(NOTE: I take out a large basket filled with plastic snakes and put it on the table for everyone to see.)
The Talmud, in Yoma 22b says: One should not appoint a leader for the people unless a heap of reptiles hangs behind him, so that if he becomes arrogant, we can say to him, “Hey! Turn around!”
There’s my heap. My human frailty, my impatience, my abruptness, my tendency to strong opinions. Believe me, I carry these reptiles—this treif, this unclean animal that makes all who touch it impure—I carry these reptiles around on my back, so everytime I get too huffy, I want someone in this congregation to say to me, “hey, turn around!”
I could not serve this congregation without the self-awareness of my own limitations, and thereby have nothing but compassion for the limitations of my congregants. And the converse is also true: I should be judged by reasonable expectations, as one with reptiles on my back, by others who also have reptiles on their backs.
Herein lies the first paradox of leadership: in the mind of the populace, the leader is expected to be mythically perfect; yet in order to be successful, and to connect with those the leader is striving to lead, a leader must be acutely aware of their own imperfections.
It’s been quite the year for leaders with reptiles on their backs.
Headlines in the Globe and Mail scream: Putin warns against U.S. strike on Syria. President Assad is busy gassing his own people. Leaders debate whether to get their hands dirty. Mayors in San Diego and Toronto are accused of crimes. Parliament is prorogued because ‘nothing is working out.’ The Senate is being...well, the Senate. Israel is distributing gas masks because if the U.S. fires on Syria then Iran is going to fire on Israel. A Toronto Police officer shot a young man 9 times and after the young man was dead another officer tasered him. Two Canadians languish in a prison in Egypt, one an ER doctor and the other a film director and professor. In Quebec you’d better not wear a kip as large as the one I’m wearing today. The President of the student union at St. Mary’s University in Halifax was part of a frosh chant extolling non-consensual sex with minors.
And herein lies the second paradox of leadership: are leaders supposed to be just regular guys, judged no more harshly than anyone else, allowed to do the crazy and zany things everyone else can do, or are they exemplars, role models, people we can “look up to”?
People occupying positions of leadership dither, violate, subjugate and obliterate populations and in more cases than not they seem to get off unscathed.
Allegations of our mayor smoking a crack pipe appeared on news- stands throughout the entire world and the amount of circumstantial evidence would have buried anyone unlucky enough to live at Jane and Finch.
In a police raid dubbed “only after sundown” in Brooklyn, New York last week, five Orthodox drug dealers were charged with selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin, oxycontin, cocaine and methamphetamine. They were observant and would mass text their clients “We are closing 7:30 for Shabbos and we will reopen Saturday at 8:15 so if u need anything you have 45mins to get what you want.” Where were their Rabbis that Friday night?
Pamela Gellar, a well-known anti-Islam agitator, who has said things abut Islam we would never tolerate a Muslim saying about Judaism, was invited to give a talk in Toronto by a Thornhill synagogue and its Rabbi, who, by the way, is also a police chaplain and who, by the way, is a member of a Jewish sect some of you actually support. The police department made the Rabbi un-invite Gellar saying she “was in conflict with the values of our organization which supports a safe, welcoming and inclusive community for all.” But the Rabbi wasn’t happy and Gellar excoriated the Toronto Board of Rabbis for having the “chutzpah” to criticize her message.
There is a $380 million dollar lawsuit against Yeshiva University for covering up sexual abuse at its high school. The lawsuit was placed by 24 former students who claim they were inappropriately touched by two Rabbis over years, and the subsequent “massive cover-up of the sexual abuse of … facilitated, for several decades, by various prominent Y.U. and [high school] administrators, trustees, directors and other faculty members.” One of the Rabbis continued to work at the school even after the staff was made aware of inappropriate activity; the other, George Finkelstein, was hired by a Jewish day school in Florida who were never made aware of his history. When questioned about this, Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of YU answered, “Y.U. did not inform the Florida school about Finkelstein’s (inappropriate physical) wrestling (with young boys) because “the responsibility of a school in hiring someone is to check with the previous job. No one checked with me about George.”
The litany of abrogation of duties that are expected to be performed by our leaders did not start this year, last year or ten years ago. The great John F. Kennedy—my childhood hero— was, we found out, a womanizer. It just seems that it is worse. What makes it even worse is the sense of fatigue that comes with the constant barrage of being ‘let down’ by our leaders over and over again.
The issue isn’t that we judge harshly or that we are unfair in how we evaluate our leaders. We hold those in positions of power to a higher standard, and we should, because these are people whose roles authorize them to act in our name and on our behalf. They tarnish all of us when they tarnish the office we have given them.
And here is the most startling piece of all: most of us don’t give a care about how our leaders live, as long as they build our subways and clean our water and keep our streets relatively safe. We allow them and even applaud them their indiscretions: they are regular guys!
Here the operative word is GUYS. Do we still labour under that sexist double standard that would fry a female politician caught with her panties down but wink-winks still at the male politician who gets it on in the office inappropriately with a female staffer?
The Toronto Sun may snidely and sarcastically call us “moral zealots” which it did, but I still believe that, as Jews, as citizens of Canada, and as people trying hard in the next few hours to acknowledge and lessen the reptiles on our backs, we have the right, and the responsibility, to ask tough questions not only of our leaders but of ourselves, of our apathy and fear and hesitance to speak out.
We depend on our leaders to set an example because we need as many backstops as we can muster to a cultural shift that finds almost anything acceptable. Our moral compass has tumbled unencumbered, and it is our young people who have suffered most.
