perhaps considered disrespectful, those observing a full week are now in the minority and sometimes seen as unduly religious or old-fashioned. A 'one night sit' is common, giving all of those who want to offer their condolences just one evening to do so.

Many of my colleagues are highly critical of this phenomenon. They feel that standards are slipping and that steps should be taken to force people into a full-scale Shiva. Allow me to state that while I consider it a tragedy that many families do not avail themselves of the healing powers of Jewish mourning, I fully understand why few families wish to do so. In reality, the typical Anglo-Jewish Shiva is not beneficial to the mourners, rather an ordeal that any normal person would wish to avoid.

At the typical evening Shiva, the house becomes densely packed with visitors, who have come ‘for prayers’. On arrival, they offer a cursory nod to the mourners and then engage in noisy conversation about any issue that takes their fancy – holidays and television programmes are firm favourites. They will often meet people they haven’t seen since the last Shiva, whom they greet with a kiss, exclaiming loudly, ‘lovely to see you,’ or some similar inanity. When the officiant arrives, all goes quiet until he has conducted the brief evening service. This over, the visitors shuffle past the mourners, nod at them and wish them ‘long life.’ Immediately returning to their noisy conversation, their prodigious efforts are rewarded by the provision of tea and refreshments. Meanwhile, the mourners sit on their low chairs in the corner, bewildered by the noise and party atmosphere that engulfs them; often no-one is talking to them, if indeed, it is possible to speak above the cacophony.

This is no less than an ordeal for the mourners. At a time when people are emotionally confused, shocked and paralysed by their loss, and the slightest noise or sight could cause additional stress or pain, this experience can be unbearable. And I quite understand why many people choose not to put their families through it.
It is sad to see just how often we miss the mark. A guest at a real Jewish wedding knows that it is his privilege and honour to make the groom and bride rejoice, for no matter the quality of the food or the venue, he has come for them. Likewise, as visitors at a Shiva, we have come to share the grief of those who have lost a loved one. We are there for them. Yet for so many in Anglo-Jewry, these concepts have been lost - whether at a wedding, when we think that we are there to be entertained by the hosts, or at a Shiva, when we expect tea and cake, we have become the focus of the occasion. We have gone terribly wrong.

Real Shiva serves a dual purpose. Honour is accorded to the deceased by dedicating an entire week to thinking and talking about him or her; the mourners neglect their regular personal, family and business activities, instead remaining at home to concentrate entirely on the qualities and character of their loved one. By the end of the Shiva, they have crystallised a mature image of the deceased in their minds, which will accompany them for the rest of their lives. As well as this, the Shiva has a positive effect on the bereaved, cocooning them from regular activity when grief is at its strongest, allowing them to gradually emerge into normal life only when the immediate harshness of their loss has passed.

This requires great understanding on the part of the visitors to the Shiva-house. Let us note that Jewish law, the great master of human emotional need, regulates this to perfection. How many of us aware that one may not even speak to the mourner until he indicates that this is his wish? Maybe he does not want to speak. How can we, mere onlookers to a family tragedy, impose on the bereaved in any way at all? We must be exquisitely sensitive to the mourner’s emotional trauma. If he speaks, we will respond; if he cries, we will empathise; if he laughs, we will share the humorous recollection of his loved one. And if he remains silent, unable or unwilling to speak, we too will remain quiet. This is the real Jewish concept of comforting the mourner.

This is far cry from a momentary nod in the direction of the mourner, raucous conversation and gobbling of refreshments that so characterise the modern Shiva. Let us face the truth – these practices must stop, for they are counterproductive and selfish; indeed, far from alleviating the mourner’s distress, they actually add to it. For many, Shiva has become a nightmare after a tragedy – the precise opposite of its true intention and capacity. And unless we are prepared to change the way we do things, Jewish mourning will be completely lost, together with the immense benefit that it brings in the face of tragedy.

As a mourner, recognize that the visitors are present for your benefit. Have no qualms about resting when you feel tired, asking people to be considerate and, as Jewish law allows, asking them to leave when you no longer want to speak to them. Resist the party atmosphere by not offering food or drink. As a visitor, remember that you are present for the benefit of the mourners. Visit during the day, if possible. If food is offered, refuse it. Do nothing whatsoever which imposes on the mourners. When appropriate, enable the mourner to express himself in his own way. Leave when the time is right.

May we be blessed with long and happy lives, filled with sensitivity to each other.


