The Age of Empowerment
Since this week’s parsha, Korach, is all about leadership, it made me think about the state of modern Jewish leadership and who our leaders are.
In the 20th Century, Judaism was flush with scholars and theologians that had tremendous impact upon hundreds of thousands of people. They served as guides for their denominations, and Jews from across the country and various spectrums of observance clung to their very word. Here are just a few of the standouts:
Mordechai Kaplan was at first a theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He’s the father of the “Bat Mitzvah”, the creator of the JCC and the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, also a professor at JTS, was a poet, a writer, a motivator to thousands of rabbis and soul searchers, as well as a social evangelist. He reignited the Jewish soul with his fiery words, and modeled advocating for social justice, even walking with Dr. Martin Luther King in Montgomery.
Zalman Schacter-Shalomi was an out-of-the-box thinker who spoke to the Jew who couldn’t find inspiration in the cookie-cutter Judaism of the last thirty years of the 20th Century. He developed Renewal Judaism which emphasized the spiritual, integrating Kabbalistic and spiritual practices from outside of Judaism to enhance the Jewish experience.
In the Orthodox world, there were numerous leaders:
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was the ultimate decider of Jewish Law. From birth control to organ donation to creating eruvim for all the major cities, he was the first and last word.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was a scholar and philosopher par excellence. He was the unquestioned head of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States and abroad.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, was a charismatic leader who inspired his followers to reach out and teach the essence of Judaism to every Jew and even non-Jew. Because of his influence, there is almost no college or community where a Chabad rabbi performing outreach cannot be found.
In Israel, there were even more religious leaders:
The Chazon Ish established the town of Bnei Brak and revived all the Jewish laws pertaining to the Land of Israel.
The Baba Sali was a renowned miracle worker who healed and counseled thousands.
The Steipler Gaon was a righteous man to whom thousands flocked for his advice and blessings.
Rav Schach was the recognized leader of the Yeshiva World and implored the Orthodox to use their numbers to gain political influence.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef was the official and unofficial Chief Sefardic rabbi for decades. He also pushed them to use their political clout and formed the Knesset party know as Shas.
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashev and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach were scholars who decided Jewish law upon every topic from the use of electricity on Shabbat to who is a Cohen (Priest) today?
All of these rabbis were larger than life. Their reputations were huge and their philosophies and dictates affected millions of people.
Who are their equivalents in the 21st Century?
While Newsweek will tell you the 50 most influential rabbis in the United States, no one of them has influence and impact upon hundreds of thousands of people. Even when an Orthodox person wants a serious Jewish law question answered, there is no one rabbi that has the power of ultimate decision.
In Israel there is still Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. At 91, he advises and gives blessings to tens of thousands of people yearly. Because of his rulings, Chareidi Jews in Israel don’t have internet access on their phones or in their homes, lest they become exposed to antireligious beliefs. While there are many other religious leaders in Israel, he’s the only one left with such broad-spectrum appeal.
How come we had rabbis of such great stature, impact and influence in the 20th Century and today we don’t?
I believe it’s because we live in the age of empowerment. Thanks to Google and the information highways, rabbis aren’t the only way to seek an answer to a religious query. We all have access to a multiplicity of answers and opinions and we like the ability to choose for ourselves.
Consider the following statement from the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “Search is so highly personal that searching is empowering for humans like nothing else; it is about self-empowerment; it is antithesis of being told or taught. It is empowering individuals to do what they think best with the information they want. It is very different from anything else that preceded it. Radio was one-to-many. TV was one-to-many. The telephone was one-to-one. Search is the ultimate expression of the power of the individual; using a computer, looking at the world, and finding exactly what they want, everyone is different when it comes to that.”
Surely there’s still a necessity for the local rabbi, but over the years, the rabbis’ roles have changed. It’s much less about determining whether a chicken is kosher and more about personal teaching, guiding life cycle events and creating innovation in the synagogue.
Nobody has filled the shoes of Heschel, Soloveitchik and Feinstein – not because there’s no one able; rather, because people don’t want such powerful religious leaders anymore. The age of empowerment has shifted the power from one larger-than-life individual and given it to the masses. The challenge then is to make sure that we don’t sell ourselves short, Jewishly or spiritually, with the empowerment that we have.
 Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (Professional Development) (Kindle Location 3130). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Kindle Edition.