Skip to content

Sermon by Rabbi Judith Levitt

This sermon was given by Rabbi Judith Levitt on Shabbat 26th July 2014 at Sha’arei Tsedek, North London Reform Synagogue.

What do you do with a degree in English? I really wasn’t sure. But no one was more surprised than my parents when, in my mid twenties I announced that I was applying to rabbinical school. You see, as a teenager, I’d been a bit of a rebel. However, they probably should have caught on, when, at age 15, I insisted we replace our Passover prayer book. While other teenagers were arguing for later curfews, I was arguing for a new Haggadah.

There was a phrase that always irked me: ‘head of household’. It would say, ‘the head of the household will now pour more wine’…or ‘the head of household will now wash his hands’.  I didn’t understand how one person around the table could be the head when all of our contributions made up the Seder.

Jewish tradition presents us with varying and complex images of leadership. There is the intrinsically hierarchical priestly system. Two thousand years ago, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Judaism looked very different than it does today. If people wanted to thank God, or celebrate a festival or repent for their actions, they took something they owned, usually a live animal, and gave it to the priest in the Temple as a sacrificial offering. This seems alien to us today – partly because animal sacrifice seems brutal and barbaric but also a strange way of articulating our communal and spiritual lives.

While the destruction of the Temple was a great tragedy in Jewish history, it offered us an incredible opportunity to evolve as a community. After that event, all of Judaism changed. However, the Temple system does offer insights which are useful for us today. In order to atone for the people, the priests had to first make atonement for themselves. Basically, before they could help others they needed to get their own houses in order. It is often easy for leaders to judge others, without first looking to themselves.

I do not relate to the hierarchical role of the priests as they acted as intermediaries between the people and God. Probst and Mercier offer an alternative to a hierarchical system, a heterarchy, which they define as flexibility of the formal relationships inside an organisation, where, essentially, the task dictates the leader depending on who is most skilled.

However, in synagogue communities, we think more broadly. Because the relationship is dynamic; the members serve the community and the community serves its members. Therefore the task is not always done by the most effective person to complete the task, but the member who most needs to do it. For example, I once taught an adult student who worked hard yet struggled for two years and eventually delivered an imperfect Torah reading but it was the very best she was able to achieve. Or a volunteer who doesn’t do a perfect job but by completing the task is able to re-enter the workforce after a long career break. In every context the benefits to both community and individual need to be weighed.

Eugene Borowitz suggests that Tzim Tzum can be used as a model of leadership. Tzim Tzum is a mystical idea. God is thought to be so powerful, filling the entire universe, that God needs to contract in order to make space for the creation of the world. Therefore God limits God’s own power in order for humanity to exist. Borowitz offers this as a leadership model whereby a leader does not have to always be at the front and centre, but sometimes stands back in order for others to flourish. Perhaps teaching someone  how to deliver a D’var Torah is at times preferable to delivering it ourselves.

As rabbis and community leaders we need to discern when to be at the forefront and speak up and when to step back and lead in ways which are subtle or facilitatory. This dilemma is no more relevant than in these turbulent times in Israel and Gaza.

This week, I have been traumatised by social media. Not Twitter or Facebook themselves…the concept of the hashtag hasn’t been keeping me awake at night. However, every time I picked up my phone I was bombarded by images I will never erase from my mind. My 18 year old cousin has been volunteering at Save a Child’s Heart. An amazing Israeli charity which performs heart surgery on children from all over the Middle East. Her main job over these past two weeks has been ushering critically ill children into bomb shelters.

The next item on my news feed might be images of children in Gaza covered in blood from IDF bombs. However, almost as upsetting were the words people posted. Non-Jewish friends wrote posts about the situation which at times negated Israel’s right to exist and at times bordered on anti-Semitic. Sometimes posts from my Jewish friends were equally disturbing, spouting vitriol at the demise of Israel’s enemies. However much we love Israel – and I do! – how can it be right to rejoice at the loss of any life? During the Passover Seder our cup of joy is literally diminished as we remove drops of wine from our glasses and remember the fate of the Egyptians thousands of years ago.

Telling people what to do or what to believe does not credit others with the intelligence and discernment to think for themselves and make their own decisions. I know that amongst this community, our views on Israel run the gamut. I am not suggesting what you say, that is up to you personally. However, in these turbulent times, I am encouraging us to think about how we lead in relation to Israel. We are taught that being strong means holding fast in our views, being loud, forceful and oppositional. However, there are many quiet models of leadership.

Aaron was the younger brother of Moses. He was the first of the priests but he had more than one leadership style up his sleeve. In the Midrash, Avot D’Rabbi Natan 12 we are told, ‘When two people had quarrelled, Aaron would go and sit with one of them and say: My child, do you realise what your neighbour is doing? He is tormenting himself and tearing his clothes saying: ‘I am so ashamed that I offended him!’ And Aaron would sit with him until he drained all anger out of his heart. Then Aaron would go and do the same to the other man. Later when the two met, they would embrace and kiss each other.’

So, after reading the hatred and vitriol on Facebook, it is very tempting to argue and insist that we ourselves are in fact right and that the other is wrong. Perhaps there is another way. The social media campaign ‘Israel Loves Iran’ was founded by Israeli Ronny Edry. He first posted a picture of himself with his young daughter to Facebook with a graphic stating “Iranians, we love you, we will never bomb your country.” The photo went viral, sparking a campaign which has expanded to include hundreds of thousands of people in many different countries; Israel Loves Iran has inspired many similar campaigns, including Iran Loves Israel. The movement has seen many Israeli and Iranian citizens meet in third-party countries, often simply to have coffee together and take a picture to promote peace. Edry has now given a talk about peace which has been viewed 1.2 million times and an Iranian is pushing for a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the Israel Loves Iran campaign. Leadership is not always leading armies across the planes, it is sometimes sitting in front of a computer and calmly encouraging people to think about things in a new way or have compassion for the other.

Of course I am using Facebook as an example, it is really a microcosm of the dialogue that is happening in the news, in living rooms, at demonstrations and on the international stage. Leadership has never been more important than at this time. In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘The quality of change in our society will greatly depend upon the quality of leadership that is exercised.’

Ultimately, my vision is about having more than one style of leadership depending on what is called for in the situation.

May we all have the ability to discern when to take a stand and be at the forefront, when to take a step back and make room for others and when to lead with subtlety and innovation. And may we always bring the fullness of our unique talents, compassion and creativity to everything we do.

Back To Top