This article originally appeared in the London Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. It was then adapted into a shorter piece for the Holocaust educational book '60 days for 60 years'.

Talking In Shul

Fancy a chat?

A wit once observed that asking Jews not to talk in Shul is like expecting diners not to eat in a restaurant – that’s the reason they came. The problem of talking in Shul has tormented rabbis for centuries. A number suffered their frustration in silence, some railed at their parishioners and yet others acquiesced and ‘went native’. Unsurprisingly, Jewish literature is replete with condemnation of this phenomenon. Examples of this include those who describe talking in Shul as hasagat g’vul – encroaching on another’s personal ‘prayer-space’ and the cutting observation of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (early 19th century) noting that only those synagogues used for prayer, rather than for conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel in Messianic times. The Code of Jewish Law even refers to the sin of someone who speaks during the chazzan’s prayer as ‘too great to bear.’

Yet despite universal denunciation, talking besets most Shuls. It has even attracted the interest of sociologists, and at least one rather humourless analysis of it has appeared in recent years. Apart from the Jewish angle, the informality and noise in some Shuls bewilders many gentile visitors, who are quite unable to reconcile their expectations of a prayer service with the chaotic reality.

All this, of course, highlights a clash of paradigms that is evident in numerous Anglo-Jewish Shuls. While prayer is the stated purpose of synagogue attendance, for many regulars, it is essentially an opportunity for social engagement. That’s not to say that they don’t read the prayers – it’s just not the focus of their visit. Actually, many hardly pray at all, yet choose to meet their friends and catch up on the latest gossip in the context of a Shul service. To some degree, sanction for this is drawn from the description of a Shul as a beit k’nesset – a house of meeting, although it seems far-fetched to suggest that the Sages intended the social activity to take place while the services are actually in progress.

Besides, I would consider it dishonest not to note that talking in Shul is often generated by boredom. Services can be lengthy, hard to understand and occasionally, tedious beyond endurance. Mind-numbing sermons and lacklustre chazzanut are still in fashion in some Shuls. Many congregants and not a few rabbis are unwilling to admit this, but I think it undeniable. And while the rabbi may choose to catch up on his learning or visit the children’s service, the obvious antidote for some congregants is to chat until it’s all over. Indeed, I fully acknowledge that in this all too common situation, remaining silent demands considerable self-control.

Appreciating prayer requires sensitivity to the structure of the ancient texts and an understanding of the sophisticated Man-God dynamic - advanced Jewish skills that are not widespread in our communities. In reality, most Anglo-Jews lack proficiency in even rudimentary Hebrew and as such, the nuances and beauty of the prayers are lost. That’s not to suggest that a chazzan will never succeed in rousing the congregants, but for many, this is essentially a musical, rather than a devotional experience. Chazzanut is also a matter of personal taste, a curious barometer of spiritual meaning.

One of the regrettable outcomes of this is that the inspirational content of the prayer-services is de-emphasised. Since for many attendees, spirituality is scarcely on the menu, the overall atmosphere and meaning of the service is low on the list of priorities. This has created a fascinating but rather worrying paradox. Those who view the Shul primarily as a meeting place are served well by the existing model, but those who want to pray are not. That’s not to say that those who come to pray don’t talk in Shul – they very often are among the worst culprits – but their focus and expectation is different. This divergence is frequently generational – to be sure, younger people also wish to meet to chat and socialise, but they do so elsewhere, not in Shul, a place that they identify with prayer. Perhaps the Kiddush or another communal event will meet this need, but not the services themselves.

The current social and religious milieu is such that Shul services that are essentially social clubs do not succeed in attracting those newly interested in Judaism. While many older people have been conditioned to identify Judaism with Shul attendance, younger enthusiasts may become involved with Jewish learning, Shabbat observance or learning Hebrew long before they consider entering a Shul. By that stage, they feel a need to pray and come largely for that purpose. Bizarrely, our Shuls often turn them off. In fact, many a conflict has arisen in Shul between a regular who is talking through the Torah reading and a neophyte who would actually like to listen! In fact, newcomers are commonly lost to both the right and the left, where they find that the content and purpose of their visit is taken seriously.

I believe that the map of the United Synagogue-style communities will be drawn as a function of the extent to which we take these needs seriously. Talking in Shul is a symptom of an entrenched, but resolvable clash of expectation. With good will, sensitivity and the vision that I believe can now just be perceived within our communities, we can develop the flexibility to create a vibrant and eclectic future.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.