They looked up to us as parents, teachers, clergy, politicians and leaders to define the limits of living the good life – instead they have been treated to a bevy of uncertainty, laxity, and disbelief.
With Facebook as the great mediator, Kanye West as the latest orator, and twitter the 140 character limiter, we no longer think anything through for very long.
Dr. Oren Amitay, Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University, was recently interviewed on CBC Radio in the aftermath of the Saint Mary’s frosh week scandal where young men and women chanted the now famous chant humorously suggesting raping young girls. He was asked specifically why young women would participate in the chant. He clearly replied that feminism was the new four letter word. He said that peer pressure—even when the subject matter is totally repugnant— is the new culture. New heart throb Robin Thicke laughed when asked whether it was sending the right message when he did a photo shoot of Rihanna laying across his lap with his hand in the air in a mock spanking. He claimed it was just fun and that everyone knows it.
“Everyone” does know it because, says Dr. Amitay – this is the new real for young people. They believe that because so many people that are specifically famous—this generations “leaders”— say it’s okay.
I am not suggesting for one moment that because we have a bad role model as a mayor or because Syria is on fire that Kanye and jay z are running things and in danger of drafting cultural norms for the citizenry of our communities.
I am suggesting that the trickle down of leadership with values and honour is at stake and in its absence we potentially have a vacuum that will affect how our century progresses and the choices and stances we take to preserve the ideals that we hold dear.
We need to believe in our leaders again and we need to trust them.
Let’s not make this a political discussion, though. Frankly, I don’t care if you voted and will vote again for Ford. I want to know if you care that a leader can lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, forge, use illegal drugs, sleep with their staff, text inappropriate remarks to their constituents, or do anything else as long and it might not “hamper” their ability to lead.
And thats where the conversation gets religious.
The Zohar, the book of Jewish Kabbalah, records that Rabbi Jose said “Israel was exiled and The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because its leaders were corrupt. The spiritual state of the leaders of the Jewish people will become the spiritual state of all Israel. As the leader, so the generation.”
As the leader, so the generation. That’s us, folks.
Far from turning around to look at the heap of reptiles we have politicians contending that the reptiles don’t exist and that what you see is an illusion caused by enemies of the leader.
The Torah says that when the Jewish people sinned, G-d told Moses “lech red ki schechet amcha”: “Descend! Your people are sinning!” Now that the people are sinning you too must descend from your greatness. Get off your high horse, Moses, and go be among the people to lead them back to the moral high ground. But I don’t think God meant for Moses to have a few beers with them on the Danforth or dance round the calf with them.
The Zohar continues, “If a leader has not perfected himself before ascending to leadership, his people will not reach perfection. If, however, he elevates himself first, his people will become elevated.”
There is, I would submit, no evidence of such a search for perfection in any contemporary leader today.
Perhaps the more important question we must ask ourselves as part of the dialectic that exists between the people and leadership candidates is: What is it that we must look for before electing a leader?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of Great Britain, offers seven principles for leadership, all based on Jewish sources. They work for any leader of any or no religion:
1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility.
2. No one can lead alone.
3. Taking responsibility must be driven by vision.
4. Leaders learn.
5. A leader must believe in the people she or he is leading.
6. Leadership involves timing and pace.
7. Leadership is stressful and demanding, and a leader must be able to handle that stress.
I suggest that if we held up many of our leaders to all, or even any of those 7 principles— vision, responsibility, team-work, learning, timing, faith in the people, and ability to handle stress—they would fall sadly short.
But then, what would we do?
That’s the crux of the matter for me. The lack of interest from our community in raising a voice about the mediocrity of our leaders and our own apathy about who leads us and how they do it is not befitting the people who once heard and heeded the prophetic call.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And... if you read the words of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics.”
Years ago in this community the Reform congregations were the voice of morality, the voice of Jewish conscious. You could count on a Gunther Plaut to speak up for refugees. You could count on a Jordan Pearlson to travel to the Vatican and meet with the Pope. Some of you will even remember Rabbi Abraham Feinberg who served Holy Blossom in the 1950‘s and 60‘s. He spoke out against racism including Canada's wartime treatment of the Japanese and discrimination against blacks in Canada. He lobbied for fair employment and housing practices in Ontario. An outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament, he chaired the Toronto Committee for Disarmament and was the vice president of the Toronto Association for Civil Rights. Feinberg's political activism led to surveillance by Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence officers. An RCMP file eventually released to his daughter contained 1,100 pages on his “suspicious” activities. In 1969 he sang "Give Peace a Chance," with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their Montreal hotel room. Those were my role models of what a Jewish leader is supposed to be.
In my teenage years I marched on Washington for pro-choice and anti-war with Reform Rabbis under the Reform movement’s banner and it made a huge impact on my decision to become a Rabbi. In my first years here in Toronto Rabbi Arthur Beilfeld started Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger here in Toronto and he was founding chair of The Campaign Against Child Poverty.
Those were my role models of what a Jewish leader is supposed to be.
None of these leaders did this in a vacuum. They had driving, interested and well-versed congregants behind them pushing them forward. The sense of connection between leadership and community was full and in perpetual motion.
I want it back. I want it back for City Shul. I want it to start here. I give you my pledge today and I hope I have yours. I will check my back with rigour for heaps of reptiles and I ask you to ask me to turn around should you believe I am not on track.
But I am advocating that we speak more as a community and that we do so thoughtfully and not across party lines. I am advocating that we foster a community based on issues of care and transcendence and that we start a new trend by giving space to discussion that fosters a need and a wish to do more tikkun olam. And that we, at City Shul, become a voice for moral concern around our leaders and our community.
In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.” Even with some reptiles on our backs.